Bengals’ defensive game plan starts with Isaiah Crowell

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CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 23: Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns breaks a tackle by George Iloka #43 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 23: Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns breaks a tackle by George Iloka #43 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images) /
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A strong run defense fits nicely into (hopefully) the Bengals’ first win of the 2017 season.

A temporary season-saving win for the Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) starts with stopping the Cleveland Browns (0-3) rushing attack.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you what helps a rookie quarterback the most. A defense that keeps the score close, a security blanket at tight end, a simplified playbook, etc. Perhaps the most important, though, is a successful rushing attack.

Cleveland has not had that so far in 2017. The Browns’ 24th-ranked rushing attack is averaging just 87 yards per game, and leading rusher Isaiah Crowell has been limited to just 2.9 yards per carry.

The Browns’ offensive line – the highest-paid front five this season – looked great on paper going into this season. Pro Football Focus ranked it the NFL’s second-best in the summer.

Cleveland spent the money to revamp its offensive line. They lured guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati and also signed center JC Tretter this offseason. They inked a three-year extension with guard Joel Bitonio and have veteran Joe Thomas at left tackle and second-year man Shon Coleman at right tackle.

That hasn’t produced results, though.

On top of poor results in the ground game, the Browns have surrendered 11 sacks, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.

The numbers are favorable but also clash with Cincinnati’s defense. Paul Guenther’s group is ranked in the top-10 in scoring, passing and sacks. However, the Bengals have been vulnerable to the run, yielding nearly 130 yards per game on the ground (25th).

History (sort of) on Cincinnati’s side

Something will have to give on Sunday. If history repeats itself, the advantage should belong to the Bengals’ defense.

Since Guenther took over in 2014, the Bengals have allowed just five 100-yard running backs. One of them will be in Cleveland’s backfield on Sunday.

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Crowell gashed Cincinnati last December for 113 yards on just 10 carries. Cincinnati won 23-10, as the lopsided score limited Crowell to just one fourth-quarter carry after running for 87 yards on five attempts in the third.

Over his last four games against the Bengals, Crowell has averaged 6.4 yards per carry. But in each game (all double-digit losses), he’s had less than 12 carries.

If the Browns can keep the game close on Sunday, expect Crowell’s usage to be heavy. He’ll try to take some pressure off of rookie DeShone Kizer. It’s been a learning experience for the second-round quarterback. He’s thrown seven interceptions in three games and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the past two contests.

The trio of Ty Montgomery, Lamar Miller and Terrance West have combined for 176 yards against the Bengals in 2017. Most of the ground damage against Cincinnati came in the form of DeShaun Watson’s 49-yard touchdown gallop in Week 2.

The defense has turned in three straight winnable performances. The dependency has been headache-worthy, but it’s a trend that continues if Cincinnati wants to crack the win column. That unit, which is relatively healthy (Derron Smith is doubtful and Jordan Evans is out), welcomes back its nucleus on Sunday.

Next: Another Must-Win Battle

Vontaze Burfict – fresh off a three-year contract extension – returns Sunday after serving a three-game suspension. The spirit of the defense aims to carry the Bengals to their first win of 2017, starting by filling the run lanes and putting pressure on a first-year quarterback.

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