After not practicing all last week and being limited on Wednesday, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had full participation in practice on Thursday as Cincinnati hosts Cleveland on Sunday.
Green hyperextended his right knee during the first quarter of the Nov. 13 loss to Pittsburgh and was inactive for last week's game at Baltimore. He said the knee did make significant progress during the past couple days and went through normal offensive drills on Wednesday and Thursday.
The return of Green means one of Sunday's best matchups is likely back on. Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden shut out Green in the opener until midway through the fourth quarter when Green caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski that proved to be the winning score in a 27-17 victory in the opener.
It will also be the renewal of what is a pretty good rivalry between the two that started in college when Green was at Georgia and Haden at Florida.
"I think he's just a good cover guy," Green said of Haden "He really doesn't come up there and try to challenge you that much but you have to run precise routes because he's going to be on you in and out of your breaks so you have to run good routes."
Green leads NFL rookies in receiving yards (635) and receiving touchdowns (six) through 11 weeks of play. His 41 receptions trail Cleveland's Greg Little by one. Green still stands second among rookies in total touchdowns (six), with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in first at nine.
--With six games remaining and the Bengals still in the thick of a possible playoff berth, it might be early to start looking ahead to next year, but if they are going to make progress they need more consistency out of receivers not named A.J. Green.
Last Sunday's 31-24 loss at Baltimore was an indication of how much progress the receiving game needs to make. Even if Green, who hyperextended his right knee two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, does return for this week's game against the Browns, Joe Haden contained Green, so that means someone else must step up.
Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson are in the final year of their contracts. Jordan Shipley, who is out for the season with a knee injury, is expected to be back in time for training camp but his best position is as a slot receiver.
With Green's ability to go deep and the struggles of Caldwell and Simpson, there is no consistent underneath threat. Unfortunately that task has fallen to tight end Jermaine Gresham, who was expected to be a guy who could stretch the field this season.
With a new offense and confidence from the coaches, Simpson was supposed to make that step up to the next level. He does have three 100-yard games but in most of the other contests he has been a non-factor.
"There are things from a consistency standpoint that he'll tell you and I'll tell you he has to be better," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "Depths of routes were poor on some occasions along with some third downs in key situations. He busted a couple routes which were critical but he made some splash plays that we expect him to do."
Caldwell's inconsistency has been just as troubling. He is an extremely knowledgeable receiver who can play all three spots but has struggled on route running. He was the intended receiver on all three of Andy Dalton's interceptions and had some level of fault. On the first two he looked to cut short his route and on the last one he stumbled coming off the line. He did have a 49-yard touchdown catch on the series after the third interception but how often can the Bengals use scores to nullify mistakes?
The surprise of the receiving corps has been Andrew Hawkins, who was claimed on waivers from St. Louis at the start of training camp. Next to Caldwell, Hawkins can be considered the second-most experienced player at the position after playing two seasons for Montreal of the CFL.
Rookie Ryan Whalen is a technical route runner but has only been active for one game while Brandon Tate is being counted on as more of a returner. With the Bengals playoff hopes still bright, either Caldwell or Simpson have to start showing consistency not only for this year but to show that one of them has merited a contract extension.
If not, the Bengals will be in the market again for a second receiver, something they have been desperately without since T.J. Houshmandzadeh left in 2008.
SERIES HISTORY: 77th regular-season meeting. Bengals lead series, 40-36. Cincinnati won the Week 1 meeting in Cleveland 27-17. The Bengals have won 11 of the last 14 meetings and, since the Browns' rebirth in 1999, they have won 16 of the 25 games.
--Marvin Lewis is 12-5 against Cleveland, which gives him the most wins and best winning percentage (.706) of any Bengals coach in the battle of Ohio.
--At 76 meetings going into Sunday, the Browns are the second-most frequently played Bengals opponent. Pittsburgh (83) is first on that list. The Bengals are Cleveland's second-most frequently played foe. The Browns have played Pittsburgh 118 times.
--The Bengals' longest win streak over the Browns has been five games, posted from Game 2 of 2004 through Game 2 of '06.
--The two highest-scoring games in Bengals history have been against the Browns and during Marvin Lewis' tenure.
On Nov. 28, 2004 at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals won 58-48, and the 106 total points is not only a team record but the second-most in NFL history, behind only 113 from Washington's 72-41 win over the N.Y. Giants in 1966. On Sept. 16, 2007, the Bengals and Browns combined for 96 points at Cleveland in a 51-45 Browns win.
The 2004 game stands as the only game in club history for Cincinnati to score in double figures in all four quarters (14-13-14-17 -- 58).
--A victory this week would give the Bengals their largest lead in the Battle of Ohio at five games. The last time they led by four games was after the first 1992 meeting. A win also would tie the biggest series lead by either team. The Browns led by five -- at 6-1 -- after the first meeting of 1973.
--In 37 previous seasons of playing each other twice in a season, the Bengals have posted nine sweeps and the Browns have eight. The teams have split 20 times, including last year. In 1982, they played only once, with the scheduled Week 3 game at Cleveland cancelled due to a players' strike.
BY THE NUMBERS: 67 -- The margin by which the Bengals are outscoring opponents during the second half (150-83). In the fourth quarter the Bengals are outscoring opponents 97-50. They have been outscored in the fourth in 12 of the previous 14 seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have ability in this room. We want to play the way we expect to play every single week. I think we have work to do." -- OT Andrew Whitworth, when asked if the team is still angry after losing the past two games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Adam Jones got the start at right cornerback last week and is expected to again this week despite being listed second on the depth chart. The cornerback position could be a little light again this week with Brandon Ghee missing practice due to a groin injury. Chris Crocker though has been playing slot corner for about a third of the snaps.
A.J. Green returned to the practice field and was limited after missing last Wednesday's game against Baltimore due to a hyperextended right knee. Green said that the knee had made significant progress and he was hopeful of playing. If he is unable to go, Andre Caldwell would get the start for the second straight week.
--QB Andy Dalton (sore right shoulder) had full participation after being limited on Wednesday. He is expected to start.
--DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) did not practice for the second straight day and is likely not going to play against Cleveland.
--DT Domata Peko (foot) missed practice for the second straight day. He has started 27 straight games and would be replaced by Pat Sims.
--TE Donald Lee (foot) missed practice after being limited on Wednesday. He has missed the last two games due to the injury.
--CB Adam Jones could split time returning punts with Brandon Tate this week if he is healthy enough. Jones is still limited in practice due to a groin injury.
GAME PLAN: Even without WR A.J. Green, the Bengals still took plenty of shots downfield last week against Baltimore. But with Cleveland having the league's fourth-worst run defense, they might try to pound it a little more. Cedric Benson has two straight games over 100 rushing yards against the Browns and Bernard Scott has enough quickness to the outside to break some long gains.
Defensively, look for the Bengals to dial up the pressure packages on the Browns, who have given up 25 sacks this year. The Bengals are still suspect to giving up the big plays and are still adjusting to life without Leon Hall.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Browns CB Joe Haden -- The only corner who has been able to shut down Green this season was Haden. The only time Green got the advantage was on a quick snap during the fourth quarter which resulted in a touchdown. Green has four touchdowns of 35 yards or more and Haden leads the league in pass deflections with 16.
Bengals DT Geno Atkins vs. Browns LG Jason Pinkston -- Atkins is tied for the AFC lead in sacks by a defensive tackle with 5.5 and has great quickness. Pinkston has yet to give up a sack this season and is generally one of the Browns more consistent pass protectors.