BALTIMORE - A.J. Green made the trip. But they could use him at home this Sunday and play Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium. The 24-21 loss to the Ravens showed simply that the Bengals haven't been able to come near replacing Green in the two games he's sat out with an injured toe.
The last time the Bengals played the Ravens, which seems like 100 years ago back on Sept. 13, they had 21 points in the first 17 minutes of a 34-23 win. All by Green. It's just not happening without him. In the two Green-less games, quarterback Andy Dalton has been tough and resourceful, but he's also a lackluster 31 of 56 for 364 yards, three touchdowns and two picks. The Steelers, the team they're trying to catch in the AFC North, do that falling out of bed.
With Green, Dalton should have five game-winning drives this season. As it is he has four, but on Sunday they didn't get close when they got the ball at their own 10 with 2:45 left. The last three incompletions went to wide receiver John Ross, tight end C.J. Uzomah and wide receiver Cody Core. Uzomah is playing in place of the injured erstwhile Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert and Core and his five catches this year were in the X receiver spot reserved for Green and his seven Pro Bowls.( And not rookie Auden Tate, who did have his first NFL catch Sunday at the X spot.) Ross, it will be recalled, was lined up outside of Green as the flanker on those early TDs vs. the Ravens back in September.
"That's a huge part of it. With A.J. out there, I'm sure the pass coverage would have been different," Dalton said. "He has made so many big catches over the years. If we had him, we would have given ourselves a better shot."
Uzomah did his share with a marvelous leaping 20-yard catch in the drive. But he knew they needed a little more.
"Obviously, having his presence on the field makes a difference," Uzomah said of Green. "We have the talent and capability to step up at the positions we have and that's something we are just going to have to do. I've talked to some of the defensive backs about giving us a little extra during the week because we're going to have to make the one-on-one plays and the contested catches. We didn't make enough of them today."
It seemed like they made one contested catch all day, Ross' 22-yarder for a touchdown that gave them a 21-13 lead with 5:45 left in the third quarter when he came back on an under-thrown ball at the goal line and wrested it away from Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
But Ross had just two catches on seven targets. Dalton went to his No. 1 guy, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, 11 times for just four catches. They hooked up for the Bengals' longest plays, 32 and 23 yards, both on third down, but they were 0-for-five on the other third-down plays. Shaking free was a rarity. Seven Ravens each had a pass defensed.
Boyd, the hero of last year's win in Baltimore in the final 44 seconds, sensed it was déjà vu close all over again.
"I knew that, and we knew that we wouldn't be put in the same position for that play. I knew I would get coverage over my way. It's hard because we always make it work. We just have to find a way," said Boyd of life without Green. "It would make us a lot better. He's the best player on our team, and his help out there relieves a lot of guys. I feel like we just need to make more plays out there."
But it's just not being unable to hook up with new targets. Two guys that should be standbys, running back Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, had no room to operate. Mixon, averaging five yards per carry since October, got drilled on 12 carries for just 14 yards and Bernard only got it twice for five. Dalton scrambled for 29 of the 48 rushing yards. It's the 17th time the Bengals failed to hit 49 rushing yards in the 16 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis and fourth time in the last 54 weeks.
"We didn't run the football as effective on offense as we have been. We didn't do a very good job at that," Lewis said. "I think that putting the ball in Andy's hands and having to throw the ball way too much to make those conversions because we weren't positive enough on first and second downs."
Not your average Bengals-Ravens game. Almost always when the Bengals never make a turnover, they beat Baltimore. Not Sunday.
"They did a really good job of shutting down the run game. That's the way they've always played. They focused on stopping the run, and we couldn't get anything going," Dalton said. "I'm getting used to all of the new receivers. That's just football. Guys get hurt, and new guys take their places. You just have to trust everyone to make a play."
Images from the week 11 contest as the Bengals face the Ravens.