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Browns-Bengals Preview: 5 things to watch, 3 key numbers

NICKEL PACKAGE

(Five points of interest in Sunday’s game)

BACK IN THE SADDLE

Veteran quarterback Andy Dalton was given back his starting job last week and beat the Jets for Cincinnati’s first win of the season. Dalton, who was benched for three weeks so the organization could get a look at rookie Ryan Finley, makes the Bengals dangerous.

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“I think they are more likely to take a few more risks with Andy just simply because he is more experienced and knows how to protect the football a little better,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. “He made some plays in that game, and he has made them for a long time. Andy Dalton is a very good player.”

Dalton went 22-for-37 for 243 yards, a touchdown and an 88.0 passer rating in the 22-6 win over the Jets. He also passed Ken Anderson for most touchdown passes (198) and completions (2,669) in franchise history.

“I’ve been here a long time,” Dalton said. “It means a lot to me to have the opportunity to break Ken’s records — I’ve known him for a while. Also shows that I’ve been consistent here for a long time.”

Dalton was a second-round pick in 2011 and has started 129 games. This could be his last season in Cincinnati and he should play with a ton of freedom over the final four games. The Browns have seen the best and worst from Dalton over his career, but it’s been mostly good. In 15 games against Cleveland, he’s 11-4, completing 64.2 percent for 3,094 yards (206.3 per game), 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 95.4 rating.

“We’ve played against him for a bunch of years, know how he plays and he can make throws,” linebacker Joe Schobert said.

DEEP THREAT

The Browns cornerbacks aren’t kidding themselves. They know Dalton and the Bengals are going to come after them with long balls down the sideline after they allowed Steelers undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges to complete three such strikes to receiver James Washington last week.

“I’m sure they will,” cornerback Denzel Ward said. “I’m sure they will.”

The return of receiver John Ross this week makes the threat that much more credible. Ross started the first four games, catching 16 passes for 328 yards and three touchdowns, but he suffered a chest injury the doctor described as almost life-threatening and missed the next eight games. Ross, the ninth pick in 2017, has rare speed that requires cornerbacks and safeties to be aware at all times. His 4.22-second 40-yard time is considered the fastest in the history of the scouting combine.

“He loosens up the coverage a little bit,” rookie coach Zac Taylor said. “He has great hands. He was playing well for us before he got hurt, so it is good to have a starting-caliber receiver back in the lineup.”

“He’s a fast receiver,” Ward said. “I’m sure they’re going to take shots with him down the field. He’s a good player.”

Ross joins Tyler Boyd, who’s stepped up as the No. 1 receiver in the absence of A.J. Green, who’s missed all season with an ankle injury. Boyd is tied for 12th in the league with 68 catches, for 758 yards and three touchdowns, and is on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard season.

“Tyler Boyd’s a good receiver in this NFL, a lot of teams would be happy to have him,” Schobert said. “(Auden) Tate’s a big guy, they throw a lot of 50-50 balls he’s been able to come up with. My friend Alex Erickson in the slot does a good job in between the hashes and obviously they’ve got tight ends.”

Dalton and his targets will test the corners, safeties and linebackers.

“They’ve got some guys that can make plays,” Ward said. “They’ve got a real good receiving corps and guys that can make plays, so they don’t look like to me a one-win team.”

PULLING AWAY

Running back Nick Chubb is a team-first guy and cares most about winning. He’s also human and wants to capture the league rushing title. The two matchups with the Bengals over the final four weeks present great opportunities to run away from the pack.

Chubb took over the league lead last week with 1,175 rushing yards (97.9 per game), 8 more than Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Tennessee’s Derrick Henry is next at 1,140, then there’s a drop-off to Raiders rookie Josh Jacobs with 1,061. The Bengals are last in the league in run defense, allowing 157.6 yards a game, so Chubb should have the chance to feast, as long as the Browns don’t fall too far behind.

He was off to a solid start against the Steelers last week — 10 rushes for 43 yards in the first half — but the Browns went from leading by 10 to trailing by 10 and got away from the run. If the Browns can get the lead vs. the Bengals — and hold it — Chubb should have plenty of chances to grind away. Without defensive end Myles Garrett, the Browns’ best plan for winning is to keep the opposing offense off the field. Chubb leads the league with 238 rushes — three more than McCaffrey — is fourth with a 4.94 average per rush and has seven touchdowns. He has 75 yards from scrimmage in 12 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL and the longest for a Browns player since Jim Brown in 1961-62. No Browns player has hit 75 in 13 straight.

Chubb has benefited from the addition of running back Kareem Hunt. Yes, Hunt has taken some of the playing time, but when they’re used together the focus of the defense is split.

“Teams are treating (Hunt), especially if he is in there with Nick, like a wideout,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “They are going nickel or they are going dime. It gives you a chance to help your run game some when you get a small player in there.”

OFF THE EDGE

The Browns are catching Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap at the wrong time. The two-time Pro Bowler was having a quiet year, with one sack in his first six games as he dealt with a knee injury. He has 4.5 sacks over the last three games, including three vs. the Jets, which tied a career high and earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

“He’s a tall body, long arms and he’s a physical player,” right tackle Chris Hubbard said. “He’s going to bring everything he has and he’s going to run with that energy that he had last week and bring it to this week. So whatever you do, just get your hands on him and drive him out. Because he has those long arms and he can grab Baker (Mayfield).”

Dunlap spends his time over right tackle and has squared off with Hubbard many times during Hubbard’s days with the Steelers and the Browns. But Hubbard was limited in practice with a knee injury, listed as questionable on the injury report and declared himself a gametime decision. Kendall Lamm, who started 13 games at right tackle for the Texans last year, prepared to step in. That wouldn’t necessarily be a downgrade for the Browns, as Hubbard has struggled throughout the year, including last week against Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt.

The Bengals pair Dunlap with tackle Geno Atkins to create inside and outside pressure. Dunlap’s 78 sacks are second in franchise history, 5.5 behind defensive end Eddie Edwards. Atkins is third with 75.5, including 4.5 this year.

“They still have it,” Monken said. “They still have it in the tank when they want to let it rip. Geno inside has been a powerful, explosive player that if he is singled up enough, he is going to disrupt and he is going to shed and get off blocks. Same with Dunlap on the edge.”

The Bengals have only 20 sacks for the season, and will be without end Sam Hubbard (knee), who’s second on the team with five.

HAPPY TIME

A lot was written and said during the week about receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s level of contentment in, and commitment to, Cleveland. While Beckham never said he wasn’t happy here, he also didn’t say he wanted to stay beyond this season during an ambiguous interview Thursday. The frustration of a disappointing season as a team and individually certainly affects his viewpoint, so it’s about time Beckham had a typical Beckham breakout performance.

The Bengals defense has been better lately — one touchdown over the last 10 quarters — but still ranks 31st in the NFL, allowing 405 yards a game. Mayfield had two huge days against the Bengals last year, throwing for 542 yards and seven touchdowns in the pair of wins. He doesn’t have the Hue Jackson motivational factor anymore, but does have Beckham as a target.

“They have so many talented players, it is hard to get them all the ball,” Taylor said. “He certainly affects the defense, whether he is getting the ball or not because you are aware of him. He is a threat all over the field.”

Beckham has 57 catches for 805 yards and two touchdowns and is on pace for 76, 1,073 and three, which would be career lows for a season when he’s been healthy.

“I’m going to get 1,000 yards. And this is a bad year,” he said. “I tell people when we talk about 1,000 yards — that’s the minimum. That’s the starting point. If you have 1,500 yards, I have only 500 yards. As far as touchdowns and other stats, I don’t see that so much happening. And that’s really not what’s important. I just care about winning and hopefully getting a shot to go to the playoffs — the wildest wild card or whatever. All the stats, that’s been out the window for me. I’m just trying to finish the season strong with the most wins we can possibly have.”

NUMBERS GAME

405, 301

Yards the Bengals have allowed and gained per game this season

2

Times rookie coaches have faced off in the Browns-Bengals rivalry for the first time — 1984 with Marty Schottenheimer and Sam Wyche and this year with Freddie Kitchens and Zac Taylor

0

Catches for receiver Rashard Higgins in the last three games. He has two catches for 9 yards and a TD over the last six games.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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