Last season, the Cleveland Browns gave up an average 147.4 rushing yards per game, ranking 30th in the league in rushing yards allowed. Though they spent much of the offseason working to bolster this area of their defense, it didn't pay dividends in their Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. They gave up 150 yards on the ground, 110 of those to running back LeSean McCoy.
This week, the Browns travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals—a team that wasn't very effective when running the ball last year.
It seemed like these struggles would continue into 2012, considering that the interior of the Bengals' offensive line is currently comprised of a rookie guard (Kevin Zeitler), a guard with a dearth of starting experience (Clint Boling, taking over for the injured Travelle Wharton) and a brand new center (Jeff Faine, again an injury replacement, this time for Kyle Cook).
However, surprisingly enough, the Bengals ran the ball well against the Baltimore Ravens defense, putting up 129 yards and one score. 91 of those yards belonged to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was the sole high-impact back with Bernard Scott sidelined with a hand injury.
With the Browns yet again strong when defending the pass, expect the Bengals to attempt to exploit their weakness in stopping the run.
This week, it appears that Green-Ellis will finally be joined by Scott; he practiced on Wednesday and is poised to take a change-of-pace role against the Browns on Sunday.
While it stands to reason that the Bengals will attempt to pass the ball as a way to test the Browns' secondary—they'll be without starting cornerback Joe Haden, who is serving his first of a four-game suspension this week—those yards allowed on the ground aren't something they'll ignore.
Haden isn't the only Browns defender adept at stopping the pass. And if they succeed in forcing turnovers, as they did against the Eagles (picking off quarterback Michael Vick four times), then the Bengals will likely turn to the run in hopes of repeating their Week 1 success.
The reason why the Browns haven't seemed to improve against the run is simple: injuries. Defensive tackle Phil Taylor is out with a torn pectoral; linebacker Chris Gocong is lost for the year with a torn Achilles' tendon; and Scott Fujita, while activated, as his three-game suspension was overturned, hasn't been entirely healthy and so far has been replaced by L.J. Fort.
The Browns experimented with a more rotational approach (subscription required) with their defensive line against Philadelphia. Newcomer Ishmaa'ily Kitchen took snaps at left defensive tackle in place of Ahtyba Rubin in pass-rush situations, and rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn each took turns at right defensive tackle, with the latter performing better in run situations.
If the Browns are to have success against the Bengals' run game, they need to tighten up their run defense, and fast. If Green-Ellis managed 91 rushing yards (and an average of 5.1 yards per carry) against the Ravens, then he could easily have the best game of his career if the Browns again cannot stop the run.
Last season, it was hard to pass against the Browns, but offenses quickly realized they didn't have to—they could get enough production out of their run game to make up for it. The Bengals were surprisingly solid on the ground last week, and though they have seven receivers on their 53-man roster, the Browns need to prepare for more than just Andy Dalton airing it out to A.J. Green.
Without stopping Green-Ellis and Scott, there's no reason to care what Dalton and Green do or do not do—Cincinnati will beat them on the ground.