When the Bengals displayed just how deep and versatile they are catching the ball Sunday in Buffalo you could have sworn James Brooks came out of 1988 to catch a swing pass while helping block Bruce Smith.
That's about how historic it is becoming.
Among quarterback Andy Dalton's 40 passes on Sunday, 26 were completed to eight different players and to all five wide receivers that were active. And one of them, Dane Sanzenbacher, came off the bench cold for his first snap of the game with 4:46 left in the third quarter on fourth-and-15 to do something the Bengals hadn't done in this century.
Based on 16-game projections, the Bengals are on pace to join the 2011 Saints as only the second team in NFL history to have six players with 500 or more receiving yards in a season.
"It's pretty cool. We've been saying since the preseason that we know how talented we are at receiver and now it's finally showing," Sanzenbacher said.
To show what the Bengals think of Sanzenbacher, they put him in the slot on the fourth-and-long, replacing Mohamed Sanu, and he showed why when he made a one-handed catch with the other one pinned as he went down the seam for a 23-yard play in a crowd that included safety Jim Leonhard pondering decapitation.
It was the first time since quarterback Jeff Blake ran on fourth-and-16 in Seattle in 1999 that the Bengals converted a fourth down that long.
No one practices a fourth-and-15 during the week, but Sanzenbacher ran that play in practice on Thursday well enough that the Bengals put him inside outside receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and he came up with his second catch of the season.
"I like Dane on a lot of routes; he's a good player," said wide receivers coach James Urban.
Except for his first two years in the NFL in Chicago, the 5-11, 184-pound Sanzenbacher is Ohio all the way. A two-time player of the year in Toledo before he became Ohio State's MVP as a senior, Sanzenbacher's hands are surer than a sellout at The Shoe. Maybe it wasn't Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to take Dennis Eckersley deep in the World Series (25 years ago to the day), but this bit of pinch-hitting advertised Sanzenbacher's toughness, brains and hands.
"It can be tough sometimes mentally to stay in the game when you're physically ready to go out there; it's part of your assignment," Sanzenbacher said. "For whatever reason, Urbs likes me on that route. We did practice it before and I was a little bit more familiar with it."
Sanzenbacher knew the Bills corners were going to play physical with him right on the line, so he knew he was going to end up in the seam despite the original call.
"When you have that going on, you have to have that mental clock and you have know where you need to be when," Sanzenbacher said. "You know Andy is going to be ready for you, so you have to find an open space. He put it on a dime."
Dalton lofted it over Sanzenbacher's shoulder in downtown traffic and Sanzenbacher managed to catch it with one arm despite his other arm being mauled and then he had the presence of mind to get down just before Leonhard blew him up.
"I think it's the only way he could have done it," Sanzenbacher said of the time the ball took to come down. "Because the defender was behind me, you don't want to give him a chance to make a play on it, yet you have to drop it in there before the safeties get there."
And here's a guy that's fighting to get on the field. He had just three snaps while third receiver Marvin Jones and rookie running back Giovani Bernard had career days in the passing game with 71 and 72 yards, respectively.
With both of them and Green getting more 100 yards from scrimmage, it was the first time the Bengals had three players with more than 100 since a Dec. 10, 2006 blowout of the Raiders at Paul Brown Stadium when wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson and running back Rudi Johnson did it.
Jones, who also ran a 34-yard reverse as well as a 42-yard screen, showed just how physical and versatile these receivers are even though he played just 26 snaps. His blocks also sprung a bunch of screens and swings, most notably on a 12-yard completion to Sanu, and he also played gunner on the punt cover team most of the day and came up with a tackle in the fourth quarter.
"It's great getting that stuff going early; that gets everyone into it," Jones said. "You've got a guy like Dane making a catch like that and it shows you what we've got in our room."
Jones and Sanzenbacher know they've got to produce when called upon because they're not exactly overflowing with chances. This is still a two tight-end team and Bernard is one of these weapons where Sanzenbacher just shakes his head and says, "The guy is a stud."
Jones is on pace for 507 yards, the last of the six. Sanzenbacher is on pace to fill in. Stay tuned.
"It's awesome to a part of it," Sanzenbacher said.