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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (0-0) at Cleveland (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Cleveland's Pat Shurmur may be one of the new coaches in the league, but Marvin Lewis' Cincinnati squad isn't lacking in new faces either.
Shurmur will make his head coaching debut this Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium against the new-look Bengals in a battle of Ohio.
Following a pair of 5-11 seasons, the Browns parted ways with Eric Mangini prior to naming former Rams offensive coordinator Shurmur their 13th full- coach in team history. He is tasked with turning around a franchise that has made the playoffs just once and posted only two winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999.
The biggest change on offense for Cleveland will be a switch to a West Coast system and Shurmur's playbook comes with some pedigree after he helped guide St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford to Rookie of the Year honors last season.
The defense, under new coach Dick Jauron, will also make the move from a 3-4 to 4-3 scheme, giving the Browns an entire new look for the season. It also has them looking forward to the possibilities of a new season.
"Trust me, we're geared up. I've been trying to do a good job of controlling my emotions," Shurmur said. "A few times during the games, I'll let it go a little bit. That's really not for effect, that's real. I'm looking forward to it and I think it will be an exciting time. Again, when we opened camp I said it, practicing, playing and coaching, that's what we do as coaches and players. It's going to be fun to take this unit into a regular season game."
The Browns will look to get off on the right foot against a Bengals team that won the division in 2009 before slipping to a 4-12 mark last year. The disappointments didn't end after Week 17 either, with franchise quarterback Carson Palmer opting to retire rather than return to the club after his trade request was denied.
Diva wide outs Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are also gone -- with the former traded to the Patriots and the latter still without a team -- but the defense was rocked a bit by the free agent departure of cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
That left Cincinnati with a lot of rebuilding to do following the lockout, but the draft ultimately became the source of two replacements with quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green both set to start on Sunday. The Bengals also added a load of new faces on defense, including linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard as well as cornerback Nate Clements.
"I know we'll be a better football team than a 4-12 team," Lewis said. "There's not the star-power on paper that maybe we possessed last year, but when it comes down to it, I think we'll all be all-in, and they'll be all in together. And that's the biggest statement we can make heading into the regular season."
Dalton will also be looking to make a statement as he succeeds Palmer under center. The second-round pick racked up a lot of wins at TCU, but did struggle a bit in the preseason. Lewis will still expect him to step right in and be a leader in 2011, but he won't have to do it alone.
"It depends on the guys you have around you. We have a lot of great guys here and they've made my job a whole lot easier," Dalton said. "I feel confident with everyone, that I can step in the huddle and take control, and that guys are responding. As time goes and the more experience that I get, that will come easier. It can be tough being a rookie, but you can't let that affect you."
Dalton will have running back Cedric Benson behind him after the 28-year-old served five days in jail stemming from a 2010 assault case before being released on Saturday.
The Bengals own a 39-36 edge in their all-time series with the Browns and have prevailed in four of the last five meetings between the in-state rivals. The Browns' lone win during that span did occur in Cleveland last season, a 23-20 verdict in Week 4, but the Bengals exacted revenge with a 19-17 triumph at Paul Brown Stadium in December. Cincinnati swept the 2009 head-to-head set, which included a 23-20 overtime win in Cleveland, and also bested the Browns on the road in 2008.
Lewis sports a 10-6 career record against the Browns over his eight-year run as the Bengals' head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Despite Benson (1,111 rushing yards) going over 1,000 yards rushing for a second straight season and ending with a career-high eight total touchdowns, Cincinnati still ranked just 27th on the ground last year. Benson also went over the 300-carry mark for a second consecutive year as well, which could be a concern. The Browns could zero in on the running back if Dalton struggles. The signal-caller went 42-7 as a starter at TCU and is heralded for his accuracy and leadership qualities. He should have plenty of time to get rid of the ball given that Cincinnati ranked second in the AFC last year in fewest sacks allowed. However, right guard Bobbie Williams will miss the first four games due to a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance- enhancing substitutes. Clint Boling could replace him in the starting lineup. Green, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft, will also be thrust into a starting spot due to his combination of size, speed and hands. Jerome Simpson (20 receptions, 3 TD) and Andre Caldwell (25 receptions) will also serve as targets for Dalton along with 2010 first-round draft pick and tight end Jermaine Gresham (52 receptions, 4 TD).
The Browns will hope their new look will help keep other teams from marching up the field. Though Cleveland was tied for 13th in scoring defense last year (20.8 ppg), it was 22nd in overall defense and 27th versus the run. The right side of the Browns' new front-four will feature a pair of rookies in tackle Phil Taylor (first round) and right end Jabaal Sheard (second round). The 355- pound Taylor will help plus a hole in the middle, while Sheard will unleash his pass-rushing skills off the end. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson returns after missing all of 2010 with a pectoral injury and could excel in the new scheme, while cornerback Joe Haden (64 tackles, 1 sack, 6 INT) and safety T.J. Ward (123 tackles, 2 INT) will look to build off great rookie campaigns. Haden became the first Brown to notch a pick in four straight games since 1968, while Ward led the club in tackles.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland ranked just 29th overall on offense a season ago, but did feature a breakout star in the backfield in Peyton Hillis (1,177 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 13 total TD). Hillis went from being acquired in a trade and buried behind Jerome Harrison and Montario Hardesty on the depth chart to gracing the cover of the popular "Madden" video game. Colt McCoy (1576 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) ended up making eight starts for the Browns last year, but has showed some progress this spring under Shurmur's system. Sunday will begin the battle between Mohamed Massaquoi (36 receptions, 2 TD), Brian Robiskie (29 receptions, 3 TD) and rookie Greg Little to be his No. 1 target. Tight end Benjamin Watson (68 receptions, 3 TD) led the team in catches and Joshua Cribbs (23 receptions, 1 TD) can line up anywhere on the field. While Cleveland has a four-time Pro Bowler in left tackle Joe Thomas, rookie Jason Pinkston is expected to get the start next to him at guard.
After finishing 24th in scoring defense a year ago, the Bengals will feature a host of new faces on the defensive side of the ball. Rey Maualuga (75 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) will move from the strong side to start in the middle at linebacker to replace the departed Dhani Jones, while free agent pickups Lawson (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT with 49ers) and Howard will start on the oustside. Howard is stepping in at the weakside with Keith Rivers (77 tackles, 1 sack) opening the season on the injured list due to wrist surgery. With Joseph's surprising departure to Houston, the Ohio-born Clements (82 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) was brought in to replace him and start alongside Leon Hall (44 tackles, 4 INT). Chris Crocker (43 tackles, 2 sacks) will slide over to the free safety position to open up a spot for Reggie Nelson (54 tackles, 2 INT) in the starting lineup.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How long will it take Dalton and Green to catch up to the speed of a real NFL game? The duo will be counted on to do a lot this season despite their rookie status and face a young and improved Browns defense. Dalton will need his accuracy and patience, while the Bengals line will need to give him time to get comfortable.
The Browns will need to establish Hillis early to take some pressure off McCoy, who currently lacks a go-to target. Hillis showed signs of wearing down last year, failing to score in his last five games while going over 100 yards just once in that span. Cleveland will need to mix in a healthy Hardesty to keep him fresh.
Cleveland will also need to get Cribbs involved in the game. It is unknown how much Shurmur will use the wildcat gimmick that Cribbs likes to be a part of, so his best chance to have an impact may come in the return game unless Bengals punter Kevin Huber doesn't give him the chance.
The winds of change will be in the air at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the two clubs will look to take the first step forward in their respective rebounding efforts. The lack of experience under center and in the passing game in general makes this a very interesting and tough-to-call matchup. Neither team appears to have the bigger edge on defense either, though the Bengals have more experience all-around. In a close match like this, the edge has to go to the home team, with the Browns getting the "Dawg Pound" involved early.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cleveland 17, Bengals 13
09/08 14:50:17 ET