CINCINNATI — Cornerback Leon Hall will join linebacker Vontaze Burfict on the sideline Thursday night when the Bengals host Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium. The two starters have been officially ruled out of the key AFC North division game.
Hall suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s 33-23 win against Jacksonville when he collided with teammate George Iloka while the two were making a tackle. Hall is still under the NFL’s concussion protocol. Burfict underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week and was ruled out of the game earlier in the week.
The Bengals are also expecting to be without running back Giovani Bernard for a second straight game with rib and clavicle injuries. Bernard is listed as doubtful on the official injury report but hasn’t practiced the past two weeks. Rookie Jeremy Hill started against the Jaguars and rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, including a 60-yard burst through the right side of the line in the fourth quarter that provided the final margin of victory.
Hill said on Tuesday that he expects to see a similar workload against the Browns with Bernard out of the lineup.
The Bengals and Browns are tied for 30th in run defense this season, giving up an average of 139.6 yards per game. The Browns have allowed opponents to rush for at least 113 yards in seven of their eight games this season, including individual 100-yard games to Jacksonville’s Dennard Robinson (127) on Oct. 19 and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (109) on Sept. 7.
The Bengals rushing offense is ranked No. 9 in the NFL with 121.4 yards per game and they are tied with New Orleans for the most rushing touchdowns in the league with 12. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher against the Browns since Cedric Benson did it twice in 2011, gaining 121 yards and scoring touchdown on 25 carries in that season’s opener in Cleveland and then putting up 106 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in late November in Cincinnati.
"That’s what the stats say but I’m sure they’re an aggressive run defense and I’m probably sure that’s where it comes from," said Hill. "When you have eight guys in the box sometimes you can pop one through there but for the most part they’re pretty stout in the run game. They’ve got some big defensive tackles and end and great veteran linebackers who know how to stop the run. We’re not going in there thinking we can run all over top of them. We know what we need to accomplish and we know what goals we need to do as a team."
Right tackle Andre Smith (ankle) and linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) are also listed as doubtful, while defensive end Robert Geather is questionable with a shoulder injury. Four players are listed as probable: rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hamstring), tight end Jermaine Gresham (knee), cornerback Terence Newman (chest) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (calf).
Marshall Newhouse is expected to start at right tackle in place of Smith, while Nico Johnson and Vinny Rey are expected to replace Maualuga and Burfict at linebacker. Dennard missed last week’s game against Jacksonville but, with Hall out, he and Dre Kirkpatrick should get extra snaps when the Bengals have their nickel and dime defensive packages in the game.
Those positions will be especially important if Andrew Hawkins is healthy enough to play. Hawkins is a tough matchup whether he’s in the slot or on the outside, and the recent emergence of rookie Taylor Gabriel (seven catches, 147 yards, one touchdown) in the last two games gives the Browns another weapon.
"I thought they were the same person," said Newman. "I was like, hey, wait a minute. He’s wearing 16 or is he 18? I thought they were the same person. They look very similar on tape."
The Bengals have also had their troubles defensively against the run this season. They have allowed at least 94 yards on the ground in every game and opponents have rushed for 132 yards or more in five of their eight games. They are next-to-last in the NFL allowing 4.8 yards per rush. They’ve given up individual 100-yard games to New England’s Steven Ridley (116) and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (107).
Cleveland running backs Terrance West and Ben Tate have each had 100-yard games this season but the Browns’ running game has struggled since All-Pro center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered against Pittsburgh on Oct. 12. They have gained a total of just 158 yards rushing in the last three games after averaging 146.5 yards on the ground in their first five games. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer has also been sacked seven times in the last three games. He had been sacked just three times in the previous four games.
Cleveland has used Nick McDonald and John Greco at center since Mack’s injury as they attempt to solidify their offensive line.
"That’s something we’ve got to take advantage of because Mack is one of the best players at that position of center," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "To have a backup in there, me and the defensive tackles here are starting to lick our chops trying to get after them that way."