This Thursday night matchup gives us “The Battle of Ohio” as the Browns take on the undefeated Bengals. While we obviously know all about the Bengals success so far, the Browns have been better than their 2-6 record may indicate. Between that and it being a divisional game, this one could be closer than some expect.
Johnny Manziel gets his second start of the season and third for his career in what could be an unforgiving spot. Last year he started against the Bengals and to put it kindly, he was not ready for the moment. In his first start of the year which resulted in a win, the Browns went with a run heavy attack and were very conservative in using Manziel attempting only 15 passes. I’d expect that to continue as the Browns would hope to limit his throws in the 15 to 20 range.
While it is a situation you’d really want to avoid for fantasy purposes, the Browns figure to rely on their trio of running backs. Considering the Bengals have had some difficulty in run defense, it might not be a bad idea. Isaiah Crowell entered the year as the lead back, but has rushed for just 3.2 yards a carry. Despite the struggles, Crowell should still lead the backfield in touches with 12 to 15. Robert Turbin has also seen consistent snaps since recovering from an ankle injury and should see seven to ten touches tonight. Unfortunately for Browns fans, their biggest playmaker at this position will suffer from a game plan which figures to eliminate the pass. Duke Johnson has big time playmaking ability, but has mainly made that happen in the passing game. Look for the Browns to try and manufacture some ways for him to see the ball in this matchup.
With both Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline out with concussions, a thin Browns receiving corps will be even slimmer tonight. Travis Benjamin and Dwayne Bowe (who has been a healthy scratch most of the year) figure to start, while Taylor Gabriel mans the slot. Benjamin is the Browns receiver to watch for tonight, having caught all three of Manziel’s touchdown passes this season. Benjamin has loads of big play potential and if the Browns do have to play catch up, the volume should be there. The next catch Bowe has in a Browns uniform will be his first, so you can’t trust him for fantasy formats even if some targets are there. Gabriel is a shifty player who can be dangerous after the task, but there might not be enough throws to go around for him to have a huge role tonight. The real beneficiary if the passes are there could be tight end Gary Barnidge. One of the biggest surprises of the 2015 season, Barnidge has come out of nowhere to put up some big time numbers. The matchup is nice, as the Bengals struggle against tight ends but it will all come down to what kind of volume he’s getting. Despite that, you almost have to start Barnidge in fantasy leagues if you have him.
The emergence of Andy Dalton has been another huge storyline up to this point. Dalton currently has a 15 to 4 touchdown/interception ratio and is taking on a beat up secondary with Joe Haden and Donte Whitner both listed as out. Despite that fans will be looking to see if “Primetime Dalton” reemerges which we’ve seen in years past mostly in playoff games. The matchup is pretty nice in this one, so those hoping to see that might be best waiting until January.
In Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the Bengals have two very capable running backs with contrasting skill sets. Game flow usually determines which one will be more involved, and this one figures to be a Hill game. Compared to how he performed at the end of his rookie season, Hill has drastically underperformed expectations and a game against a reeling Browns run defense could be exactly what gets him on track. Expect him to see around 20 touches tonight. Bernard is a very good receiver and a capable runner, but he may only see around 10 total touches or so in this one. Due to uncertainty, he is a risky fantasy option for this week.
A.J. Green is coming off a great game against the Steelers, and without Haden who has had success limiting him in the past, it could be another huge night for Dalton’s number one target. Odds are Green will run most of his routes against Tramon Williams who has been solid, but isn’t enough to stop him alone. Marvin Jones will start opposite Green and while he can make plays, his week to week performance makes him risky for fantasy formats. Jones figures to see five to seven passes thrown his way and has 3rd receiver upside if you do start him. Another key factor in the emergence of Dalton has been Tyler Eifert being healthy. While the Browns have limited tight ends to an extent in 2015, they’ve yet to go against one that poses the threat Eifert does. He figures to see eight to ten passes thrown in his direction.
Coming off a big road victory against a frisky 2-6 team, you could make the case this has the makings of a trap game for the Bengals. However, there is too much that would have to go right (controlling tempo, limiting Manziel’s throws) for me to see the Browns winning this one against a Bengals team well equipped with talent on both sides of the ball. My prediction is Browns 16 Bengals (-10.5) 28.