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Bengals play 'Where's Mo?'

Posted Oct 23, 2012


Mohamed Sanu

The Bengals still may be seeking a No. 2 wide receiver and until Marvin Jones returns it could very well be fellow rookie Mohamed Sanu.

But it looks like he's going to be a lot more than that.

"We're still getting to know Mo," says Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden with a bit of an evil gleam in his eye after unveiling him again in the backfield.

When Sanu took a direct handoff from quarterback Andy Dalton in the shotgun and lowered his shoulder behind left guard Clint Boling for seven yards Sunday night against the Steelers, he accomplished what only two other players did in the NFL last season.

Running back Ray Rice of the Ravens and wide receiver Brandon Banks of the Redskins each threw a touchdown pass while also catching at least one ball and rushing the ball at least once last year. In Banks's case, he did just one of each. In Rice's case, the Pro Bowler led his team in receiving and rushing.

All shapes, all sizes.

Rice, the proverbial bowling ball of mayhem, goes 5-7, 212 pounds. The 5-7, 155-pound Banks is the smallest player in the league.

The last Bengal to throw a TD while also rushing at least once while catching at least one ball in the same year was the Ray Rice of his era, 5-10, 180-pound running back James Brooks. Brooks led the 1985 Bengals in rushing and his 55 catches were second only to wide receiver Cris Collinsworth.

(Since '85, quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and David Klinger have found themselves in all three categories at the end of a year, but only because they caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage.)

Gruden and receivers coach James Urban are having a tough time coming up with a player similar to Sanu's platform. What separates him from most versatile offensive players is his size at 6-2, 210 pounds.

After watching the Steelers come in here again flashing everything but Ginsu knives in their offensive tool belt, Pittsburgh's all-time leading receiver, Hines Ward, looked to be a possible match even though he's retired. He had a similar pedigree as a college quarterback, and always played for creative minds in the pros, beginning with the man they called "Inspector Gadget," current Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey.

But Ward only threw two passes in 14 seasons, completed one and it wasn't for a TD. He did average 7.5 yards per his 57 career runs, yet at 6-0, 205 pounds he's not as big as Sanu.

So the Bengals may have something unique here. Maybe a Tim Tebow that can throw. Call him Sanow. But at the moment, Gruden and Urban have a lot more on their plate than coming up with trick plays as they go through the non-A.J. options.

After watching Sanu get his first extended snaps at receiver Sunday night that netted him his first three NFL catches for 27 yards, the Bengals were quite pleased. Which means his first NFL catch came exactly 28 days after his first NFL throw was a touchdown. He still has caught 47 fewer yards than that 76-yarder he tossed in Washington.

"The thing I've always said about Mo is that he's a gamer; I thought that coming out of college," Urban says of the third-rounder from Rutgers. "The more football the kid plays, I'm talking about 'game on' Sunday football, the more you like him. The game's not too big for him, I know that."

The Bengals are certain they have a rugged, physical NFL receiver on their hands and they only have to point to Sunday's first drive and Sanu's second catch, a bulling five-yarder where he dragged people to set up a successful fourth-and-one on the way to a touchdown.

"You saw him run the ball between the tackles the other day," Urban says. "You saw him on the bubble screen where he got banged all around and got the two extra yards and it enabled us to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking the field goal. That was just all toughness. That was a nose-bleeder."

The Bengals also think Sanu has a nose for the ball and feel he can excel in the slot. It's a spot that has been occupied by second-year man Andrew Hawkins, a 5-7, 180-pound dynamo who was limited last week in practice with a back problem. That gave Sanu a shot and he got in for 18 snaps while Hawkins took 20 as the Bengals search for the right complements around Green.

The Bengals think they've got a nice combo in the slot with Hawkins's speed and Sanu's strength, but they'd also like to see what Sanu can offer on the outside.

"Mo brings a certain skill set to the table and by all accounts he's proven himself worthy of the opportunity and so has Hawkins," Urban says. "Whether they're on the field at the same time or we're rotating him at inside slot receiver or they're both at outside receiver and A.J.'s inside, we're going to try and put them into positions to make plays."

The Bengals scouts and Urban liked the way Sanu innately found openings in defenses at Rutgers and Sanu thinks he has a physical edge in the slot.

“I feel like I do a little bit. I’m big, strong, attack the ball pretty well and have a good advantage inside,” he said. “Being outside is a little different. You have to see if it is cloud (shaded to one side) or not. Being inside you have to see the rotation of the safeties and buzzing out to cover you. You have to have more of a feel inside.

"I think inside is (harder). You have to know your surroundings and who is buzzing out or who is over top of you. You have to know when to sit down or when to do to this or that.”

Sanu says he's comfortable playing both the slot and outside as the Bengals search for that factor opposite Green. Except for Jones, they don't have a real take-the-top-off speed guy for the outside, although Brandon Tate has that kind of speed but it hasn't translated consistently. Second-year man Ryan Whalen also made his season debut both outside and inside Sunday, so the bye week practices of Tuesday and Wednesday are almost going to be like May auditions again. Armon Binns, who started the season at No. 2, is back to practice after being inactive last week with an ankle injury.

"I've stepped back here the last couple of days for the bye week and analyzing when we're getting our big plays," Urban said. "In the three games we won we had some big plays where we had some explosive plays and made plays on the ball downfield. We haven’t done that nearly as much in the games we've lost. So we've got to continue to make big plays when given the opportunity to take shots down the field. Have to."

In other years when the Bengals needed a running mate for Chad Johnson after the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh they went with older receivers in free agency and got burned in a variety of ways with Laveranues Coles, Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. Now while they take some hits with inexperience early on, the hope seems to be it is going to pay off in the long run with talent and experience in their own scheme with their own quarterback.   

"We lost a guy early that was going to play a lot in Marv Jones and Armon has the ankle he's been dealing with, so he wasn’t able to practice a little bit last week," Urban says of last Sunday. "We were excited about giving Marv the opportunity, then he had the knee (injury). It's just the next guy up. When Brandon was in there he did a good job. I know Whalen would like to have a couple of reps back, but for not being active for the first six weeks he did an admirable job.

"Mohamed Sanu is gamer, man. He played hard, he made some plays when he had the opportunity. We'll see who steps up and assumes that role now as we go forward."

Sanu and Jones are playing a lot quicker than the 2008 draft picks, second-rounder Jerome Simpson and third-rounder Andre Caldwell. Simpson had one catch as a rookie and Caldwell didn't play until Oct. 19 that year.

It’s not a question if Sanu is going to play but where and when. Asked if he ever played tight end, he laughed and said he had not. He said Sunday's lug into the line brought back memories.

“It was pretty cool. Like Little League. Having a blast out there,” Sanu says.

Little League? Hadn't he ever lined up as a running back before?

“Not since Little League.”

Safety? Tight end? Fullback? What's next?

“Not sure," he says. "Your guess is as good as mine.”

The guess here is Sanu is going to be somewhere on the field and not the sidelines before this season gets much older.

No matter where.

 

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