CINCINNATI --The Bengals' equation for offensive success is simple: use the run to draw the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, and set up deep one-on-one opportunities for wide receiver A.J. Green.
The emergence of rookie Jeremy Hill strengthened that strategy. The second-round pick replaced the injured Giovani Bernard in the lineup for the Week 9 game at Jacksonville, and pounced on the opportunity, racking up 154 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries in that start, and seizing the job.
Bernard returned after missing three games, but Hill is the primary threat now, with more carries than Bernard in each of the last four games they've played together.
The two second-round picks provide a contrast as a one-two punch; Hill is 30 pounds heavier and four inches taller than the 5-foot-9, 208-pound Bernard. But Hill has surprising speed and moves in the open field that belie his size, a bit like Broncos rookie Juwan Thompson.
"Gio Bernard, I'm going to say he's a Ronnie Hillman-type back, a speed running back. So they bring in Hill, and he's their power back, so he's their change-of-pace back, and he's been running hard, man," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "He's very impressive as a rookie, and we've got to slow him down. He's definitely the key to the game: him and Bernard.
"If we don't shut down the run, it's going to be a long day."
That's due in part to the fact that if the Broncos can't contain Hill and Bernard with their front seven -- which will include two linebackers who were not starters as recently as Week 9 -- they will have to sacrifice coverage on the back end, and that would create more opportunities for Green to be left on an island on the outside, without safety help.
"We've got good corners, we've got good design. And we'll do some things to make sure that we give [Green] plenty of attention," Broncos Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "But it can't be all about stopping one guy. It's about stopping their offense. But he's a big part of it. He's a good player."
The clash between physical freaks Aqib Talib and A.J. Green should be fun to watch, while Terrance Knighton draws another rookie center.
Cincinnati went 1-1-1 in the three games it played without Green in October. After two subpar games following his return from an right toe injury, Green has averaged 7.4 receptions and 115.6 yards per game.
"We're going to definitely have to keep him from having any explosive (plays)," Harris said. "He started out a little slow, but now he's starting to gain momentum and pick it up."
And wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Jermaine Gresham are capable of taking advantage if defenses pay too much attention to Green. But if the Broncos can neutralize the run, they can focus on the pass rush and coverage, and the defense can have the kind of success it has enjoyed in allowing just 14.3 points per game the last three weeks.
"The main thing is, if we shut down the run and make them one-dimensional, and make Andy Dalton force throws at us, we feel like we can win most of our matchups," said Chris Harris Jr.
But nothing short-circuits the Bengals like takeaways. In their nine wins, the Bengals average 1.1 turnovers a game. In their four losses and a tie against Carolina, that average doubles to 2.2.
CINCINNATI BY THE NUMBERS
- Yards per game: 348.4, 13th
- Yards per play: 5.51, 13th
- Giveaways: 21, T-18th
- First-down rate: One every 3.56 plays, 17th
- Third-down conversion rate: 40.86 percent, 16th
- Yards per game: 218.14, 23rd
- Yards per pass play: 6.64, 14th
- Sack rate: One every 23.0 pass plays, 7th
- Touchdown rate: One every 28.75 pass plays, 25th
- Quarterback hit rate: One per 10.70 pass plays, 28th
- First-down rate: One per 3.19 pass plays, 22nd
- Drop rate (per STATS, Inc.):One per 12.63 opportunities, 27th
- Yards after catch per reception (per STATS, Inc.): 6.00, 7th
- Yards per game: 130.29, 6th
- Yards per rush: 4.28, 12th
- First-down rate: One every 4.06 carries, 6th
- Touchdown rate: One every 23.67 carries, 2nd
Do you have a question for Andrew Mason? Ask it here and you might be in this week's Mailbag!