A.J. Green had the football in his hands, and then he didn't. And by the time it hit the ground at Paul Brown Stadium in a preseason game last August, the Cincinnati Bengals' stellar second-year receiver had a premonition.
Oh man — that never happens, thought Green, who had gained inside position on New York Jets' unparalleled cornerback Darrelle Revis on a second-and-goal slant before dropping a crisp pass from Andy Dalton. This is gonna be a rough, rough season.
Green was half-right: The 2012 campaign has been rough on the defensive backs charged with covering him. While drops have continued to be a slight problem for Green, including the would-be touchdown he failed to convert in a 20-19 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago, the explosive wideout has elevated his game.
On Sunday, Green will attempt to lead the orange-hot Bengals to a road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, an AFC North rival plagued by untimely injuries to its top two cornerbacks. If Green can thrive against their replacements, Cincinnati (8-6) can clinch its second consecutive playoff appearance, which would be the first time the long-struggling franchise has accomplished that feat in three decades.
It's no coincidence that the Bengals have thrived since Green arrived as the fourth overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound playmaker has already joined the league's upper echelon of receivers—he'll likely earn his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection next week—and seems headed for ridiculous heights. Among Green's biggest fans is Larry Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals' superb, perennial All-Pro wideout, who says Green "has talent out of this world.”
He's certainly had a stratospheric start to his career: Green is the only player in NFL history who exceeded 100 receptions, 1,500 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in his first 20 games, and he appears to be getting better.
"From the very first practice, you know, I just said, 'Wow,' " Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says of the former Georgia star. "And he's never disappointed me since. Every day, he does something that makes you shake your head. And anybody that's ever around him says the same thing: 'That's the best player I've ever seen.' ”
Does that include Lewis, Cincinnati's coach since 2003 and a highly regarded NFL assistant for more than a decade before that?
In a recent interview at the La Jolla hotel where the Bengals stayed before their 20-13 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 2, Green acknowledged that the glowing praise being thrown his way is somewhat unnerving.
"A little bit,” he said. "I hear a lot of things, but I still feel like I've got a lot of work to do. I've got a long way to go.”
If so, that's bad news for defensive backs across the NFL. Thus far, Green's improvement curve has mirrored the trajectory of one of second-year quarterback Dalton's deep balls. In 2011, the rookie caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. With two games remaining in the 2012 season, Green has 85 receptions for 1,208 yards and an AFC-best 11 touchdowns, one behind the Green Bay Packers' James Jones for the NFL lead.
"Andy and I, we've grown,” Green says. "We're smarter, especially with the offense. We know what each other is thinking. It's getting to the point where he can place the ball whenever I need the ball.”
And Green, like Fitzgerald, can go up and seize it even when Dalton doesn't place the ball in an optimal spot.
"He makes tough catches in areas Andy Dalton should never throw,” Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson says of his AFC North rival. "Pretty much, he bails the quarterback out most of the time. He's a good route-runner. He's fearless. And he's one of the top receivers in the league.”
Several NFL coaches and personnel people rated Green as one of the league's top five receivers; one respected offensive coordinator put him in a group with Fitzgerald, the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson, the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson and the Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White and Julio Jones. (Green knows he'll forever be compared to Jones, the ex-Alabama receiver drafted two spots below him, saying of their friendly rivalry, "It's fun. We text each other after big games. He's a great player.”)
"He's elite,” the coordinator said of Green. "He has great range to football. He's tough. He's similar to Calvin — the long, rangy, throw-the-ball-up-to-them types.”
Green spent time over the offseason working out with the Lions' Johnson and hopes to do the same with Fitzgerald in 2013.
"Just a little bit from everybody helps,” Green says. "[Working out with Johnson] was really valuable, watching the way he carries himself on and off the field.”
So, did Megatron, who is making a run at Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yardage record, reveal many of his tricks?
"No, no, no,” Green says, laughing. "He didn't tell me everything.”
One area in which Green needs no help is making difficult catches from awkward angles. A former juggling aficionado ("I started when I was five and did it up until fifth grade; then it wasn't cool anymore and I moved onto something else”), Green says that "when the ball's in the air, everything happens in slow motion.”
Green's teammate, veteran cornerback Terence Newman, was blown away by the receiver's ball skills after signing with the Bengals last April.
"He's got an uncanny ability that when the ball is in the air, he can make an adjustment off the defensive back — not off the ball, but the defensive back,” Newman says. "Most guys can't do that. If the ball's in the air, it's his.
"It's been fun for me to go against him every day. In my eyes he's one of the top three in the league right now. I don't know who is first or second or third, but he's in the top 3, and the order is debatable — very debatable.”
Said former Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson, now the Bengals' assistant defensive backs and special teams coach: "He is, pound for pound, the best young wide receiver I've been around in my career. This guy just has 'It.' He is a combination of a lot of things rolled into one. And he is a coach's dream. You normally don't find great pass-catchers who can run with the ball like he can."
Yet for all of Green's spectacular catches, such as his one-handed touchdown grab while being double-covered in a 28-6 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last month, his concentration sometimes lapses. While Green dropped only three passes as a rookie, that preseason gaffe against Revis was indeed a foreshadowing of frustration to come: According to one stats and information service, Green's seven drops are the most of any AFC North receiver this season.
Two of those miscues came in Cincinnati's Dec. 9 defeat to the Cowboys, the Bengals' only setback in their past six games. Afterward Green, who'd failed to hold onto a third-quarter slant from Dalton inside the five that likely would have given Cincinnati a 10-point lead, blamed himself for the team's unfavorable result.
He should have plenty of motivation on Sunday in Pittsburgh against a team that limited him to one catch for eight yards in a 24-17 Steelers victory in October. This time, however, he won't be covered by Ike Taylor, who is out with an ankle injury. Pittsburgh's No. 2 cornerback, Keenan Lewis, may also miss the game after injuring his knee in Wednesday's practice; he was already limited by a sore hip.
Green's increased understanding of the Bengals' scheme has allowed offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to move him around more in 2012, sometimes deploying him in the slot in an effort to secure favorable matchups.
"He's such a great learner,” Lewis says. "You can move him around and that way he's not a static presence. He just keeps getting better. He'll keep getting stronger. He'll get a better understanding of leverage and setting people up.”
He also prides himself in his blocking ability and willingness to be physical. While Green is far less flamboyant than Bengals predecessors Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, he's definitely not low-key once he dons a helmet and shoulder pads.
"People think I'm a quiet, shy guy,” Green says, "but when I'm on the field, I'm a competitor.”
Yet Green believes he is far from a finished product, especially when it comes to mastering the nuances of the position.
"There are so many things I need to improve,” he says. "Just little things. Being a student of the game. Knowing where to be, even when I'm not getting the ball. Having a total grasp of the offense.”
In the meantime, he'll try to maintain a firm grasp on every ball that comes his way — while remembering the ones the got away.
"I can't believe I dropped that ball against Revis,” Green says. "I was a little too antsy trying to get it. I'm still mad at myself for that.”
The rest of the league's defensive backs wish he weren't.
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