AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- There are few phrases coaches utter that drive offensive tackles as crazy as the one they hear each practice and in every one-on-one rep they take against defensive ends.

"Get their hands down!"

Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Cincinnati, San Francisco. It doesn't matter which city a tackle calls home or which team he plays for, he's going to hear those four words quite regularly.

The Bengals' edge pocket protectors certainly have heard them this week and the last, because by the end of this stretch, they will have faced two of the NFL's best ends at getting their hands up and disrupting a quarterbacks' passing lanes. When going against such ends, it's an offensive lineman's mission to prevent their opponent from disengaging, leaving their feet and raising their arms up high.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFormer Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is one of the best at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage, although he has none this season for Tampa Bay.
Last week's challenge came from J.J. Watt, who has been so good at breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage throughout his career that some have started calling him "J.J. Swatt." During the 2011 playoffs, Watt didn't just swat a Bengals pass just before halftime, he picked it off. Cincinnati's wild-card round loss at Houston came after Watt broke free from a guard and plucked from the air an Andy Dalton pass that he returned 29 yards for a touchdown. The Texans didn't look back and routed the Bengals from there, 31-10.

It can be argued that it was then that Watt's legend began.

When the Bengals travel to Tampa this Sunday, they will be facing another defensive end with long, pass-batting arms. Former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, signed in the offseason by the Buccaneers, will be looking for his first pass deflection when he gets paired with veteran Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth. That's right, first. Johnson doesn't have any pass deflections this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but he was tied for the league lead with eight last year.

"Like I said [last week] about J.J., it's one of those qualities you can't teach and all of a sudden, this guy knows how to do it," Whitworth said. "If good football players can read a quarterback and feel like he stopped his feet and is releasing the football, they jump. Nothing you can do about it. Outside of if you run a play where everybody is cutting everybody in that kind of play ... there's nothing you can do about a guy that jumps."

Sometimes, Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse added, a tackle just has to tip his cap to an end.

"As much as people would like to believe, sometimes guys get their hands up regardless," said Newhouse, the Bengals' new starter on the right edge following Andre Smith's season-ending injury. "But you can do things to combat it. You can be aggressive in your sets to a certain degree. A lot of it has to do with how hard you come off in the run game. There's some things where you can kind -- I don't want to say dive at them -- but be more physical at the point of attack.

"At the end of the day, there's certain times when it's avoidable, and there's certain times when it's unavoidable. We do our best to make sure it's avoidable. Those are rough plays to see, especially when a guy's wide open and the ball gets batted down at the line."

Watt leads the NFL in batted passes since 2011 with 33. Johnson has 11.

Johnson's most memorable deflection in Cincinnati came last October against the Green Bay Packers, when he knocked down a fourth-down pass that helped ice an early-season Bengals win.
CINCINNATI -- Two Cincinnati Bengals were feeling ill Wednesday and another had a tooth ailment, according to the injury report issued by the team.

Each of the three missed the practice, the Bengals' first of the week ahead of Sunday's road game at Tampa Bay.

Receiver Mohamed Sanu and long snapper Clark Harris were the ill players, and cornerback Adam Jones was sidelined with a tooth problem. All three were listed on the injury report with non-injury related issues.

In addition to their absences, the Bengals also were without Margus Hunt, Tyler Eifert and Andre Smith. Hunt has an ankle injury that ran him from the Bengals' win at New Orleans two weeks ago. He isn't expected back all that soon. Eifert still hasn't been cleared to practice from a dislocated elbow, despite having practice eligibility all this month following a stint on the short-term injured reserve. Smith was added to the season-ending IR on Tuesday, following a triceps tear suffered in Sunday's win at Houston.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict also missed the workout, although coach Marvin Lewis indicated he might be back to work later in the week.

"He continues to get closer to being able to practice, and we'll see if we can get some practice out of him at some point later in this week," Lewis said.

If Burfict misses this week's game, it'll be the fourth he's been out since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Nov. 3. It can be common for athletes to return fully from that type of knee surgery within three weeks of the procedure being done. In Burfict's case, the Bengals have been taking his recovery slowly. Since last Wednesday, he has spent the practice sessions working out on the side rehabbing and trying to maintain conditioning.

OT Andre Smith (triceps)

DE Robert Geathers
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
CB Adam Jones

George Iloka (groin)

QB snapshot: Andy Dalton

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Andy Dalton and how he played in the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 win in Week 12:

Remove Dalton's pick-six Sunday -- one ESPN's Kevin Seifert notes should have been negated because of an uncalled neutral-zone infraction on Houston's Jadeveon Clowney -- and he had yet another impressive performance behind center.

Interception included, Dalton posted a 68.6 completion percentage, the third-highest mark he has had this season. Much of his success throwing the football stemmed from his ability to get the ball out quickly and into the hands of his receivers, who primarily ran shorter routes. Of the 35 overall passes attempted, 29 traveled 15 yards or less in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All but 20 of Dalton's 233 yards also came when he threw passes that traveled 15 yards or less in the air. Stats & Information added that Dalton took an average of just 1.88 seconds before throwing passes, the quickest release in the league this week.

Dalton faces a Tampa Bay defense that is 22nd against the pass, allowing 252 yards per game.

CINCINNATI -- As he grabbed off the rack in his locker a hanger that held the navy Houston Texans jersey that prominently featured in all white the word "Blue" on its back, Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill shook his head with a look that bordered on disgust.

He wasn't bothered by the jersey, though. He was actually quite proud of that.

It was the question he had just heard that made him vigorously shake his head.

"Were you as surprised as the rest of us to see Odell Beckham's catch Sunday night?" a reporter asked Hill, the rookie running back who played college ball at LSU with Beckham.

Not at all.

After spending more than two years playing and practicing alongside Beckham, Hill said he regularly saw from Beckham catches like the awkward, falling, backward jumping, one-handed -- three-fingered, actually -- reception that many are calling one of the greatest in NFL history. The New York Giants receiver's catch on Sunday night has been fodder for a bevy of memes, and has even the most casual football observers stunned by the grace, agility and athleticism it took for Beckham to bring in the unique haul.

But while the rest of the world rubs its eyes at not only Beckham's grab, but also other impressive receptions from Miami's Jarvis Landry, Hill can only smile and reminisce.

"They practice that stuff every day, just catching balls one-handed and catching it in a situation where you've got to go make a play," Hill said, thinking back to practices at LSU with the pass-catching pair. "That's just something I've seen for a few years now and those guys are very good that way."

As Hill spoke Monday afternoon, he was holding in his hand the dirty, game-worn jersey of another former LSU Tiger, Alfred Blue. After the Bengals' 22-13 win at Houston on Sunday, Hill and Blue traded their pro jerseys as a matter of respect.

Back to Beckham's grab. Hill remembered Landry making a catch similar to Beckham's last year. In a game last November against Arkansas, Landry extended his body horizontally to his left as a defender was between him and the ball. Somehow, Landry stuck his left arm around the defender's head and one-handed the pass from fellow current NFLer, quarterback Zach Mettenberger. At the end of the dive, Landry still came up with the ball without it touching the ground or the defender.

"Everyone's fascinated by it, but I've been trying to tell everybody about LSU guys," Hill said. "I guess I'm going to have to keep preaching about it until people start believing me."

A.J. Green: 'Toe is 100 percent'

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
HOUSTON -- What toe injury?

A.J. Green has looked completely healthy again the last two weeks, pushing off both feet to make some of toughest contested, jumping catches and tip-toe sideline landings of his career.

He has looked like a Pro Bowl receiver who's just reaching midseason form.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Patric Schneider/AP PhotoA.J. Green torched the Texans for a career-high 12 receptions, good for 121 yards.
Actually, forget midseason form. On Sunday, he played his best game in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform.

So it really wasn't all that surprising after the 22-13 win over the Houston Texans that he said he felt as good as he has in the last two months.

"The toe is 100 percent," Green said, referencing the toe he originally tweaked during the season opener. "Last week was good, the couple games before that was all right, but now, I have no pain."

It's the last part of his quote that is the most telling: no pain.

Green had been bothered by his right big toe from the moment he landed on it awkwardly in the first quarter of the opener at Baltimore. Although he finished that game, he was unable to make it past six plays the following week. He played again a week after that, and then three weeks later the pain became so unbearable that during the stretching portion of a practice, he stopped, took his shoe off and slammed it down in frustration before getting carted off the field.

Whatever forced the discomfort that time caused Green to miss practices and games the following three weeks. When he returned against Jacksonville in a limited outing three games ago, he looked like a shell of his old self. It still seemed he was getting back into form and trying hard to get his conditioning up again.

In the last two games, he has looked like a completely different player.

"It's felt good just to get back in the groove of things," Green said.

Against the Texans, he caught a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards. He was one reception shy of Carl Pickens' franchise record set in 1998.

"For him to have a performance like he did, that's what we expect from him," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "He's so talented we feel like he matches up with almost anybody so it was big for him to get going."

Green said he didn't face as much press coverage in this game as he has in others this season, including last week's at New Orleans. He felt like he constantly had a cornerback on top of him, or a safety helping up top in that game. Against the Texans, though, cornerbacks routinely backed up and gave him a pre-snap cushion that led to numerous slants and short-yardage receptions he was able to exploit and turn into bigger gains.

In the last two weeks, Green has 18 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown. In the two games before that, his first back from the injury, he caught six passes for 67 yards.

"The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We need him to be our J.J. Watt. We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not necessarily with talk, but let them know about it with confidence and with that swagger. 'If you want to cover me, then try.' We need him to be that way."

HOUSTON -- Late November has arrived, and for teams that call cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line home, that means one thing:

"We've got to get our run going."

Credit that quote to Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green who uttered it after Sunday afternoon's 22-13 road win over the Houston Texans.

Like many of his teammates, Green's instant analysis of the victory was this: Cincinnati's offense was back in rhythm.

"The offensive line played great. The running backs played great. Everybody played great," Green added.

He played great, too, catching a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards.

But with the harsh realities of winter looming, Green wasn't thinking much about his performance. He instead was focused on the balance his offense exhibited; balance it will soon need. In two weeks, Mother Nature will force it. Wind, rain and snow could make passing difficult the rest of the year.

Of course, Houston doesn't qualify as one of the aforementioned northern cities, and neither will next week's Bengals locale -- Tampa, Florida. But with their past four games in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it was a good time to start showing the offense extends beyond Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

As part of their preparations for December, the Bengals got physical Sunday. No drive better showcased that than the one that led to their first touchdown.

"It was big for the game as far as momentum," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said.

Plain and simple, the first-quarter drive set the right tone.

The series started quite inconsequentially. After the Bengals gained 3 yards on the ground and threw an incomplete pass, it looked like they would open the game with a second straight punt.

But when Mohamed Sanu darted into the middle of the field and caught a 10-yard pass for a first down, the Bengals' most physical and balanced drive of the season began.

Ten plays later, it ended with Sanu muscling his way through a cornerback and into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown reception.

In between, the Bengals got six runs into the middle of the field from Hill and Giovani Bernard, including back-to-back big gains. One play after Bernard gashed the Texans' interior, sprinting and spinning for 19 yards, Hill picked up 13.

Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said many of those yards were produced by overzealous defensive linemen who were getting out of position.

"They take a lot of chances," Whitworth said of the Texans' front. "A lot of the plays [J.J. Watt] makes are doing stuff you don't normally do in that situation; jumping around a block or those kind of things. So it's feast or famine. When the right team has the right play calling and you do that, it's going to break out."

Mix Hill and Bernard's combined 6 carries for 47 yards with Dalton's 5-for-6, 46-yard showing, and you had a perfectly balanced 94-yard drive.

"We had everything clicking. When you get drives like that, it kind of gives you confidence further into the game and gets a feel, especially for [offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] -- he gets a feel for what types of plays are working," Hill said.

As they move forward, the Bengals need more long, balanced drives to continue setting a much-needed physical tone.
HOUSTON -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 win against the Houston Texans:

Jersey goes to dad: After exorcising one of his latest demons -- finally winning a game near his hometown -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton concluded his postgame news conference with an interesting gesture. As he stepped from the lectern, he grabbed his neatly folded, grass-stained, game-worn jersey and autographed it with the score and the date before giving it to his father, Greg. A native of nearby Katy, Texas, Andy Dalton was 0-2 in Houston before Sunday. In the win, he was 24-for-35 for 233 yards and a touchdown and an interception.

Packing it up: An exuberant Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the first Bengals dressed after the game. Inside NRG Stadium's rather spacious visitors locker room, the third-year cornerback walked toward his locker and shouted with joy as he tried to get his teammates to speed along the changing and packing process. "Let's pack this thing up and go home, boys!" The Bengals have now won two straight road games ahead of a third next week at Tampa Bay.

Cincy's own Watt: While the typically effective J.J. Watt was slowed across the final three quarters by backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, the Bengals still respect the defensive end's dominating style of play. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth respected it so much that he believes it's time the Bengals start seeing their own version of Watt in receiver A.J. Green. "The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one. We need him to be our J.J. Watt," Whitworth said of Green. "We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not necessarily with talk, but let them know about it with confidence and that swagger. 'If you want to cover me, then try.' We need him to be that way." Green caught 12 passes for 121 yards Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23

HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium:

What it means: Two years ago, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games to get into the playoffs. Last year, they went 4-1 in December to also reach the postseason. So with all that in mind, what did Sunday's win, one week after another victory in front of another hostile crowd, mean? It meant that maybe the Bengals aren't the inconsistent club they have been most of this season. Perhaps they're just a good late-season team? If you had told the Bengals before the season that they would go 2-0 in back-to-back weeks at New Orleans and Houston, they'd have taken it. As part of one of their more difficult parts of the schedule, it seemed the Bengals would be lucky to earn a split in these two games. But they now have a second straight win and are 7-3-1.

Stock watch: Linebacker Rey Maualuga's stock continues trending upward after six tackles and an interception Sunday. His presence has clearly had a positive impact on the Bengals' defense. After missing four games with a serious hamstring injury, Maualuga returned last Sunday at New Orleans. In each of the seven previous games, the Bengals had allowed opposing offenses to rush for 100 yards or more. In these past two games, the Bengals haven't allowed a team to gain more than 74 yards on the ground. Even if Maualuga isn't the one recording the tackles, he is moving teammates into the right running lanes and gaps that stop ball carriers quickly.

Newhouse hangs tough: Although he didn't do enough to earn a game ball, you have to credit Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse for hanging tough given the harrowing circumstances in which he entered the game. Newhouse was forced into action in the first quarter after starting right tackle Andre Smith left with a left arm injury -- he got tangled up with defensive end J.J. Watt while trying to block a pass that Watt swatted. Charged with blocking Watt, Newhouse held the right edge pocket just long enough that the all-world lineman was held in check late in the game.

Game ball: Although the Bengals had a relatively balanced game plan offensively -- running 43 times and passing 35 -- they spent a good portion of the afternoon going to receiver A.J. Green, who nearly set a franchise record in catches. Green caught 12 passes, one shy of the record 13 that Carl Pickens had in a game in 1998. Green's 12 catches also set a career high, passing his previous high of 11 that he set last Halloween at Miami. While Green's receptions were spread throughout the game, his best sequence came on the Bengals' second drive, when he caught three passes for 27 yards on four targets. His final catch of that series put the Bengals into goal-line territory ahead of their first score of the game.

What's next? Cincinnati's great November road swing ends next Sunday when the Bengals travel to Tampa Bay for the last of a three-game stretch away from Paul Brown Stadium. The Buccaneers lead the all-time series 7-3 and haven't lost in the past six meetings. The last time the Bengals beat the Buccaneers was in 1989, the last year Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl.
HOUSTON -- As they welcome running back Giovani Bernard back to the fold, the Cincinnati Bengals will be down two receivers on Sunday against the Houston Texans.

Dane Sanzenbacher and Greg Little were healthy scratches before the game at NRG Stadium, joining the likes of injured defenders Vontaze Burfict and Margus Hunt. On Friday, coach Marvin Lewis said Burfict was "progressing" from arthroscopic knee injury he had three weeks ago. After he went through some conditioning and rehab exercises on the side of Bengals practices earlier in the week, Burfict seemed to show signs of possibly returning next week at Tampa Bay.

Hunt hurt his right ankle at the end of the first quarter in New Orleans last week. He spent part of the week on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

This is the first time this season the Bengals will be without two receivers, but Little and Sanzenbacher have alternated inactive status in each of the last three weeks. Sanzenbacher didn't suit up for the Jacksonville and Cleveland games earlier this month, and Little wasn't part of last week's game against the Saints.

This means A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate and James Wright will get playing time at receiver. The Bengals also are hopeful to integrate tight ends Jermaine Gresham, Kevin Brock and Ryan Hewitt into the passing game. Bernard also could get into the slot or become flanked out at receiver at times, too, as he returns for the first time in three weeks. Bernard had been a key receiving asset for the Bengals before multiple injuries sidelined him. Through seven games, he has 22 catches for 179 yards.

Cincinnati's only lineup change due to the inactives concerns linebacker Vincent Rey, who will play in place of Burfict once again.

On the Houston side, keep an eye on running back Alfred Blue, who is expected to take over for Arian Foster (groin) who also was declared inactive for Sunday's game. Foster came out before warm-ups and ran sprints across the width of the field as he tried to work through the injury. It doesn't appear he got the results he had been hoping for.

Here is the full list of inactives from Houston:

Bengals inactives
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
RB Rex Burkhead
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Tanner Hawkinson
WR Greg Little
DE Margus Hunt

Texans inactives
QB Tom Savage
WR DeVier Posey
RB Arian Foster
CB Kareem Jackson
S Josh Aubrey
LB Max Bullough
OT Jeff Adams
CINCINNATI -- A quick update on two of the Cincinnati Bengals' more enigmatic injuries.

 Coach Marvin Lewis said after Friday's practice that tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are both "progressing" and making strides to return this season.

Burfict appears to have the best chance of playing soon after going through rehab and conditioning work off to the side of Bengals practices this week. If he practices next Wednesday, it seems likely he would return the following Sunday when Cincinnati visits Tampa Bay. If for whatever reason next week doesn't end up working, he should be on schedule to return seven days later when the Bengals host the Steelers.

Burfict underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of last month. It forced him to miss the past three games, and he will be out a fourth Sunday when the Bengals travel to Houston.

As for Eifert, exactly when he will return to the practice fields is a guess. He's been around the team but hasn't worked out since dislocating his right elbow reaching for extra yards at the end of a catch in the season opener at Baltimore. Originally, Eifert was placed on the short-term injured reserve, designated to return nine weeks later. Now 11 weeks have passed, and he still hasn't practiced.

Lewis was asked again Friday if there was a chance Eifert would return this season, and the coach said yes. It was the second time in a week that he acknowledged that Eifert should be back in the fold.

At this rate, though, it could be the within the final three weeks of the regular season before he gets back into the playing rotation. He still has yet to go through the stage of conditioning Burfict was working through this week. And given the amount of time off Eifert has had, he could require more than one week to get back to in enough of playing shape to contribute.
CINCINNATI -- In the past three games that Giovani Bernard has appeared in, the small-in-stature Cincinnati Bengals running back took a series of punishing blows.

The culmination of the hits resulted in him missing the past three weeks as he rested hip and clavicle injuries.

 Of the more painful and vicious tackles he took, none came inside the tackle box. All were on the outer edge, either as he was catching a pass or finishing a run that went out wide.

Still, the perception persists that Bernard's injuries were the result of him being worn down because of the supposed high rate of runs he has had into the middle of the field. The widespread belief is that his recent physical abuse stems from pounding the ball into the middle of his offensive line.

It's false.

But even if that was true, Bernard vowed this week to continue running the football the same way he has before. If he has to run inside, he'll keep going inside. If he has to get hit running outside, so be it.

"I play football," Bernard said. "I know the consequences of playing football, and I love the game. I don't worry about that.

"If you ask a lot of running backs, they don't preferably like to just be able to do one thing. We're built to do whatever the coaches want us to do. One guy may be able to do something better than the other guy, and we just leave that in the coaches' hands."

When you see Bernard lined up in the backfield Sunday at Houston, don't automatically assume he's going to be running a stretch play to the right or left.

"Everybody says, 'Well, just run him on the edge,'" offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, echoing Bernard. "Well, you can get hit on the edge, too, just as well as you can get hit up the middle. You're going to get hit. That's just the way it goes."

He, too, plans on utilizing Bernard both inside and out. He won't shy away from calling for plays in either direction.

It bears mentioning that Bernard has more overall rushes into the interior of the field this season than he did as a rookie at this point last year. Through seven games (that's all Bernard has played this season), 85 of his 109 total carries this year have gone between the tackles. That means 78 percent of his runs have gone up the middle. Through seven games last season, he only had 53 carries into the middle of the field. With 67 total rushes, that meant 79.1 percent of his runs went up the middle.

Percentage-wise, he rushed inside slightly more last year at this point.

Production-wise, Bernard has fared much better running in the middle of the field this year than he did in 2013. Of his total rushing yards, 80.4 percent this year have come up the middle, as have all five of his rushing touchdowns. After seven games last year, only 41.4 percent of Bernard's yards came from inside carries, and only one of his four rushing touchdowns went that direction, too.

"Every running back has a [set] number of hits in their career. You just have to find ways to limit as many shots as you can take," Bernard said. "Whether that, sometimes, is being smart and running out of bounds or getting down when you know you've got 10 guys on your back. You just have to know when to turn it on."
CINCINNATI -- Among the hoopla surrounding Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, one part of his game that often gets lost is how he plays against the run.

Yes, he's a solid pass-rusher. Yes, he gets his hands up well at the line of scrimmage and can knock down or intercept passes. Yes, he can embarrass offensive tackles with his bull-rush moves. And yes, he can score touchdowns as a tight end, too.

Though most Cincinnati Bengals fans have probably read about -- and watched -- Watt do all of those things, they might not know about how good Watt is against the run.

Jeremy Hill, why don't you tell them about Watt's ability to play the run?

"He's very disruptive," said Hill, the Bengals' rookie running back who has rushed for 361 yards over the past two weeks. "Teams pay a lot of attention to him, and when you do that the other guys make plays. Then when you leave him one-on-one, he'll make the play.

"He does it sometimes without even trying really, because you put so much focus on him it helps other guys get freed up. You have to do a good job of focusing in on him and making sure he's not wreaking havoc on the game."

Though Hill's comments give a level of insight into blocking Watt, they don't tell the full story.

According to Stats & Information, 32 of Watt's 44 tackles this season have come on rushing plays -- 72.7 percent of all his stops. Additionally, of his 636 overall snaps, 255 have been on rushing downs. So percentage-wise, of all the times Watt has been on the field this season, just 40 percent of those plays have been when opposing teams have run the ball. Yet the vast majority of his tackles have been against the run.

To Hill's point about Watt's teammates getting freed up against the run, of the four fumble recoveries the all-world defensive end has, three have been after runs. Watt doesn't have any forced fumbles on running plays this season, meaning he's routinely been there to clean up the turnover when his teammates have caused it.

"He's definitely a game-wrecker," Hill said. "He makes crazy plays each game. Two or three of the plays he can make can really change the outcome of the game, so you have to make sure you get him blocked up."

There will be more on Watt between now and Sunday's game, but consider this about him from Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson:

"He's as good as I've ever seen play the game. He plays with unbelievable energy and tenacity, determination, desire. He makes a lot of football plays. ... What more do you want? So we're playing against a tremendous football player. But that's the beautiful part of the National Football League. What a challenge?"

What a challenge, indeed; one that won't just cause trouble against the pass. But one that could disrupt the run, too.
CINCINNATI -- Good news, fantasy owners: Giovani Bernard appears to be back in the rotation for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The second-year running back practiced for a second straight day Thursday when the Bengals went through another workout inside the University of Cincinnati's indoor practice bubble two miles away from Paul Brown Stadium. After spending Wednesday limited, Bernard was upgraded to full practice participation.

During the open portion of the practice, he went through drills as the No. 1 back, getting reps ahead of rookie Jeremy Hill. The day before, Hill had received RB1 duties as Bernard eased back into the routine of practicing.

He didn't appear restricted. When practice was open, he participated in everything the other backs were asked to do, as well. He worked on pass blocking, ran a few routes and went through other drills that pertained to running the ball. Much like he did Wednesday and before Sunday's game in New Orleans, he looked smooth. His cuts were explosive and precise. Bernard didn't show any signs that the hip injury he suffered nearly a month ago still nagged him.

Rest assured he still feels the injury, but rest and time off his legs has him feeling a little fresher.

"The reason I was sitting out is because I felt like crap," Bernard said of the hip and clavicle issues that sidelined him, both the result of hard hits. "I'm just recovering from some of those hits. My body feels good right now. The injuries are going away. It's just a matter of getting back on the field."

When Bernard gets on the field, he likely will be sharing time with Hill in a way that might limit his carries, at least in the first week or two after the injury. Hill's 361 yards rushing in the three games Bernard missed has allowed him to earn more opportunities, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

Regardless, Thursday's developments were promising ones for Bernard and his fantasy owners. He's easing back into the flow of practice. Soon, the Bengals will have a real playing-time dilemma on their hands. It's one Jackson welcomes.

"What I see now is a situation where we have two really fine runners and whoever starts the game, I don't think that will matter," Jackson said. "Everybody wants to play, but who walks out there first, I don't think that will really matter."

Along with Bernard's upgrade, defensive end Wallace Gilberry and cornerback Terence Newman also were upgraded to limited practice participation after missing Wednesday's workout. Right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler also was bumped up to full participation with Bernard.

Here's the full Thursday injury report:

LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
OT Andrew Whitworth (veteran's day off)

DE Wallace Gilberry (back)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
RB Cedric Peerman (hip)

RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
OT Andre Smith (ankle)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)
CINCINNATI -- Apologies for being a little later than normal getting this injury report posted. It's been a relatively newsy day on the Cincinnati Bengals beat.

Some of Wednesday's most important on-field news as far as the Bengals are concerned revolved around running back Giovani Bernard, who made his return to practice from hip and clavicle injuries for the first time in nearly a month. Working out in a limited capacity inside the University of Cincinnati's indoor practice bubble, Bernard went through many of the same drills as the rest of the running backs. As part of his limited status, he received repetitions behind rookie Jeremy Hill.

The Bengals trained at the college for the first time this year because temperatures and wind didn't allow for favorable practice conditions.

Hill has been the Bengals' workhorse in the backfield lately, getting the bulk of the carries in Bernard's absence the past three games. In two of them -- versus Jacksonville and at New Orleans on Sunday -- Hill rushed for more than 150 yards.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said Wednesday that he felt Hill "deserved" more opportunities to be part of the Bengals' game plan in the coming weeks as Bernard returns to the fold.

"Jeremy has done tremendous and he earns the right to play, there's no question about that," Jackson said.

Before Bernard went down, Hill was the No. 2 back. He averaged nine touches (includes both rushes and receptions) for 46.6 total yards in the seven games. In the three games Bernard missed, Hill saw an average of 22 touches, and collected 129.6 yards of offense per game. From a yards standpoint, his production increased nearly three times what it was in the games Bernard played.

So yes, it does stand to reason that Hill earned a few extra chances when the Bengals soon get back to having a pair of healthy backs.

In addition to Bernard's return to practice, offensive tackle Andre Smith also made it back, practicing for the first time since going into a boot last week. He suffered an ankle injury against Jacksonville three weeks ago, and has been replaced the past two games by backup Marshall Newhouse. With the Bengals facing the all-world J.J. Watt in Houston this Sunday, Smith's addition could be a welcomed jolt. Watt is a defensive end who is an offensive line's nightmare.

While Bernard and Smith made it back to practice, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Terence Newman weren't so lucky. There's still a chance both could return this week, but it seems most likely at this point that Burfict won't be back until next week at the earliest. The two defenders did go through conditioning and rehab work off to the side Wednesday. It was the first time for Burfict, who missed the past two games because of arthroscopic knee surgery. Newman missed Sunday's game because of a knee injury, but he did take it through some light jogging hours before the game.

Here's the Bengals' full Wednesday injury report, one of their smallest of this injury-filled season:

LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
CB Terence Newman (knee)
DE Wallace Gilberry (back)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)

RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
RB Cedric Peerman (hip)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)

OT Andre Smith (ankle)