The Browns defense will have to slay a three-headed monster Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium if they want to beat the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals have three running backs who are very capable of giving the Browns fits. That’s something Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who is coming off a knee injury, have been doing for four years. In this year’s NFL Draft, the Bengals added Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon.

“It’s a three-headed monster right there so it is pick your poison,” defensive lineman Jamie Meder said this week. “You just have to be ready to come bring it against them.”

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton recognizes the wealth he possesses in the backfield.

“We are deep there, and I think that is big. We can rotate guys in,” he said.

Hill has rushed for 632 yards on 108 carries (5.8 average) and five scores in six games against the Browns. Bernard has 339 yards on 40 carries (4.8 average) and a score.

However, the Browns defense thus far has shown improvement against the run this season, allowing 87.7 yards rushing per game to rank 14th in the NFL.

“I think they are doing a good job defensively, starting off, being very versatile, attacking and they are eye-opening when the offense puts on the tape of what they are doing,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the Browns. “They are big, they are athletic and they run hard to the football.”

The Browns will have to continue to bring those things Sunday.

“Yeah, they are three really good runners and pass receivers,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said of the Bengals running backs. “Those guys are dangerous so we have to slow them down, and that is what we plan on doing.”

The Bengals backs have combined for 250 yards on 69 carries (3.6 average) this season. The challenge they present, however, is that all three are versatile and capable of production running the ball and catching it out of the backfield, making it difficult to plan for just one of them.

“We are prepared for all three of their guys as if all three of the guys will be the main one,” Browns starting middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “They all have different strengths, from Hill to Mixon to Bernard, so you just kind of have to know who is the in the game and adjust yourself accordingly.”

However, after just three games a noticeable trend has emerged about who the Bengals prefer to have lugging the ball.

So far this season, Mixon has 35 rushing attempts to Hill’s 19 and Bernard’s 15. In a 27-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, Mixon played 34 of the 61 snaps, compared to 14 for Hill and 13 for Bernard. Mixon delivered with more than 100 all-purpose yards, adding 39 yards on three receptions to 62 rushing yards on 18 carries.

“Mixon is dynamic enough to be a game-changer as both a runner and receiver and has the potential to be an every-down running back,” according to a ProFootballFocus.com scouting report on Mixon prior to April’s draft. “Strictly on the field, that would put him in the top-tier in this class and a potential first-round draft pick.”

Because of off-the-field issues, Mixon dropped to the second round (48th overall). He was charged with a misdemeanor for hitting a woman.

Browns defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah bumped heads with Mixon while he played at Oklahoma State.

“He was a dynamic back,” Ogbah said of Mixon. “He could catch the ball real well and run the ball real well. He has good vision. We have to do a good job containing him.”

Mixon also brings strength and size at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds.

“He can run in between the tackles and he makes people miss,” Schobert said. “You have to really be behind your shoulder pads when you come to take him down. You saw people bounce off of him last week against Green Bay when they were just arm tackling and stuff.”

Perhaps those are the reasons Lewis, and Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, are “prioritizing the best players getting the ball.”

“Joe is both a very versatile runner and receiver of the football,” Lewis said. “[He has the] ability to make people miss and he can run with power. He is a young, emerging player and we will continue to get better as we go through the year.”

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.