NFL: 5 issues for Browns, Bengals
Second-year running back Trent Richardson will be a focal point of coordinator Norv Turner’s offense — if he can stay healthy.
As the Bengals prepare to open the 2013 season on Sunday in Chicago, here are five things that will decide whether they get back to the playoffs and get a breakthrough win:
1. Handling expectations: The Bengals were considered a fluke when they snared a wild card in 2011 — only one of their nine wins came against a team with a winning record. They were better last year, but lost to Houston again in their first postseason game. While other playoff teams had significant turnover in the offseason, the Bengals brought their roster back virtually intact, making them an early favorite for the playoffs. But veterans know the dynamic changes when a team is expected to win. “One of the hardest things to overcome is expectations,” cornerback Terence Newman said. “I think it’s easy when you’re the underdog because you have to work, people are discrediting you.”
2. Dalton’s time: Andy Dalton is the first Bengals quarterback to lead the team into the playoffs each of his first two seasons. Now, it’s up to him to get them deeper into the playoffs. However, he had two of his worst showings in the postseason. If he wants to be ranked among the league’s best, Dalton is going to have to do much better this time. “You have to win big games — which he’s won — but you have to win playoff games and then, obviously, win a Super Bowl to be looked at as an elite quarterback in the NFL,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
3. Eifert and Bernard: The Bengals have few openings for a rookie to make an impact. Two of them will get the chance. Tight end Tyler Eifert was drafted in the first round and running back Giovani Bernard in the second to give the passing game more diversity and provide Dalton with more options. Also, the Bengals are counting on second-year receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to emerge and make a difference on an offense that ranked 22nd last season.
4. Additions on defense: A unit that has been ranked in the NFL’s top seven each of the past two years could be even better. Top draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury and is ready to start making an impact as an extra cornerback. Free-agent linebacker James Harrison made the move from Pittsburgh, bringing another pass rusher and a little fire to the defense. As cornerback Adam Jones put it: “He gives you that swagger and that seal. You know when you mail off the letter you make sure you put a stamp on it? Well, he’s the stamp.”
5. Plenty of depth: Lewis has the deepest roster in his 11 seasons, giving the Bengals a chance to weather injuries without a significant drop-off — a problem in the past. The depth allowed them to draft defensive end Margus Hunt — a track star turned defensive end at Southern Methodist — in the second round, knowing it will be a while before he makes an impact. “As far as the talent on this team, it’s unparalleled,” Newman said. “You can look at different teams and say, ‘Well they’ve got this, they’ve got this.’ We have just as good as anybody else.”
As the Browns prepare to open the season at home against Miami on Sunday, here are five things to watch as they try to become competitive again:
1. Chud’s in charge: New coach Rob Chudzinski was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007, when the Browns went 10-6. He also spent the past two years as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. With the Panthers, he directed a record-breaking offense he hopes to replicate in Cleveland. To assist him, the Browns hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive guru Ray Horton, two coordinators with proven track records. Turner’s job is to get the most out of second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden.
2. Will Richardson rumble? His ribs are healed and he’s 10 pounds lighter than a year ago, so running back Trent Richardson is set for a breakout season — as long as he stays healthy. Richardson rushed for 950 yards as a rookie, when he played more than half the year with two broken ribs. In the past, the feature running back in Turner’s offense has topped 300 carries, and Richardson is looking forward to doing more “than running between the tackles” as he did a year ago.
3. Focus on the division: Unless they start winning division games, the Browns will stay stuck in the AFC North’s basement — their home eight times in 11 years. Since their return in 1999, the Browns have gone 16-50 against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. With the Steelers rebuilding, the Ravens losing key contributors from their Super Bowl title team and the Bengals being, well, the unpredictable Bengals, the Browns could close the gap. “I think we’re making good strides,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas said, “but we’ve got to win games to prove we’ve made strides.”
4. Weeden’s growth: On a wall inside the Browns’ draft room is a list of things the team feels it must do “On The Path To The Super Bowl.” Near the top is: “Have a championship-caliber quarterback.” Weeden has this year to show he is one. He turns 30 in October, so the clock is ticking. Weeden won’t have his top target for the first two games, as receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for failing the NFL’s drug policy.
5. Blitz, blitz, blitz: Cleveland’s defense will have moving parts. More precisely, blitzing parts. Horton has switched the Browns to a 3-4 scheme, one that puts a premium on pressuring the quarterback. Cleveland restocked its defensive front, signing free-agent linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves and end Desmond Bryant and drafting Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick. With the Arizona Cardinals last season, Horton’s defense had the NFL’s lowest opposing quarterback rating (71.2 percent), ranked second in third-down efficiency (32.9) and interceptions (22) and was third in red-zone defense (44.4). It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, and if nothing else, it will be fun to watch.