As all of Bengaldom feared, four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green has been ruled out of Sunday's Wild Card game in Indianapolis (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because of a concussion he received last Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
The move, announced Saturday as the Bengals bus caravan lurched between Milan and Batesville, Ind., leaves the Bengals with just three veteran wide receivers, tight end Jermaine Gresham is questionable after being limited in Friday's practice, and the No. 4 wide receiver has never played in an NFL game.
First-year offensive coordinator Hue Jackson faces another challenge during a season-long test of his creativity and depth chart in the face of a withering stretch of injuries. Already without his other starting wide receiver, Marvin Jones, and other starting tight end, Tyler Eifert, for virtually all of the season, Jackson has helped nurse the Bengals to 10 wins with the NFL's sixth best running attack.
It's not only been good enough for a play-off berth, but Jackson's name has been dropped as a potential head coaching candidate. Now he faces another game without Green and they've done well enough in the five games he's either been out or didn't have a catch because of injury to go 3-1-1, including big wins over Baltimore and Denver.
No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu, who was targeted just nine times last month, becomes the No. 1 wide receiver and Brandon Tate moves up to No. 2 despite just 17 catches for 198 yards. The two guys behind them are Greg Little, who signed off the street just before the Indy game back on Oct. 19, and Cobi Hamilton, a 2013 sixth-round pick.
Little has been inactive for five of the last seven games and has six catches for 69 yards. Hamilton, who lost a golden opportunity to win a spot on the roster in training camp, has spent the last two seasons on the practice squad and has never played in a game.
The one game they lost when Green was either out or hurt was against these Colts and they took a 27-0 beating Oct. 19 when Indy jammed the box and dared the Bengals to beat them one-on-one in the pass game.
They couldn't do it on the way to generating just 135 yards and whiffing on 12 of 13 first downs, but Jackson said earlier this week it was a watershed game for the run offense. After the Bengals ran it just 12 times for 32 yards, he said he realized the Bengals had to run it more.
The fallout of the decision is that rookie running back Jeremy Hill is the NFL's leading rusher since the ninth week of the season in a stretch the Bengals have averaged 34 carries per game to finish the season with 492 rushing attempts, their most in five years.
Now they'll be running the ball even more Sunday without Green, so running back Giovani Bernard figures to get more carries to supplement Hill after a month he carried just 32 times. Bernard can also be used as either a slot receiver or receiver out of the backfield and he is thought to a good matchup against the Colts' big linebackers. He's done exactly that in the last two games to catch a touchdown in each.
While Green missed three games with a big toe injury (Carolina, Indy, Baltimore), Sanu stepped in with MVP-type performances. He had 120 yards against the Panthers and 125 against the Ravens. Sandwiched in there were 54 yards on just three catches against the Colts. Indy isn't known for moving their cornerbacks, but Pro Bowler Vontae Davis or Greg Toler may be asked to take out Sanu.
That's where the running game and Bernard have to come in. Hill had just four carries against the Colts last time and Bernard got racked up when he caught just two balls for minus-one yard, but he's had more success in the passing game the last two weeks.
Even with Green, the Bengals haven't had much success going down field. In the last three games quarterback Andy Dalton's longest throw to a wide receiver has been the 17-yard throw that Green fumbled last Sunday night and led to the concussion.
But in the three wins against Atlanta, Baltimore, and Denver without a Green catch, they either got a big game from Sanu or Hill or Bernard, as well as a big-time game from their defense. They held the Falcons to 10 points, held the Ravens to less than 300 yards and picked off the Broncos' Peyton Manning four times. Hill had his break-out game against the Falcons with 74 yards while Bernard added 90.