A.J. Green is No. 2 with one fewer game and chasing Antonio Brown in NFL receiving.
Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Pittsburgh featuring two potential Hall-of-Fame receivers in the Bengals' A.J. Green and the Steelers' Antonio Brown is a veritable statistical soiree for the decimal deities at the Elias Sports Bureau.
Green, the NFL's second-leading receiver with 504 yards in five games, faces the Steelers' No. 1 ranked pass defense. Brown, the league leader with 700 yards in six games, opposes the Bengals' No. 2 pass defense. And to spice it up, the Steelers now have Green's arch nemesis in Joe Haden.
One of the burning questions on Pittsburgh talk radio this week besides how many ticks left in Big Ben is how are the Steelers are going to use Haden. Will the Steelers break the sacred protocol of the defense they've run for a generation and send Haden all over the field to follow Green? Or will they do what they usually do and don't flop their cornerbacks while staying primarily zone?
Green doubts Haden follows him.
"I don't think so. They've got two great corners," he said. "They play a lot of zone. Cover three. They don't need to. When you've got great corners like that, why follow me?"
Green has better numbers in his career (averaging 6.4 catches and 89 yards per game with six TDs) than Brown has against the Bengals (5.3, 85 yards, four TDs). And a few months ago when he penned a Players' Tribune article about the five toughest cornerbacks he's face, Green ranked the 5-11, 195-pound Haden behind only Patrick Peterson while praising Haden's ability to complicate his releases from the line of scrimmage.
"Joe knows that if he can just disrupt your first two steps off the line, he's got you," Green wrote. "He's probably the best there is at knocking you off your route just a little bit — just enough where the ball is a half second early or a half second late. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't always make the highlights, but that you appreciate as a player.
"When you line up against Joe, he's going to be laying hands on you all day. He's going to initiate contact off the line with a quick stab to try to throw off your timing, and then try to ride your back hip the whole way."
But Green also knows the Steelers have a style that has served them well. As Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis observed this week, he was the Steelers linebackers coach in the early '90s when it began. So whether Green gets Haden and the rising sophomore Artie Burns at corner or Ike Taylor and William Gay, the corners in the first game he started against Pittsburgh six years, there is a thread to the scheme. And whether the safeties are Mike Mitchell, Ryan Clark or, speaking of the Hall of Fame, Troy Polamalu.
Yes, Green says. He thinks they'll continue to do what they've always done and leave the corners on the same side and flex the muscles of the safeties behind them.
"The safeties play aggressively. Mike (Mitchell) is a very aggressive safety. He's good at what he does," Green said Thursday. "They play to the sticks very well. They make you work for everything you get. Technically sound. You can't get frustrated out there. You have to take what they give you and get the ball vertical when you can."
A.J. Green: averages 6.5 catches and 89 yards per vs. Steelers.
If it sounds like Green is praising Mitchell, he is and that just shows you how far the glacial Green is above the fray. If Steelers Nation has sentenced Vontaze Burfict to the land of villains, then Bengaldom and every other Steeler opponent has put Mitchell's "Most Wanted," picture on every post office wall. Mitchell has Burfict's reputation but not the fines as evidenced most recently last week when Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith pointed at him in a rage after he felt Mitchell went for his knees late.
If anyone should have a gripe about Mitchell not Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert it is Green. A year before Burfict knocked Brown out of the post-season with a concussion, Mitchell took Green out of the 2014 playoffs on a hit while he lay on the ground after a fumble.
But Green, with a frosty grace that freezes fourth quarters and controversy, says it was no cheap shot.
"We leave that stuff on the field. We're just here to play football," Green said. "It was a hit. It happens. I don't think nothing dirty was about it. He plays very aggressive. When they had Ryan Clark, Ryan Clark played the same way. Come down and hit you. It's what it is -- football.
"It's a man's game. Can't just go out there and whine about it. That's his style of play. That's what makes him a starting safety in this league, and he's a good one, he's a great one."
Green, who prides himself on his cool, bloodless demeanor, even talks to the guy.
"He always tells me I'm a good player," Green said. "It's all mutual respect out there. Whatever happens out there, I don't feel he's a dirty player, man. He just plays with a lot of emotions."
In fact, Green respects all Steelers. Even the ones that have hit him the hardest.
"(Safety) Ryan Clark killed me my rookie year. I still scratch my head over that one," Green said. "I didn't get hurt on that one. That's the one when I stepped out of bounds on the sideline and he came and smacked me."
He also took a few shots from Polamalu. His first catch against the Steelers turned out to be for a 36-yard touchdown when he went over Polamalu and came down wrong on his leg, finishing him for the day.
"Another great player. They've had their share of great safeties," Green said. "Respect. He's a Hall of Fame player. "
William Jackson is one of Sunday's sub-plots. He broke the Steelers' heart when the Bengals picked him a slot ahead of them in the first round of the 2016 draft.
When asked if he's been hit by linebacker Ryan Shazier, Green leaned over to his locker and rapped on the wood.
"No, not yet," Green said. ""He's unbelievable, man. He's so fast. He's just a missile out there man, a safety playing linebacker the way he runs. Unbelievable … He's a great player. He lets his game speak for itself, he doesn't really go around just making noise. He's the guy that sticks out and stands out on the field. He's making plays all over the place."
Marvin Lewis Community Fund hosts Hometown Huddle at the Life Learning Center 10/17/2017
Which is how Green insists on acting before, during, and after games. The only two guys that have ever rattled him are his father when he disciplined him and his son when he was born.
"That's who I am. I am here to play football, I am not here to get in an arguing match and fight on the field. No need, I need all the energy I can to go out and make plays," Green said. "They just stop talking. Because I'm not going to say nothing to them."
The question doesn't seem to be if the Steelers are going to stay in a zone, but can the Bengals ever get them out of it so they have to play man-to-man? As long as the Bengals have trouble running against a Cover Two, who is going to switch it up? Certainly not the NFL's No. 1 pass defense.
Before the Steelers stoned the Chiefs on 28 yards rushing last week, they had showed some vulnerability against the run when they allowed the Bears to 220 and the Jaguars to run for 231. But the Bengals are averaging just 84 yards rushing per game and are on pace for their fewest rushing yards ever in a season.
It may be a passing league, but there is still the power of the run. Five quarterbacks failed to get 200 yards passing last week and still won games with a 100-yard rusher: Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky, Miami's Jay Cutler, the Rams' Jared Goff, New Orleans' Drew Brees and the Giants' Eli Manning.
But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is second in the NFL with eight interceptions, won't have a day at the beach, either, against the Bengals. In the seven games he's faced defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, he's thrown seven picks with 11 TDs and is below his career averages of 64 percent and 93.5 passer rating with 62 percent and 87.9 against Cincinnati.
And both Bengals safeties, George Iloka (27) and Shawn Williams (37) are ahead of the starting Steeler safeties, Mitchell (47) and Sean Davis (73) in the profootballfocus.com ratings. Bengals slot corner Darqueze Dennard, at 15, is PFF's highest-rated corner in Sunday's game. The Bengals' Adam Jones (61) is rated ahead of Haden (64) and there is this interesting secondary sub-plot:
The Steelers were all over Houston cornerback William Jackson in the 2016 draft and bit their tongue when the Bengals swiped him right before they picked. So they went with Miami's Burns and they've been pleased with his work on the corner but Jackson has also showed signs he belongs.
So it's pretty clear that both secondaries are relying on team and scheme and solid play rather than dominant individuals. Green expects to see a team coming at him Sunday.
"They don't give up big plays. They play sound. They play the sticks, drive the ball," he said. "They play a lot of zone. They've got two great corners. There's no need to match the best receiver. No need to follow when you have two good corners."
Cincinnati Bengals host practice at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields 10/16/2017