Tonight’s Great Lakes Classic—the winner of whom will take home the lovely Edmund Fitzgerald Trophy you see above—will be markedly different from last week’s game. It will be in Cleveland rather than in the welcoming confines of Ford Field. The opponent will be similar—an Ohio-based team with a new quarterback and new offense—but many ways, wholly opposite. How will the results differ from last week’s blowout?
The Bengals are in the last gasp of the Marvin Lewis era. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and the rest of the crew that made Lewis look smart are gone, replaced with a lot of very young faces learning from first-time coordinators. The Lions’ defense made it clear that the Bengals far behind the eight-ball; this lockout-shortened offseason will have their rookie skill players and greenhorn coordinators playing catch-up all year long. It’s easy to see the Bengals’ yo-yo string breaking this year, and Cincy picking at the top of the draft in 2012—almost regardless of on-paper talent.
Yet, if the Bengals are like the 2008 Lions, primed for a breathtaking fall to Earth, the Browns more like the 2010 edition. They’re clearly moving in the right direction under a first-time head coach, Pat Shurmur. Under center will be a talented second-year quarterback in his first full season as the starter, Colt McCoy. Unlike the Bengals, the Browns (and especially McCoy) looked great in their first preseason game, beating the reigning World Champion Packers 27-17.
Curiously, the Browns and Bengals have opposite strengths. The Bengals’ defensive line looked like a scary matchup for what might be the Lions’ weakest unit right now. The Browns’ D-line isn’t nearly so scary, but their offensive line might be one of the best in the business. How the Lions’ front seven looks against Joe Thomas & Co. will be telling; the Browns completely neutralized the Packers’ pass rush. Likewise, if Stephen Peterman, Dom Raiola, and Rob Sims can’t open up any space for Jahvid Best tonight, that will also spell trouble. Leonard Davis just might get called in . . . .
At corner, Aaron Berry figures to get significant work; it’ll be a great chance for him to make his case for the nickel spot. Meanwhile, every Lion quarterback has to be drooling. The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn combined to go 17-of-26 for 200 yards, 2 TDs, and no picks. I’m hoping to see another two-great-drives-and-out performance from Matthew Stafford, then big doses of Drew Stanton and Zac Robinson. If Killer’s rumblings are on-target about Robinson pushing Stanton, the Lions should showcase both and trade one while the trading’s good.
The two biggest questions marks are the Lions’ rushing offense and rushing defense. I want to see Jahvid Best run well inside and out, and then I’d like to see either Aaron Brown or Jerome Harrison make a resounding statement. On defense, the Lions can’t completely sell out contain on the running lanes to get to the passer—especially if Peyton Hillis and/or Montario Hardesty are ready to play (either might or might not be). Meanwhile, a linebacker other than Justin Durant has to get through the trash and get to the hole a lot more quickly.
I’ll be more concerned about the halftime score than the final tally. Word is the Browns will play their starters for most of, if not all of, the first half, and I want to see the Lions’ twos hold their own. That having been said, I’d be just fine with the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bronze effigy sailing back to Detroit, too. Most of all though: I want to see no injuries.