LANDOVER, Md. – On a day the Bengals became Wildcats, A.J. Green watched his quarterback bounce off the ropes when his first pass of the day never left his end zone for a touchdown. Then he watched him steady the offense when the game went careening in the third quarter during one of the more entertaining Bengals games you'll remember. Then he pronounced Sunday that Andy Dalton has "ice in his veins" after the Bengals cooled off RG III.
"That's the thing about Andy; he doesn't let anything get to him," Green said after the 38-31 video arcade victory over the Redskins at FedExField. "We don't say anything to him because we know he's going from there and (making) the next play."
Throw in a smart, surprising game plan generated by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden not seen in these parts since Sam Wyche doodled on a napkin (head coach Marvin Lewis said it was probably the most creative of his 10 seasons) and Sunday had an old-time Bengals feel rollicking with offense and innovation as they sling-shot into first place in the AFC North with the Ravens at 2-1.
"We're starting to reach our potential," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said after watching one rookie throw a touchdown pass on his first NFL throw and three first- and second-year receivers catch touchdowns on the longest catches of their careers.
"We've got a lot of young guys on the line and at the skill positions. It's great they're able to get more confidence the better they play."
The first three Bengals touchdowns came off snaps to three different players and the last two came off the blistering right hand of Dalton as he jacked his fourth-quarter passer rating this season to a perfect 158.3.
Which is what rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's career rating is after he stunned the Redskins when he lined up on the first play of the game as the quarterback in the Wildcat, faked a handoff, dropped back and hit Green in stride for a 73-yard touchdown after Dalton had lined up next to him.
"I thought they were going to double-team me," Dalton deadpanned.
Later in the game Gruden put running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the Wildcat with Dalton split right on the goal line and BJGE converted for a one-yard touchdown. That came one play after Green ran a reverse for 11 yards.
"We did a lot of things. With the guys that we have, we are so talented that we can do a lot of different things. We did that today and it helped us win the game, " Dalton said. "It's big for us. The creativity that we've got here and talent that we have at wide receiver, the running back, the different things we are doing, it's big. You try to find a way to get an advantage in the game and we found a couple today."
Later on a third-and-one, Gruden also placed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the backfield and ran an 11-yard sweep behind left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"He's got plenty left in the tank," Hawkins said of Gruden's playbook. "Everything clicked today."
Everyone was buzzing about the Sanu play. All the talk during the week had been centered on Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III's ability to confound teams with a cannon arm to go along with the legs of an Olympic hurdler.
But Gruden, working against his his old head coach in the UFL, Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, beat everyone to the dance when he rolled out Sanu, another rookie, the third-rounder from Rutgers. Sanu says he can throw it 70 yards and he threw three touchdown passes his junior year and one on the first play, a 51-yarder against, of all teams, the University of Cincinnati.
"It puts the defense in a terrible position," Whitworth said. "You've got A. J. Green on the outside and you've got Sanu in a Wildcat situation, and they've got to bring a safety down for that, leaving A.J. one-on-one, and Sanu's got that hose. We were excited about it."
Sanu and Green knew for a few days it was going to be the first play of the game.
"Coach Lewis was out there. We ran the play twice on Friday and he said, 'Run that play one more time,' and we scored," Green said. "And it was wide open again, so we put it in for the first play. You see Sanu back there and you're thinking it's going to be a running play, right? Exactly. I ran right over the top of the safety. Mo threw a perfect ball. I think they thought it was a run all the way.
"We know that Sanu could throw the ball and he put it in the bread basket and I ran right under it. I was just praying, 'Let me go get it' because once I was by him I saw I was wide open. So I was like please let me get by him so I can make a play on the ball, and it was a perfect ball."
The Bengals knew Sanu could throw when they drafted him with four Wildcat TD passes at Rutgers, but his new mates didn't know it until he unleashed his arm in a flag football event at Paul Brown Stadium during the spring. Then they got another taste in the days leading up to the Jets preseason opener, when he worked as Tim Tebow on the scout team.
Sanu, the pride of South Brunswick High School who threw a touchdown pass for New Jersey in his last prep game in the New Jersey-New York All-Star Game, tossed the longest first NFL pass since Steelers punter Josh Miller threw one 81 yards in the last game of 2003. Sanu also became the first non-quarterback to throw a TD for the Bengals since punter Lee Johnson threw a seven-yarder in Pittsburgh in 1994.
But Sanu didn't want to be mentioned in the same breath as RG III.
"He's great," he said. "I love watching that guy play. I was just trying to stay calm and give A.J. a chance to catch the ball. I just wanted to get that ball so that man could run with it. He's pretty hard to overthrow."
Especially Sunday, when Green ripped up Washington for a career-high 183 yards on nine catches, tying another career high. The Redskins insisted on playing him one-on-one much of the time when teams normally can't even double-team the guy. The Redskins had to when they lost a cornerback to injury rather early in the game, plus they were bound and determined to jam up the run, which they did on 3.3 yards per carry on 28 tries.
But the Redskins still didn't give cornerback DeAngelo Hall much help on Green. He burned them in a 24-24 game, getting past Hall for a 31-yard gain down the sideline to the Washington 13 and Hall compounded it with facemask penalty to set up tight end Jermaine Gresham's go-ahead six-yard touchdown catch.
"I see one-on-one (and) my eyes light up," Green said. "I don't see it that often and I have to make the best of it. DeAngelo Hall is a Pro Bowler. He's a great corner. He's played a lot of football. He knows a lot of stuff. I think they have a lot of faith in him."
It's the same kind of faith Dalton has in Green. Haslett used a lot of blitzes that left his DBs one-on-one, a dangerous thing when the offense has more than a few weapons.
"A.J. definitely had one-on-one and they gave us the looks that we wanted. You can do so much because when you put two guys on him that leaves someone else open. A.J. came to play today," Dalton said. "They had some different looks with it. We felt like we knew what they were doing going into it by the way they were playing. For us, it was just about taking advantage of it. We got the zero and it was definitely there."
The speedy Hawkins, becoming the first Bengal with back-to-back games of 50-plus-yard touchdown catches since Chad Johnson in 2006, also took advantage of the Redskins covering the whole field. After Gresham's touchdown, Hawkins came out of the slot against cornerback Richard Crawford for his 59-yard catch, the longest of his career.
"They were in Cover 2 and their safeties were real wide and the guy covering tried to take away the middle and Andy lobbed it right over his head," Hawkins said. "(Crawford) was trying to rob the middle and Andy threw a great ball."
The numbers are starting to say the Bengals have a special group of receivers working in a special system.
Last week against Cleveland the Bengals had four receivers with at least 56 yards for the first time in 23 years. This week, with Gresham and his 64 yards replacing Brandon Tate, they had four players get at least 63 yards for just the third time in history when Hawkins had 66 and wide receiver Armon Binns added 63. And it was the first time in 34 years since Isaac Curtis (101), running back Archie Griffin (87), tight end Don Bass (85), and running back Pete Johnson (72) roughed up Oakland.
The first time it happened came in the famous 1975 Monday Night duel with Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson and Bills running back O.J. Simpson that Cincinnati won when Curtis went for 139, wide receiver Chip Myers 108, wide receiver Charlie Joiner 90, and running back Boobie Clark 64.
"We've got so many guys," Dalton said. "Everybody knows what A.J. can do, but other guys are making big plays for us, big catches. It's nice to be able to spread the ball around and get the ball to more than just one guy."
While Gruden channeled his inner Wyche, Dalton channeled the man who wore No. 14 before him, the deadly accurate Anderson. Dalton hit 19 of his 27 passes and is completing 68.4 percent while his supersonic 9.1 yards per throw is club-record stuff held by Greg Cook at 9.41. He's second in the NFL in yards per and is fourth with a 105 passer rating after setting a career best for the second straight week at 132.9.
And Dalton rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter in a tie game when he went 6-for-7 for 134 yards and two touchdown passes after his team had just eight snaps in the third quarter and one was a lost fumble.
"We were consistent and getting our guys the ball. A.J. made a big play and Orson [Charles] had a huge catch down the seam," Dalton said of the rookie tight end's first NFL catch, a leaping 25-yarder in traffic. "It was perfect and exactly the look we wanted. We felt like we could back-shoulder him in that look and we got it. It is not one guy who is making plays but a bunch of them.
"We knew we had to keep scoring. With the way they play their offense and the guys that they have, they can put the ball in the end zone quickly. For us, we knew we had to keep scoring. Once they tied it up, we went out there and put a good drive together. Someone told me it was 80 yards in five plays or something like that."
Dalton's day was all the more remarkable, given how it started. His first pass came from his own end zone when he got drilled in the back by untouched linebacker Ryan Kerrigan just as he let go of a pass in the flat to running back BenJarvus Green Ellis. The ball fluttered out of his hand and tipped of Green-Ellis's arms into the hands of linebacker of Rob Jackson for a tying touchdown at 7-7.
But Dalton shrugged it off. "Unflappable" is what Lewis called him. So he hit 20 of his last 27 passes.
"I wasn't worried; it was a freak thing," Dalton said. "I had the light blitz called to our protection and stuff like that doesn't happen very much. It was early in the game, and I had a lot of game left, so we couldn't worry about that."
Hawkins knew what was coming.
"Andy's not rattled," Hawkins said. "Andy thrives in those situations. When we see how much confidence he has, it kind of gives us confidence to make plays out there. Andy bounces back. That's what he does. He's poised."
With all four touchdown receivers, plus the two throwers, all 26 years old or younger, the Bengals offense looks poised for some more.