BEREA: The Browns know an effective rushing attack can turn the Battle of Ohio in their favor.
Running back Peyton Hillis might return today to aid their effort. Hillis has missed the past five games with an injured left hamstring, but he practiced Friday and is listed as questionable on the team’s injury report. Meanwhile, running back Montario Hardesty is expected to play today for the first time since he tore a calf muscle in his right leg Oct. 30 against the San Francisco 49ers.
But even if the Browns get both of their top tailbacks back, gaining an advantage on the ground today at Paul Brown Stadium will be a difficult mission. The Cincinnati Bengals have the NFL’s third-ranked defense against the run, allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game.
“They’ve got eight good defensive linemen,” Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said. “The way they substitute up front is a challenge because they’re always putting fresh bodies in there. Their three linebackers are downhill guys. They do a great job of filling the hole and stopping the run.”
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is the leader of the Bengals’ 4-3 defense. Despite missing three games this season with a sprained ankle, he ranks third on the team with 62 tackles.
“We all know that if everyone does [his] own job, that everything will take care of itself, so not one person is nervous,” said Maualuga, who played outside linebacker during his first two NFL seasons after the Bengals drafted him in the second round [38th overall] in 2009. “If they get out of gap, if they don’t make a tackle, they know the other 10 people are running, too, and are right there. It’s just a comfort level that we all have, and we just try to step it up week by week.”
The Browns (4-6) had 26 carries for 83 yards (3.2 average) in their season-opening loss to the Bengals (6-4). Coach Pat Shurmur’s men know they must run the ball better if they want to avenge their 27-17 loss. The Bengals are 6-1 this season when their opponent rushes for fewer than 100 yards.
“We were kind of disgusted with the performance we put out there,” said Browns tight end Alex Smith, who could play fullback today if starter Owen Marecic [concussion] is sidelined. “It was pretty ugly.”
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Maualuga is surrounded by strongside linebacker Manny Lawson (43 tackles) and weakside linebacker Thomas Howard (64 tackles). Free safety Reggie Nelson has a team-high 68 tackles.
“Their front seven is real good,” Hardesty said. “They always make sure they bring a safety down in the box, so they can give you an eight-man box. Those guys run to the ball well and tackle well.”
Then there are the eight monsters who rotate in the trenches. None of the Bengals’ active defensive linemen has played fewer than 12 snaps in a game, and every one of them has at least a half sack this season.
When the Bengals shut down opposing running backs, offenses are forced to rely more on passing. It’s a cause-and-effect relationship the Bengals have used to their advantage by compiling 26 sacks, which ranks 11th in the league.
“They can go,” Browns right guard Shawn Lauvao said. “They’ve got some juice. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Browns’ 29th-ranked rushing offense (93.1 yards per game) is coming off its best performance of the season and will need a strong encore to combat the pressure the Bengals hope to apply against quarterback Colt McCoy. Running back Chris Ogbonnaya had 21 carries for 115 yards (5.5 average) and a touchdown last week in the Browns’ 14-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He could still receive some playing time, even if Hillis and Hardesty return.
“They’re gonna try to run the ball,” Maualuga said. “It’s gonna be a good test for our defense. We know what they’re gonna run. They know how we’re gonna line up. So it’s gonna come down to whoever executes the game plan the right way.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.