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Thursday Night Takeaways: A.J. Green Goes Beast Mode

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The National Football League subjected us to another round of Thursday Night Football last night, and one of its most under-appreciated stars shined brightest under the prime time spotlight.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green hauled in 10 passes for 173 yards with a touchdown as the Bengals put the boots to the Dolphins in a 22-7 victory that wasn’t even as close as that score indicates.

It was the second such dominant performance for Green in the first four weeks of the season. The five-time Pro Bowler also had a 12-catch, 180-yard afternoon in Cincinnati’s Week 1 victory over the Jets. The high level of production is a welcome sight for both Green and the Bengals, though Green is far from satisfied and pointed to his week three performance in a loss to the Broncos (eight catches, 77 yards, 0 TD) as evidence that he has work to do.

“I hold myself to a very high standard,” Green said after Thursday’s win. “I know what I’m capable of. Last week I didn’t perform to that level. I had to refocus on a short week.”

With a high standard set for himself, the 28-year-old appears ready to reach it in 2016. He’s as healthy as he’s been in a few years and looks primed to reclaim his place among the league’s best wideouts. He played in all 16 games last season and put up strong numbers with 86 catches, nearly 1,300 yards receiving and 10 touchdown catches. But all those numbers were slightly down from his career-highs, set in 2013 when he was last regarded as one of the league’s truly preeminent talents at wide receiver.

Following that banner 2013 season, Green experienced a down year in 2014, during which he missed three games and was hindered for several others due to various maladies. The disappointing season culminated in his absence from Cincinnati’s annual playoff loss due to a concussion. He bounced back well enough last season, but did deal with a knee injury early in the season and a back injury late in the campaign, which limited his production.

But he entered camp this year raving about how good he felt and the re-established connection between himself and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals watched Green’s top two sidekicks, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu depart this offseason for greener pastures, putting pressure on Green and Dalton to perform at a significantly higher level. Green said the two embraced it.

“We don’t need no coaches or anybody to push us,” Green said of himself and Dalton. “We know what we have to do to get this offense to go. We know the offense run through us.”

The early returns support those statements. In the Week 1 win over the Jets, Green repeatedly torched former All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis for one of the best games of his career to date. But the following week against Pittsburgh, Green was silent, with just two catches for 38 yards in a loss.

His game against Denver last week, while unsatisfying to the player, was in line with the type of production that a top target might expect against one of the league’s premiere defenses. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis noted this week that the team needs to make Green’s job easier by finding other guys to make plays and open things up for the star, because no one can go it alone in the NFL.

“A.J. plays a position that if the defense wants to stand people up over him, they can stop him at some point,” the coach said. “We have to do other things to counter that.”

But there was no stopping Green on Thursday night, as he came out with something to prove after what he termed as a disappointing game against the Broncos. After making a couple catches for short gains on the opening drive, which resulted in a Bengals field goal, and then being silenced on the second drive of the day after his team fell behind, Green got it going in a big way on Cincinnati’s third possession, which led to a score that put them ahead for good.

On the second play of the drive, Green made a tremendous catch on a jump ball 51 yards down the field despite good coverage from Miami’s rookie cornerback Xavien Howard.

Just a few plays later, Dalton went back to Green over the middle, to pick up a crucial first down on 3rd and 4 and two plays after that Green evaded a tackler to take a screen pass to the house from seven yards out to give the Bengals a lead they’d hold for the rest of the evening. He finished that drive with three catches for 77 yards and a touchdown and had eight catches for 123 yards in the first half alone.

“We’ve definitely put in a lot of work,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said of his chemistry with Green. “That’s why he’s having the games like tonight and the way the season started (in New York). Big games like that, when we’re on the same page, we have to keep it up.”

Indeed, that’s the name of the game for the Bengals, who still have one of the league’s better defenses and a dynamic offense, but who have proven over the first four weeks of the season, that they go as Green goes. The sixth-year wideout is well on his way to re-establishing himself as one of the league’s premiere wide receivers, on a list headlined by division rival Antonio Brown, former college rival Julio Jones, who went two spots behind him in the 2011 NFL Draft, and Odell Beckham Jr.

But how high on that list Green can climb, and how far the Bengals can go as a team, are two items equally dependent on Green making performances like Thursday night a more regular occurrence in 2016. And that’s something he’s well aware of.

“This offense starts with me,” Green said. “When I’m making plays, this offense, everything falls into place.”

TANNEHILL’S ENIGMATIC EXISTENCE CONTINUES

Things were supposed to be different for Ryan Tannehill under new coach Adam Gase, one of the NFL’s preeminent quarterback gurus, but through four weeks, all we’ve seen from the Dolphins quarterback has been more of the same.

The fifth-year quarterback flashed brilliance early in Thursday night’s game, connecting with wide receiver Kenny Stills on a beautiful deep ball for a 74-yard touchdown after Stills roasted the Bengals defense, to give the Dolphins an early 7-3 lead. But that was an outlier on an otherwise dreadful night for Tannehill and the Miami offense.

Following that two-play, 81-yard opening drive for a score, Miami managed just 141 yards on offense the rest of the night. Tannehill finished 15-of-25 for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and was sacked five times, one of which led to a lost fumble. He wasn’t aided in the least by the Dolphins ground attack, which managed just managed just 62 yards on 13 carries between four runners.

“One of the worst performances I’ve seen from our offense in a long time,” Tannehill said afterward.

After their scoring drive, the Miami offense was pathetic, unable to take advantage of the fact their own bend-but-don’t-break defense was repeatedly forcing the Bengals to settle for field goals on short fields. Over the course of the evening, the Dolphins picked up just eight first downs. They went three-and-out five times and four-and-out once at the end of the game.

They got across midfield just twice after that opening drive touchdown, once they stood just outside field goal range on a 3rd & 5 and Tannehill was sacked on a play where his offensive line never gave him a chance. Later, with the score 22-7 and Miami trying to rally for a score with five minutes remaining to give themselves a chance, Tannehill dropped back from the Bengals 49, looked over the middle and threw an ill-advised pass right into the waiting arms of Cincinnati’s Chris Lewis-Harris, which essentially ended the game.

Not all of this was on Tannehill, of course. The Dolphins offensive line is a disaster that can’t pass protect or run block, which makes life more difficult on the quarterback to say the least. The third down play that saw him sacked before he could even complete his drop is evidence that there’s some things a quarterback simply can’t be held responsible for. But Tannehill has his bugaboos, too. He holds the ball too long, which happened on the play where he was sacked and fumbled it away, makes poor decisions and reads of the defense, which happened on the interception, and he doesn’t handle adversity very well, instead allowing things to snowball into a woeful performance as they did on Thursday night in a game that was actually winnable thanks to the performance of the Dolphins defense.

Tannehill spoke up as a take-charge type leader after the game, imploring his team to get it together before this season flies completely off the rails.

“We have to get it fixed soon and by soon, I mean Monday,” Tannehill said. “It’s gone on too long. There’s no more excuses, no more waiting, it’s got to be important to everyone who steps on that field and we have to get it fixed right now.”

But actions speak louder than words and even now this may be too little, too late, because the Dolphins offensive line and running game aren’t getting any better this year, but they do have talent at wide receiver and a coach who fancies himself an offensive guru. So if Tannehill can’t get the job done soon, it won’t be too long before Gase, who has no previous ties to Tannehill but does value his job, turns his attention down the depth chart to see if Matt Moore can do any better. It’s hard to imagine him doing worse.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys