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Need to Know: Bengals' Joe Mixon the latest versatile RB to test Browns defense

Plenty has been made of the Browns' endless string of games this season against elite quarterbacks. To a lesser degree, it's been happening at running back, too, and that will continue Sunday against the Bengals.

After a rookie season in which he split carries, Joe Mixon is thriving as the Bengals' bell cow. Though he missed two games because of an injury, Mixon is 15th in the league with 584 rushing yards and seventh in yards per game. He's a dual-threat option, plenty capable of catching passes out of the backfield.

The latter is something Cleveland struggled to contain in its matchups with Pittsburgh's James Conner, Kansas City's Kareem Hunt and Chargers' Melvin Gordon. The Browns were better against Atlanta's Tevin Coleman, and it went a long way toward fortifying one of the defense's better performances in recent weeks.

"On tape, you kind of see he is a thicker back, but he has quickness, good vision and good balance when he gets in the hole so you really have to bring your feet when you go into hit him because he will just shrug off arm tackles," linebacker Joe Schobert said. "We have a lot of respect for the guy. He is a good weapon for their offense."

Mixon, a former teammate of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, had one of the best games of his rookie season against Cleveland. After finding little room to run in the teams' first matchup, Mixon ran for 114 yards -- his only 100-yard game of the season -- and amassed 51 more through the air in Cincinnati's 30-16 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.

This is a different Browns defense, of course. They're planning for a different result against a Bengals offense that has given them problems over the past few years.

"We know what he is about and what he has done," Schobert said. "He is just another year older so another year more experienced."

-- The Browns are preparing as if the Bengals will have their other, biggest offensive weapon available Sunday.

All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green has missed the past two games with a toe injury but is trending in the right direction to return for Sunday's game. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Green, who leads Cincinnati with 687 yards and six touchdowns, was expected to return to practice in some capacity Thursday.

Only the Steelers have allowed Green to pile up more yards on them than the Browns, who have surrendered 953 in 13 games. Last year, Green had 63 and 66 yards, respectively, in his two matchups with Cleveland.

"We anticipated him playing and understand how they go about using him and those types of things," Browns coach Gregg Williams said. "He has a lot of film. We are expecting him to be fresh."

-- You don't practice, you don't play. That's Williams' philosophy.

JC Tretter is technically adhering to that rule, but only barely. Williams said Tretter has practiced at game speed at least once every week this season, but he's appeared as "DNP" or "limited" on every injury report since spraining his ankle Week 6 against the Chargers. 

But Tretter is a star during mental preparation. Williams compared Tretter's role in practice to Joe Schobert's when Schobert was injured. Williams considers both players extra coaches when they aren't playing. So even when Tretter isn't wearing pads, he's still performing.

"(Tretter) is one of those guys, if you have a chance to take a look at him in the meetings or take a look at him on the field, you would think that he has taken every snap," Williams said. "He is actively engaged in everything. Plus, he is a smart guy. He is smart anyway, but when he is not taking the physical rep, he puts himself through the whole mental process."

That mental acumen is important, and Williams explained that importance with an anecdote about current Steelers offensive line coach and Hall-of-Famer Mike Munchak. Williams said that during Munchak's last season, he only practiced on eight Fridays but played in every game. Munchak needed the rest more than the physical reps; his intelligence could fill in the blanks.

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