#1 - Uh-Oh, Where is the Secondary? Earlier this week, I heard that the Bengals' secondary was a bit banged up, but I assumed it was a foregone conclusion that they would be fine by Sunday. As it turns out, that is not the case. Cincinnati will likely be without cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick and free safety Reggie Nelson, as all three players were listed as "doubtful" on the injury report with hamstring problems.
Hall is the Bengals' best cornerback, while Nelson is their best safety. Considering the Bengals have had issues generating a pass rush through three games, having more voids in the secondary is a huge bonus for Brian Hoyer, who is making his second start with the Browns. Terrence Newman and Adam Jones are expected to start at cornerback. Kirkpatrick hasn't been a significant contributor to the defense, but it also means the Bengals will have to dig even further down their depth chart to Brandon Ghee as the third cornerback this week. Ghee, a third-round pick in 2010, has only made 10 total tackles in his career.
At safety, the Bengals just signed veteran Chris Crocker off the street this week, and there is a chance he could start. It seems likely that Crocker will rotate with Taylor Mays to fill Nelson's absence.
#2 - Trouble Running the Ball: I thought we would see rookie running back Giovani Bernard take over the starting role this year, and it might be just a matter of time before veteran BenJarvius Green-Ellis shifts into a backup role. For now, though, Green-Ellis is the starter (seeing about two out of every three snaps), while Bernard is more of the spell back.
Green-Ellis is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry this season, which is a full yard below his career average. Considering how well the Browns' run defense has been this year, they will be looking forward to facing a guy who doesn't break many big runs to begin with. Bernard, on the other hand, is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has shown to be a threat as a receiver. The Browns will have to make sure he is accounted for when he enters the game.
#3 - A.J. Green Remains a Game-Changer: There have been some good battles between Joe Haden and A.J. Green over the past couple of years. In four games against Cleveland, most of which has seen him go directly against Haden, Green has 18 catches for 344 yards and 4 touchdowns. I know the Browns like to trust Haden on an island, but this might be the week where you give him some help with a safety and trust the other guys in the secondary to get the job done.
The other receivers the Bengals feature are Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. The guy who hurt the Browns last year was the shift Andrew Hawkins, but he is on the designated-to-return injured reserve list. For what Cincinnati lacks at receiver, they make up for at tight end with the tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Those two have combined for 24 catches for 248 yards.
#4 - Mixing Things Up Defensively: For Cleveland to be successful defensively, they will have to find a way to have more success on third down defensively. The Bengals rank 6th (46.15% of the time) in the NFL in converting third downs, and rank 2nd (85.71% of the time) in the NFL when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
The Browns rank 31st in the league at defending 3rd downs, giving up a conversion 48.98% of the time. They rank 17th in the red zone, giving up a touchdown 60% of the time. The Bengals have done a good job protecting Andy Dalton through three games, so if he has time to throw on third downs, either Green or those tight ends will find a way to get open.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: I was surprised to look back and verify that Mike Nugent has been in the NFL since 2005. After a mixed bag start to his career with the Jets, Nugent has settled in to his role with Cincinnati over the past few years. He is not a power kicker, though, as he has only connected on 6-of-16 attempts from beyond 50 yards in his career. In 2012, Nugent only had a touchback on 32.3% of his kickoffs, among the worst in the league, which means Greg Little could have some return attempts this week.
The Bengals stick with Kevin Huber at punter again; he always puts up very respectable numbers. Brandon Tate handles kickoff returns for the Bengals, while both Tate and Adam Jones take turns on punt returns. In 2012, Jones had an 81-yard touchdown return on a punt against Cleveland, and Tate had a 32-yard return.