The Bengals front office and Senior Producer Greg Cosell of NFL Films have something in common: Both had A.J. Green listed as the #1 overall player in the 2011 NFL draft.
“He is unbelievable,” Cosell told me recently. “When you watch him on tape, he’s just a ‘wow’ player. He is so smooth that you lose sight of the fact that he is almost 6’4” and nearly 210 pounds. He moves like a much smaller guy. He’s so smooth and fluid and has such great explosion – to me he’s an absolute joy to watch. He’s my favorite wide receiver to watch.”
But there wasn’t much of Green to see in the first half of Saturday’s 19-13 playoff loss in Houston.
Andy Dalton threw 10 passes in the first 30 minutes and none of them were tossed in the direction of Green. Five were thrown for Jermaine Gresham, three to Marvin Jones, and two to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
“A couple of times Andy took off and ran when A.J. was the number one target,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “But he can’t force the ball into coverage. He’s got to read the coverage and throw the ball into the weakness of the coverage. That’s what you want him to do. He can’t give in to ‘Oh A.J. didn’t touch the ball here.’ He’s got to make sure that he’s doing it the way it’s designed.”
“I would love to get the ball on every play but when they double me there are other guys on the team that can make plays,” said Green. “I tried to make plays whenever my number was called but we didn’t make enough as a whole team to come away with a win.”
It was clear that the Bengals coaching staff thought that the Texans defense was vulnerable up the middle and that Gresham would have opportunities, but it’s hard to fathom not throwing to Green at all for a half.
“You have to do what you do,” said my partner on the radio broadcasts Dave Lapham. “You can’t say, ‘OK, they’re playing Cover 2 and Jermaine Gresham is going to be on a linebacker or a nickel defensive back that he can physically dominate.’ Baloney. A.J. Green got you to the dance. I don’t care what the game plan was. You cannot go an entire half without putting the ball in his hands one time.”
To their credit, the Bengals adjusted in the second half as Green was targeted 11 times and caught five passes for 80 yards.
“We want to get the ball to A.J. as much as we can, and in the second half we were able to move him around a little bit and make some plays,” said Lewis.
Unfortunately, the Bengals were not able to connect with Green on a play that would have given them the lead with less than three minutes to go.
On third-and-11 from the Houston 36-yard line, Green blew past Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning and was open in the end zone, but Dalton’s heave was beyond A.J.’s grasp.
“I was digging and I laid out, but I couldn’t get a hand on it,” said Green. “We’re both young and that’s something that we need to work on. Our deep balls this whole year weren’t consistent enough. That’s me and him – both parts. That’s the stuff we need to work on in the off-season.
“Football is a game of inches and that’s one thing that we need to get better at. We need to capitalize when plays are presented our way. That’s the next step to being a great team.”
The Bengals made strides in 2012 as they improved their record to 10-6 and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years. But the season ended exactly where it did one year ago – with a first round playoff loss in Houston.
“We were 3-5 and dug ourselves out of that hole to put ourselves in the playoffs,” said Green. “We won 10 games which is difficult in this league so I feel like we took a step. The next step is to get past the first round.”
“We have to get better,” said Coach Lewis. “We can’t be satisfied with where we are. We’re not going to New Orleans, so we’re not satisfied. We have to push ahead and get better.”
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