Browns Match-Ups That Will Be Keys To Victory Week 1

September 8, 2023

Andy Billman Tony Camino

Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals matchups to watch:

1 – Joe Burrow vs. Deshaun Watson


This is a high-profile quarterback match-up with Deshaun Watson and Joe Burrow. Both are considered leaders in the organization, and both have had success at the college and pro levels.

The difference is evident as well as Watson is more of a mobile quarterback, and Burrow is the traditional dropback.

The striking difference is the expectations and confidence level in the quarterbacks, which, sadly for us Browns fans, is lacking.  Watson has a lot to prove in 2023, and it almost feels like all or nothing this season, which makes for a lot of pressure and uncertainty. 

Burrow is the opposite, win or lose; he is the face of the franchise, and they are moving forward together. 

On the field, Burrow is relied on more to make plays and win games with his arm.  The Browns also rely on Watson to win by throwing the ball, but they do have Nick Chubb, which helps in case they take away the pass.


$230 million vs. $270 million tells you all you need to know about this QB matchup in week one. The Bengals just made Joe Burrow the highest-paid player annually on Thursday with a five-year, $270 million extension. For both teams, they need their leaders to set the tone and play well to give them a chance.

On the Bengals’ end, everything offensively runs through Burrow and the passing game. Joe Mixon is a capable back but doesn’t have great efficiency and isn’t one to break off many long runs. They rely on their passing game to get in rhythm, and that all starts with Burrow. He’s 1-4 in his career against the Browns and has thrown the ball more than 30 times in every matchup. If the pocket stays clean and the receivers can get a little separation, Burrow is going to put points on the board.

For the Browns, it’s the first look at Deshaun Watson following a complete offseason. All the quotes are great about his performance, state his work ethic, and how he aims to be even better than he was in Houston. While I have the confidence that Watson will return to form, he just has to go out on the field and perform. The Browns’ offense can survive without Watson being elite thanks to Nick Chubb, but he’s going to need to make timely plays if the Browns want a 1-0 start.

2 – Myles Garrett/Za’Darius Smith vs. Bengals offensive line


Perhaps the matchup where the Browns now have the biggest advantage is the defensive line, which needs to have a big day on Sunday. Specifically, when it comes to edge rushers, getting pressure on Burrow and collapsing the pocket is essential to securing a win. Orlando Brown Jr. is an upgrade at left tackle this year for the Bengals, but he wasn’t amazing last year. Brown graded out at 75.4, with a 76.8 pass block grade. Those are solid numbers for sure, but nothing that this elite pass-rushing duo cannot handle.

Opposite of Brown will be Jonah Williams, who the Browns should really look to exploit. Williams posted a poor 62.8 pass block grade in 2022, and two of his worst performances of the year came against Cleveland. The first matchup saw Williams receive a 32.2 pass block grade in week 8, and a 28.3 grade in the second matchup in week 14. He won’t have the responsibility of playing left tackle against Myles Garrett, but the defensive line is so improved that Williams looks to be a weak link to attack.

Garrett has 11 sacks in 9 matchups versus the Bengals, and this is by far the best defensive line unit he’s been a part of. All-pro Za’Darius Smith should feast opposite Garrett, and I expect to see a lot of three-defensive end sets to really emphasize the pass rush. This is without a doubt the Browns’ biggest advantage heading into Sunday, and they need to capitalize.


I believe this is the most important match-up of the day.  Want to take away Burrow, the Browns must keep constant pressure on him with Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith

Garrett has always been a problem for the Bengals and with the addition of Smith, as Tony mentioned above this is a great opportunity for the Browns to really have a huge advantage in this game.  The Bengals have been trying to get the offensive line right for the past few seasons, and with the new additions of DT Dalvin Tomlinson and DT Shelby Harris, it actually gives the Browns an opportunity to put constant pressure on Burrow with just not 95.

Finally, this is defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s first game in Cleveland and the excitement of the high-flying Browns defense feels like a real weapon moving forward.

3 – Browns secondary vs. the Bengals wide receivers


This might be the one match-up that is not being talked about enough with the question of CB Denzel Ward and S Juan Thornhill not playing on Sunday.  Ward has always played well against Cincinnati and with him not playing it puts a lot of pressure on Greg Newsome and possibly rookie Cameron Mitchell or Mike Ford.  That’s not the best feeling when you have to cover Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins.  Schwartz’s man-to-man coverage might make for big plays for the Bengals, so the Browns defensive line must make sure to get pressure on Burrow.

The good news is Schwartz’s simplistic scheme should make it easier for the Browns secondary to not have communication errors as they have made in the past.  S Rodney McLeod will help if Thornhillis out with leadership and knowledge of Schwartz’s defense at safety and S Grant Delpit looks like he is set to have a big season.

If the Browns lose, this more than likely is a matchup that goes the Bengal’s way.


While the Browns have to take advantage of the Bengals’ offensive line, this matchup is the most important of the day. Pending the status of Denzel Ward, the Browns’ secondary is tasked with a very talented wide receiver room featuring Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has shown he’s going to play a lot of man defense this year, which has its pros and cons.

Generally, man defense gives you an extra hat in the run game and allows every receiver to be accounted for. However, if the receivers are too talented, it becomes tough to keep them in check which can result in big plays. Also, running lanes for the QB are going to be much more open than in zone defense, and man defense can be easy to scheme against at times.

The Browns have the personnel to play man here, with Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome being successful man-to-man cornerbacks. Ward would be a tremendous boost for this game and would allow the Browns to play as many men as they want with three talented man-to-man cornerbacks. The defensive line needs to make their lives easier with quick pressure and collapsed pockets, but the secondary has to be vocal in their communication and sound in their technique to limit the big plays. If they can eliminate the home run ball and force the Bengals to put together long drives, I like the chances for the Browns to come out with a win.

4 – Kevin Stefanski vs. Zac Taylor


Kevin Stefanski owns this matchup, having won five out of six games since taking over in 2020. The Bengals will be the first team to face the newly revamped Browns offense, which is likely to feature a more shotgun spread formation than in previous years. During the Baker Mayfield era, the Bengals would focus on stopping Nick Chubb, which was never successful. They paid little attention to the passing game, allowing Mayfield to have effective games against them. I would expect more emphasis to be placed on stopping the Browns’ passing attack than ever before, but they must not forget about Nick Chubb.

This matchup is more about the coaching staff facing off against each other, not just Stefanski versus Taylor, especially considering that Taylor doesn’t call any plays on game day. Stefanski is the smartest offensive coach in this game, and the new defense under Jim Schwartz will aim to build on the team’s past success against the Bengals. I would say the Browns have an advantage in this department, but the recent success of the Bengals cannot be overlooked. This should be a close game that illustrates how competitive the AFC North is going to be in 2023.


As Tony mentioned above, the number to look at when it comes to coaches is the record against the opponent.  Head Coach Kevin Stefanski is 5-1 against the Bengals and Head Coach Zach Taylor is 2-6 against the Browns.  It can be argued in the two wins for Taylor the Browns had a bad quarterback play in both games that led to the defeat, not the play of the Bengals. 

Stefanski always seems to be at his best as well with game management against the Bengals and also getting to big leads by the beginning of the 4th quarter, putting the game in cruise control.  With the new assistant additions, it makes one wonder if Stefanski has a bigger advantage on Sunday, and it is a rare advantage, but Stefanski always does well against the Bengals.

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