Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 11 opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals.
#1 - The Surging Giovani Bernard: The Browns aren't strangers to facing RB Giovani Bernard; when these two teams met in Week 4, Bernard had 10 carries for 37 yards. That was better than what RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis managed against Cleveland, which was 6 carries for 13 yards. Since then, Green-Ellis has still out-touched Bernard in the ground game with 88 carries compared to 63 carries for Bernard.
In my head, I had a little bit of a misconception that Bernard was lighting it up in the backfield. While his 4.4 yards per carry average certainly demonstrates that he's more explosive than Green-Ellis, he's not going to get a lot of carries because he's not a bruiser. Also, as fun as his highlight-reel, 35-yard touchdown run was against the Dolphins, more times than not, that type of effort is going to backfire -- it did in last week's overtime game against the Ravens.
How is Bernard "surging," then? Because of his work as a receiver. Bernard's first game as a receiving threat actually came against Cleveland, when he had 6 catches for 38 yards. Since then, he's logged 26 catches for 182 yards over a span of 6 games. While he's been limited in some games as a receiver, he had 6 catches for 72 yards against the Bills, 5 catches for 32 yards against the Lions, and 8 catches for 37 yards against the Ravens.
We've seen how opponents with good running backs have hurt Cleveland's defense in the receiving game -- Jamaal Charles had 5 catches for 46 yards, Eddie Lacy had 5 catches for 26 yards, and Reggie Bush had 5 catches for 57 yards. Those guys have been able to attack our linebackers in coverage, and the Bengals will likely look to do the same with Bernard on Sunday.
#2 - Other New Threats on the Horizon: Besides the fact that RB Giovani Bernard has been getting more involved in the offense and that WR A.J. Green is always going to be a type of player defenses need to defend heavily, the Bengals have a couple of more new threats who are looking to make an impression. WR Marvin Jones, a fifth-round pick in 2012 by the Bengals, was held without a catch on three targets the last time these two teams met. Jones is still the team's third wide receiver behind WR Mohamed Sanu, but he recently had a hot four-game stretch, before cooling off against the Ravens last week:
Week 6: 3 catches, 71 yards, 1 TD
Week 7: 4 catches, 57 yards, 1 TD
Week 8: 8 catches, 122 yards, 4 TD
Week 9: 4 catches, 66 yards
The 4-touchdown performance is a bit of an anomaly, but the production he had during that stretch, while only playing about half of the snaps in each game, goes to show that QB Andy Dalton is looking his way more often. Whether CB Chris Owens or CB Buster Skrine end up lining up against him, they will have to be ready.
The Bengals also saw the return these past two games of WR Andrew Hawkins, a small receiver who has given the Browns fits in the past. I asked Cincy Jungle about Hawkins' chances of having an impact this Sunday, and they didn't seem to think Hawkins will be too involved in the game plan. Since coming back from injury, Hawkins only saw 7 snaps against the Dolphins and 6 snaps against the Ravens, with a combined production of 1 catch for 10 yards and 1 botched carry for -3 yards. Nonetheless, the Browns need to be alert when Hawkins is on the field due to his shiftiness.
#3 - Injuries Taking a Toll: The wear-and-tear of having a late bye week is starting to show for the Bengals -- they won't have a week off until next week. Cleveland, on the other hand, is coming off of a bye week and is in very good shape health-wise, all things considered.
The biggest injuries the Bengals suffered this year were losing two of their top defensive players, CB Leon Hall and DT Geno Atkins, for the season. The Browns were actually fortunate enough to have not faced Hall the last time these two teams met either. Atkins, though, has always been tough for the Browns to handle. He had 1.5 sacks earlier this season against Cleveland and is just one of the best all-around defensive tackles in the NFL.
Those aren't the only injuries that could plague the Bengals, though. Starting right guard Kevin Zeitler has started all 26 games in his career so far, but his status for Sunday's game is in doubt. Zeitler has a foot injury and has been walking around in a boot and on crutches since last week's loss to the Ravens. The shuffling that would have to go on across the Bengals' offensive line to account for Zeitler's absence can't help their protection problems (QB Andy Dalton has been sacked five times in each of his past two games).
Starting ILB Rey Maualuga has missed the past two games with a concussion, and he doesn't appear ready to return yet either. SS Chris Crocker, who was signed off the street heading into the first Cleveland game, has seen his playing time increase into a starting role / nickelback type of player. He has been missing practice this week with a hamstring injury, though, which puts his status in doubt. The Bengals will be healthier following their bye, but by then, will it be too late?
#4 - Pass Defense Still Performing: Despite some of the hits the Bengals have taken defensively, they have still performed at a relatively high level. Despite no help from the offense the past two weeks (0 touchdowns, 6 interceptions from Dalton), the defense has played well enough to send games into overtime. The past three quarterbacks who have faced the Bengals' pass defense have not lit up the scoreboard:
Geno Smith: 20-of-30 for 159 yards, 2 INTs, 3 sacks
Ryan Tannehill: 20-of-28 for 208 yards, 3 sacks
Joe Flacco: 20-of-36 for 140 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 5 sacks
This is a secondary that also held Tom Brady to without a score earlier this season. In their past two home games, they've allowed a combined five field goals and zero touchdowns. Overall, the Bengals are 4th in the NFL on defense, including 9th against the run and 7th against the pass.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Not much has changed for the Bengals on special teams since the Week 4 matchup. Mike Nugent is 13-of-17 on field goals for the season, while punter Kevin Huber continues to do a good job in his role. There is expected to be some rain for this weekend's game, so weather could impact the kicking game. WR Brandon Tate continues to handle the majority of punts and kickoffs for the Bengals, and I'd still consider him one of the AFC's more threatening return men. He had a 71-yard kickoff return against the Jets a couple of weeks ago. The Bengals also defend kickoffs and punts better than the league average.