PITTSBURGH — With five games left and already at 745 yards, wide receiver A.J. Green looks to be a lock to break Cris Collinsworth’s 30-year-old rookie club record of 1,009 and to become the first NFL rookie to grab 1,000 yards in five years since Marques Colston.
He’s just 122 yards from the Bengals’ best rookie year in 17 years when Darnay Scott went for 866 and with 74.5 yards per game, he’ll pass the great Isaac Curtis (843) against Houston at Paul Brown Stadium next week, Eddie Brown (942) the week after in St. Louis and Collinsworth against Arizona on Christmas Eve at PBS.
It’s amazing given that Green is doing it with a rookie quarterback and neither had access to coaching or practice until training camp. Collinsworth had both, as well as an 11-year veteran in Ken Anderson’s MVP season. Curtis had Anderson in his third season. Brown had Boomer Esiason in his second season. Scott did most of his damage in Jeff Blake’s first nine starts, but it was Blake’s third year in offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet’s system.
So in any era it has been tough for even the great receivers to make the jump to the NFL so quickly. A few reasons why Green is an exception from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden:
“He’s got a good feel for the game. And he takes a lot of pride in work,” Gruden last week of Green. “When you’ve got a guy with the demeanor that he has and a guy willing to work hard to get better every day and has the talent he has, he’s got all the makings to be one of the great receivers to play.”
While most everyone believes that Gruden has kept his versatile scheme relatively vanilla for the kids, Gruden has enormous confidence in them.
“They’re great players, that’s why,” Gruden said. “There’s a lot of plays you can run for those guys to be successful. Andy’s a great competitor. He knows what he likes; he knows what plays work against certain things. And of course A.J. is one of the most talented people around.
“It’s exciting to have those two guys here. To know they’re going to be here for a while is even more exciting. And to know what type of people they are makes it even more fun to come to work. That’s the thing about those two guys: you know you’re going to get the best out of them every day and they’re going to learn and be pleasant and want to learn and want to improve.”
Gruden sees Green having no shot of becoming a diva receiver. This isn’t a guy who is huffing and puffing after every series about not getting the ball.
“You have to talk to him and ask him what he likes; he’s not going to tell you,” Gruden said. “He just wants to win and he’s going to do what he’s asked to do and when the game is over he’s going to give it all he’s got. Usually when the game’s over, I’ll be kicking myself as the coordinator, ‘Why didn’t we go to him more often?’ We’ve got other good players. It’s worked out so far.”
If Green ever does start calling for the ball, “he’ll probably have a reason,” Gruden said with a laugh.
But that’s not to say Gruden and receivers coach James Urban aren’t coaching up Green. There are things he needs to develop. He’ll get a big test Sunday against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, a guy Gruden calls one of the league’s best technicians that exploits bad routes.
“Sometimes his releases might be too quick, or too predictable, or he doesn’t work the corner at all. He rounds (some routes) or he’s short on some depths,” Gruden said. “Just a little too impatient. He has to get open so quick and maybe the ball’s not there by a second but the quarterback isn’t ready to throw it and the corner closes in on him. Timing and working the corner is every bit as important as athleticism and talent.
“Sometimes you really have to be patient, work the corner, push him up to a certain depth, use your head, use your shoulders. Stick him. Be physical some times.”
Gruden admits that anybody with that much natural ability can get away with bad habits but like he said, “He still runs good routes; he can get a lot better. That’s all I’m saying.”
Which is a bit frightening.
UP FRONT TALK: Look at how much defensive tackle Geno Atkins has improved over his rookie season. He’s leading all NFL defensive tackles in sacks with 6.5, but line coach Jay Hayes says his biggest improvement has come stopping the run.
“He’s just learning the little intricacies of playing it, studying it and using what he has to his advantage,” Hayes said. “His strength, his quickness, his leverage, his foot speed. He understands the game very well. When you point out to him what to do when they do this, he gets it.”
Although Frostee Rucker has moved ahead of Michael Johnson at right end on the depth chart, Hayes is hesitant to call him the starter because he says Rucker is the starter in base and Johnson is the starter in nickel and the individual game depends on who plays the most. But with nickel rusher Carlos Dunlap out again this Sunday against the Steelers, both figure to get a lot of snaps in nickel because Rucker can play left end and inside on nickel if need be. Plus, Johnson can stand up on some snaps.
In his sixth season, Rucker is having a career year with four sacks, more than he had combined in his five previous seasons. Besides the maturity Hayes talks about, there is the health former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton talks about. By playing Sunday, it will tie his career high for games played at 12.
Thornton, Rucker’s mentor breaking in, also talks about trust gaining him more snaps.
“Veteran coaches like veteran players,” Thornton said. “You have to show them you can stay healthy and be reliable and that takes time. He’s just matured.”
NOT A SNAP: Even though former Browns long snapper Ryan Pontbriand’s rolled field-goal snap was a huge factor last week in the Bengals 23-20 victory, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons couldn’t help but have pangs of sympathy for him.
Simmons has seen it all too often. Solid performers for years, they inexplicably get the yips. Pontbriand had blown a couple before last Sunday, including one on what would have been a game-winning chip shot.
Simmons saw it happen with the Bengals’ own Brad St. Louis in 2009, his 10th season in the league. He says for special-teamers, there is no such thing as an incomplete pass in first down.
“Every down,” he says, “is fourth down.”
He doesn’t expect any meltdowns from the man that has replaced St. Louis so seamlessly. Clark Harris has had 347 straight successful snaps since he arrived.
“It’s a little different with Clark. He’s played in the league as a tight end,” Simmons said.
“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy.”
Tags: A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Clark Harris Darrin Simmons, Frostee Rucker, Geno Atkins, Jay Gruden, John Thornton, Marques Colston
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