LANDOVER, Md. - At some point you swore that Chad Johnson AND Chad Ochocinco both came out of the stands Thursday night to make a catch in the Bengals’ 23-13 victory over Washington.
Eight wide receivers had at least one catch. Six wide receivers had at least a catch of 12 yards. Three rookie wide receivers had at least a 15-yard catch. All told, 14 Bengals had at least one catch.
“It felt like it,” said Auden Tate, who had four of them and one for touchdown. “We’ve been getting reps and that’s benefited all of us. We’re all thriving on getting experience.”
If Bengals management was looking for a head coach who had an open mind when it came to playing younger players quicker, they found a kindred soul in the new head man. Just look at how Zac Taylor has handled these wide receivers. It also shows his offense has the ability to disperse the ball to anyone, anywhere.
Even before A.J. Green and John Ross were hurt and missed training camp, Taylor was leering at guys like the 6-5 Tate with just one season under his belt. He felt like when they decided not to draft a wide receiver late, it allowed them to recruit a strong undrafted class, led by Troy’s Damion Willis and Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan, and when he saw how they attacked the ball he didn’t hesitate working them with the first offense against the first defense.
Especially the 6-3, 210-pound Willis, who signed with the Bengals, in part, because he followed Green growing up once he noticed they had similar builds. On Thursday, Willis showed why Taylor has been intrigued when he had five catches for 59 yards that included a 19-yarder and didn’t include a 35-yard touchdown that was taken away with a mystifying offensive pass interference call.
Morgan, who holds the Cornhuskers’ season record for receiving yards in a season while Taylor holds the school record for touchdown passes, had two catches for 21 yards, one a nice yards-after-catch for 15 yards.
“Damion’s got a knack for the ball. It's no surprise that when we put the ball down the field, he's got that radar where he can get underneath and go track those balls down,” Taylor said. “Damion has been impressive. With those young guys, consistency has been what we’re looking for. Showing up in the run game. It's not just about catching the ball; it's helping our backs in the run game as well. So, those guys have got to continue to step up, but overall they’ve done a nice job."
That’s why they love Tate. He doesn’t mind engaging his 235 pounds in the run game, but on Thursday he proved to be an inviting red-zone target for rookie backup quarterback Ryan Finley. On the game-tying drive Finley hit Tate twice in inside the 12, once on a seven-yarder where Tate had to wrench his body back on a ball slightly thrown behind him.
“A snag. I snagged it,” Tate said.
Then came the touchdown on a three-yard slant in front of rookie cornerback Deion Harris.
“He’s confident in the huddle,” Tate said of Finley. “He doesn’t seem like a rookie.”
Tate, the seventh-rounder out of Florida State, knows all about hot pre-season rookies. He was one last year when he made the Opening Day roster and even though he didn’t play until the second half of the season and didn’t make the first of his four catches until Nov. 18 in Baltimore, he has used the experience to fit nicely into Taylor’s new offense.
View the best game action photos from the Bengals' second preseason game against the Washington Redskins.
The conventional wisdom is that with Green nursing an ankle injury into the regular season, they’ll again keep seven receivers. After Green, Ross and Tyler Boyd, there is the pair of four-year special team leaders in Alex Erickson and Cody Core. Both had third-down conversions with Finley and Erickson, of course, secured Thursday’s game with the 75-yard punt return after a season he was second in NFL kick returns.
And all Tate does is catch the ball. So who gets that last spot? Fourth-year receiver Josh Malone still is trying to find consistency. He had a 13-yard catch, but got tangled on an Andy Dalton deep ball. Willis got caught up by the officials on his long ball.
“That would have been my best catch of the night,” Willis said when asked to compare his various plays.
The coaches have plenty to look at before Thursday’s 7 p.m. game against the Giants at Paul Brown Stadium. The receiver rotation is whirring with position coach Bob Bicknell and offensive assistant Dan Pitcher pulling the strings so it seems like they’ve got ten guys on the field at once.
It helps that the Bengals ran three-receiver sets all night because of injuries to their tight ends. But it still looks like they had ten out there at a time.
“I think those guys have – we’ve been impressed by the receiver groups as a corps,” Taylor said. I think Bob Bicknell and Dan Pitcher have done a great job with those guys and being on top of the details because that’s so important in the system is that guys are doing the little things the right way. So, it's still not perfect, but I have been impressed with that group as a whole. Those guys stepped up and made some big plays tonight."
Erickson was a hot undrafted rookie, too. Of course, he made it out of Wisconsin because he returned everything but his taxes in the 2016 preseason. He loves the amount of snaps all the receivers are getting.
“With the learning curve, it’s all about experience. It’s all about reps,” Erickson said. “It’s one thing to get reps in practice, but in a game you can’t go back and re-do the play, you have to go the next situation. Everything is different in a game. Those reps are so valuable for everybody. Me included to speed it up.
“We’re going to be counting on a lot of guys as you can see the way the rotation is going. It doesn’t matter who’s in there. We’re counting on everybody. I think that’s shown throughout this preseason the way the rotations are guys are getting opportunities. This offense does a great job spreading the ball around, getting the ball to different spots, moving everybody around. It’s just the top of what we can do. We obviously have a long way to go. A lot of things to clean up.”
Like those last couple of spots.
“I’m not thinking about that,” said Willis of his chances. “I’m just trying to get better every day.”