(Three points of interest in Sunday’s game)
The traditionally frugal Bengals pried open the wallet this week, giving quarterback Joe Burrow a five-year, $275 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL at $55 million a year. The move was a no-brainer after the No. 1 pick in 2020 led them to the Super Bowl in 2021 and the AFC Championship Game in 2022. As good as Burrow has been, he hasn’t had the same success vs. the Browns, going 1-4, with the lone win coming in December in Cincinnati.
“I just think we have a good game plan always against them and I feel like their strength is their receivers and I feel like one of our strengths is our corners and our secondary,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “I think this is one of our premier matchups.”
The success against Burrow hasn’t given the Browns a false sense of security. They know just how talented he is. Despite the record in the series, he’s completed 66.2 percent for 1,475 yards, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 91.5 passer rating.
“Very accurate quarterback,” new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “That’s been one of his hallmarks. He’s tough. He can move around in the pocket, keep plays alive. Very good accuracy and knows who his playmakers are. He’s not afraid to throw it to any of the eligibles on the field.”
The Browns expect Burrow to be at his best despite missing the entire preseason with a calf strain sustained at the beginning of training camp. He was a full participant in practice this week but admitted the calf still gets tight on occasion, so it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be limited at all. It’s one thing to run sprints and move around in practice, it’s quite another to try to get away from defensive end Myles Garrett. Burrow hasn’t been great at that even when healthy, as Garrett has sacked him seven times. The Bengals signed left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency and the Browns added ends Za’Darius Smith and Ogbo Okoronkwo, so the matchups will be interesting.
“I have these fantastic stats, but it is not just me,” Garrett said. “We’ve had success team-wise as far as the defense and the record, but we’ve got to continue doing those things to slow those guys down. They have a lot of great skill players that we’ve seen and the highest-paid player in the NFL, so we’ve got to try to keep them off the board as much as possible.”
FIGHT TO THE FINISH
The offensive linemen will be asked to protect longer than ever this year because quarterback Deshaun Watson likes to, and is good at, extending plays. The opener might provide the biggest test of the season because Bengals defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are relentless.
“We’ve talked a lot about that, those two edge rushers, they’re going to go till the end of the whistle,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “So mindset is we’re going to play it to the echo of the whistle as well. Infinity pass protection. As we grow and learn more about Deshaun, his ability to break tackles within the pocket, extend plays, it really heightens our awareness as an offensive line to continue to fight until the play is finally over.”
The message was meant for all the linemen, but especially left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. He admittedly wasn’t always a great finisher in his first three seasons and will be matched up against Hendrickson, who has one of the league’s best motors. He had eight sacks last season and a career-high 14 in 2021, his first year with the Bengals. He totaled 51 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles in the two seasons.
“It’s the biggest point of emphasis,” Wills said of playing through the whistle. “Because you’ve watched them on film, that’s what you see. You see high motor, you see a lot of chase-downs, second-effort sacks. So really just making sure we match that intensity.”
Hubbard, the Ohio State product, has 14 sacks and 39 quarterback hits the last two years, and coach Kevin Stefanski noted Cincinnati’s pass rush goes deeper than the starting ends.
“It’s a very good rush attack and they can hit you in multiple ways,” he said. “They can rush three and they can get home with three. Great effort. Unbelievable. And then their blitz package is good. They can drop eight, they can rush eight. The linebackers can blitz. So they really keep you on your toes.”
Upon Dustin Hopkins’ arrival following a trade from Los Angeles, he called Cleveland a “notorious” place to kick. He’s not wrong but also knows he can’t make too much of the often-difficult conditions on the lakefront. A recent conversation with Browns kicking legend Phil Dawson drove that point through the uprights.
“I’m not trying to make light of Cleveland and the stadium that it is, but I’ve played in some bad places as well and it’s just one of those things,” Hopkins told The Chronicle-Telegram on Friday. “You don’t want to build this thing up and make it more than it is. It’s funny, (Dawson) said that exact same thing. Just speaking in generalities, he’s like, ‘Anybody that comes here, I feel like guys before have made more of a thing of it than it had to be.’”
Hopkins, 32, has made 411 kicks in his career but only two extra points in three tries at Cleveland Browns Stadium. He practiced there once after the trade — on a perfect day — and the weather shouldn’t be a problem for his Browns debut. Hopkins doesn’t have the leg strength of predecessor Cade York, who was cut after a disastrous preseason, but should allow Stefanski to feel confident calling on him from 45 yards and in. A perfect Week 1 by Hopkins would help an anxious fan base relax.
Meetings in the Battle of Ohio after Sunday. The Bengals lead 52-47.
Players in NFL history to rush for at least 950 yards and eight touchdowns in each of their first five seasons: Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and former greats LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson.
First-quarter touchdowns allowed by the Bengals in the last 13 games.
A good start at home would go a long way, and Cleveland has the element of surprise with an updated offense and a new defensive coordinator. Browns 27, Bengals 20.