Plain and simple: A.J. Green is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. His unique combination of size and speed combined with his route-running savvy make him a tough matchup for any cornerback in the NFL. Two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, 18 touchdowns in his first two years and an absolute domination of one of the better CBs in the game–Peanut Tillman in Week 1. But as with many elite talents, Green’s domination is not limited to his box score numbers.
The Bengals knew they had a stud WR in Green but also needed to provide QB Andy Dalton with more weapons not only to take the next step as a franchise and win a playoff game or two, but also in order to figure out whether Dalton is the guy to lead them to that success drafting Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert and North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard to help them serve both masters: put Dalton in the best position to succeed while also effectively moving all of the chips in on this season to determine whether he could be the franchise guy.
One of the things I believe the most about football schematically is that the truly impactful players are either able to draw double teams or are so good that they don’t need help in nearly any situation. Think of Revis Island. When the Jets made two consecutive AFC Championships, a big reason was their elite defense. And a big part of their elite defense was having the best cover corner in football able to cover anyone at anytime from almost any alignment. Safeties could cheat away from Revis allowing them to move effectively guard other receiving options or crash in on run plays.
The same is true with elite WRs like Green. He draws double teams because of how good he is, causing a mismatch somewhere else for the Bengals offense to take advantage.
A.J Green’s impact on the Bengal offense was perhaps the most obvious on this play toward the end of the 1st quarter.
Watching this Monday night game with All-22 really gave me an appreciation of Ike Taylor, who the Steelers left on an island throughout the night, playing 1 on 1 on 28 of the Bengals 49 pass plays. But that isn’t the case on this play. CB William Gay is actually playing the zone corner to that side of the field with Ike Taylor on the opposite side. But watch LB Lawrence Timmons (94 top middle) and especially S Ryan Clark (25 top right). In the screen shot below, you can see four Steelers react to A.J. Green’s side, leaving Eifert wide open for a big play that would eventually lead to a TD.
I would expect a heavy dose of 2 TEs in the game, especially considering how much the Packers ILB struggle in pass coverage and with raw safeties Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings slated to start for the third straight week and wouldn’t be shocked if Eifert in particular had a big game.
Calvin Johnson is more physically imposing than Green, but is probably Green’s best comparison in the league. The Packers have used a variety of packages in the past to try and stop Calvin with little success, including the speedy Sam Shields, the more physical Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson and a multitude of double and even triple teams. The Packers can get away with that to a certain extent because, for the most part, the Lions have lacked other weapons in the run and the pass game. In addition to Eifert and Gresham, the Bengals also have two other solid receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Although neither have quite become starting caliber at this juncture in their careers, both are more than adequate to handle the single coverage looks they often get because of Green. Each had just 1 deep target: Jones on 5 targets and Sanu on 6. Now certainly part of that is a result of Andy Dalton’s mediocre arm strength, but much of them seem to work as high-percentage throws for a few quick and easy yards, such as the video below.
The Steelers are in zone coverage with a single high safety a common red zone coverage but also the perfect coverage for the quick out to the receiver for a few yards. Dalton doesn’t even get to his 3rd step before the ball is out. Although Jones and Sanu aren’t burners, Sanu in particular is actually fairly good at making the initial guy miss because of his size. For good measure, he drags William Gay for an extra yard or two, giving the Bengals an easy win on 1st and 10.
Aside from two solid TEs, a stud 2 nice secondary receivers, the Bengals also feature a nice tandem of backs which complement each others’ strength’s nicely the aforementioned rookie Gio Bernard and veteran mudder BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis is what he is: a decent between-the-tackles runner who never fumbles and understands blocking schemes and benefits from his own learned patience behind the line. But Bernard is the far superior talent who still struggles a bit with some of the nuances of the pro game. Nothing too out of the ordinary: pass-blocking, trusting your line, taking the green in front of him, etc. But he’s clearly the back of the future and has already displayed some innate receiving and yard-after-catch ability in just his first 2 games.
Sure, that’s Bernard’s best play in his pro career to date, but look at the feet frequency. He doesn’t have elite speed, but because of the foot frequency, he get easily get underneath the linebackers, make the catch, and turn up-field without wasting steps or motion. He made one of the best safeties in football-Ryan Clark-look like a walk-on from Duke. With Green over the top, Gresham and Eifert up the seam, Sanu and Jones in the flat and Bernard able to leak out any where, what coverage do you play to stop the Bengals on a critical 3rd and 3? The weapons Cincinnati possesses makes that choice exceedingly difficult.
Overall, while I believe the Packers are the better team, I feel like the secondary breakdowns that have occurred time and time again over the first two weeks will really come back to bite Green Bay. I expect a substantial number of checkdowns from Dalton as he did Monday Night–attempting to dink and dunk his way through a porous Green Bay back 7. Combined with a strong Cincinnati front 7, I’ll take the Bengals to win 30-27 over the Packers, sending them into their early bye week 1-2.