This week's edition of Thursday Night Football is a Battle For Ohio. The 0-1 Cleveland Browns host the 0-1 Cincinnati Bengals in a matchup pitting two of the most recent three No. 1 overall draft picks against each other.
Baker Mayfield's Browns got off to a dreadful start to the season that was eerily reminiscent of so many of last year's failures. Joe Burrow's Bengals lost a heartbreaker that was not so similar to last season's opening-week loss but painful nonetheless. Each team is looking to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole, and each team is entering the contest quite banged up.
Let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Bengals have the ball
Rewatching the Bengals' loss to the Chargers on GamePass, it is so easy to see all the skills that made Burrow such an obvious, slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick. He has tremendous poise in the pocket, and a remarkable ability to escape from pressure and create something out of nothing. He can make throws from all different platforms, to all levels of the field. He was extraordinarily close to having a huge game against one of the league's better defenses, narrowly missing on not one, not two, but three long throws that could have easily turned into touchdowns. (He also had a game-winning touchdown pass overturned due to an offensive pass interference call.)
Unfortunately, it's also easy to see why stuff like this might happen all year. The Bengals' offensive line remains a huge issue. Burrow was pressured on 38 percent of his drop backs in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus, and honestly, that number seems low. It's fantastic that Burrow has the ability to do things like this, but his having to do them as often as he did in the season-opener is a major, major issue for this team.
With star edge rusher Myles Garrett presumably lining up across from consistently-overmatched right tackle Bobby Hart (Pro Football Focus' sixth lowest-graded tackle in pass protection in Week 1) for much of the evening, it's highly likely that Burrow will face a bunch of pressure once again. Garrett lined up exclusively at left defensive end against the Ravens, and generated five pressures on only 26 pass-rush snaps. How the Bengals elect to deal with the reality that Hart is going to have massive issues in protection will go a long way toward determining whether or not their offense is able to sustain drives throughout the game.
One thing they can do is spread the field and try to get the ball out quickly, like LSU did so often last season. Already, Burrow seems to have a knack for finding A.J. Green on quick-strike throws, whether on run-pass option plays or out of empty sets that allow him to diagnose the coverage pre-snap in order to determine who will be the first receiver to pop open.
That empty look -- which Cincy used on 20.1 percent of its snaps last week -- should be a go-to for the Bengals against the Browns, who will be without Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson, leaving only Denzel Ward as a starter-quality corner. Cleveland's pass defense got absolutely roasted by Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, and Marquise Brown last week, and if the Bengals can give Burrow even a little bit of time to throw, he should be able to move the ball through the air as well.
Especially given that the Browns just shut down arguably the NFL's best run game (they held Ravens running backs to 68 yards on 21 carries), it makes far more sense for Zac Taylor's offense to attack the Browns on the back end of the defense than it does to base the game-plan around a heavy dose of Joe Mixon. It seems unlikely the offensive line will hold up long enough to throw the ball downfield as often as Baltimore did, but if you can get some quick throws to Green, Tyler Boyd, and even John Ross in open space, they can do a good amount of damage.
When the Browns have the ball
Week 1 against the Ravens was ... not pretty for the Browns. Worse yet, it was not pretty in many of the same ways that the 2019 season was not pretty. Baker Mayfield was inaccurate, often missing high and/or wide of his target. Mayfield continually drifted backward and/or threw off his back foot whether he was under pressure or not, contributing to said inaccuracy. (See below.) He showed next to no chemistry with Odell Beckham Jr., completing only three of 10 passes to his star wideout, for just 22 yards.
Mayfield also struggled horribly against blitzes, completing just 11 of 22 passes for 112 yards and an interception on plays where the Ravens sent at least one additional rusher. The Bengals sent only eight blitzes on 34 Tyrod Taylor drop backs last week, but they would be wise to send a whole lot more than that on Thursday night, given how poorly both Mayfield and the Browns' offensive line handled the Ravens' additional pressure in Week 1.
Making matters worse for the Browns is the state of their injury report. Three starting offensive linemen (Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, J.C. Tretter) are listed as questionable for the game, as is swing tackle Chris Hubbard. After missing practice on Tuesday and getting in only a limited session on Wednesday, Jarvis Landry is questionable as well. And with David Njoku on injured reserve after securing three catches for 50 yards and a score in the opener, fourth-round rookie Harrison Bryant will be pressed into more action in Cleveland's two tight end sets alongside Austin Hooper.
Lucky for them, the Cincinnati defense is dealing with injury issues of its own. Both Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels are out for this game, sparing Cleveland from having to face two of the team's top three interior defensive linemen. Big-money free-agent signing Trae Waynes is also out, leaving the Bengals with a somewhat depleted secondary. Those issues should allow Cleveland to find some offensive success, but we saw throughout last season that the team was often just as capable of undermining itself through penalties and general malaise as falling victim to strong opponents. There is no guarantee here.
The Browns clearly have enough talent on offense to move the ball against almost any team in the league. After signing Conklin and drafting Wills, they should even have good enough protection to afford Mayfield clean pockets from which to throw far more often than he had them last season. But if he continues to drift, continues to miss, continues to show a near-complete lack of chemistry with the most explosive weapon at his arsenal, it's not clear why we should expect them to do so.
Perhaps this week they can lean more on the Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt-led running game, which was not an option given that they fell behind so quickly a week ago. With Atkins and Daniels out, there should be wide enough running lanes for the Browns that they can settle into more of a ball-control-and-play-action style of offense, which is new coach Kevin Stefanski's preferred style anyway: Chargers backs Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley combined for 144 yards on 21 carries against Cincinnati a week ago, and Chubb-Hunt is a more talented backfield duo. If those two can get rolling, that would take pressure off the passing game to have to carry the load, which should suit Mayfield far better and perhaps even allow him to hit on some passes down the field.
Prediction: Bengals 23, Browns 20