BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN VS. BROWNS CB JOE HADEN
If we want to have any idea how these two AFC North elites are going to go at it Sunday in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), DVR to the last time they met—Nov. 27, 2011—at Paul Brown Stadium with their teams locked in a 20-20 game and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looking at a third-and-eight from the Bengals 47 with 1:08 left.
Dalton launched a flare that only the 6-4 Green could reach in a tussle with the 5-11 Haden across the middle of the field at the Cleveland 30 and Green kept running to the 2. Moments later the Bengals won on a 26-yard Mike Nugent wedge shot.
After the game, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden talked about trying to get Green inside Haden and how he sent tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Andre Caldwell down the seam, plus wide receiver Jerome Simpson on the back side with Green racing across the middle realizing it was man-to-man coverage.
"It was an in route. I got the inside leverage with him," Green said after the game. "And Andy just threw a great timing ball. I just went up and got it. (Haden) was undercutting a lot of stuff that was under. I just went right in front of him and got it."
The play showed that Green's one chip in this duel is his height advantage. It also showed Haden's confidence in his ability to undercut and anticipate routes. After last year's slugfest with Haden in his NFL debut in Cleveland coming on the heels of a couple of Florida-Georgia battles, Green is taking nothing for granted.
"He's a great cover guy. He's aggressive. Like Darrelle Revis, some of those guys like (Johnathan Joseph)," Green said.
Which means Haden is different than Miami's Sean Smith, a 6-4, 220-pound grinder that pushed and shoved Green with help from Cover 2 and prevented the big play. But Green still caught nine balls, one for a touchdown.
"I have to work (Haden) a little bit. Be more aggressive with him. He's not as big as Sean Smith," Green said. "He's more aggressive. He's a ballhawk."
Which is exactly what Green is. That much we know. What we don't know is the impact of Haden's month-long absence from practice because of an NFL suspension that began with last month's game in Cincinnati. It turns out that head coach Marvin Lewis is also interested in the answer.
"I don't know if he's been out training in a park, or where he's been. That's the thing. It is some time," Lewis said Wednesday. "Just having the experience watching what Dre (Kirkpatrick) has been through and all the running he's been doing rehab-wise, yet when you go out and start practicing football it's a little different having to react to other people. The toughest part of playing cornerback is the fact that you're reacting to the movements of another player who's very fast. So that puts the stress on your joints and your legs and your wind very quickly."
But as Dalton said Wednesday, he's not preparing like Haden is going to be rusty. He figures he's going to be the guy that held Green to one catch in that NFL debut last year. It was a 41-yard fourth-quarter TD, but under the odd circumstances of a snap that caught the Cleveland defense coming out of its huddle. The only other game Green has had just one catch was last year against Pittsburgh when he hyperextended his knee on a 36-yard touchdown catch and had to leave.
"There's very little Joe Haden lacks," said Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban. "He's got good size, great speed, he's physical, he's real tough at the line and he can go down the field. And he's got good instincts. He's one of the elite corners in the league and we'll approach him as such."
Last year Haden's 19 pass breakups (PBUs) were sixth in the NFL and his 37 from 2010-2011 were tied for the third, trailing only Green Bay's Tramon Williams (42) and Kansas City's Brandon Carr (40), and tied with Atlanta's Brent Grimes.
"Joe does a great job of contesting catches. (Green) will have to attack the ball and prevent him from getting those PBUs that he's well known for and deservedly so," Urban said. "He's got a knack for the game and understanding of the game."
Green, who had seven catches for 58 yards and a TD last month with Haden sidelined, says the Browns played the same coverage they did last season. After what Miami's Cover 2 did to the Bengals passing game last week, the Bengals figure to see a good diet of that with Haden getting some safety help, at times, as he shadows Green.
"The whole key (in Cover 2) is to prevent you from getting off the line and getting upfield," Urban said. "The faster you get up the field and get on the safety, the more of a threat you are. So you have to do a good job of getting off the ball and getting down the field so you can get the safety out of the play. I was proud how A.J. kept playing hard last week and when he had the opportunity to make a play, he did."
Green goes into his 21st regular-season game as the first in NFL history to get 100 catches, 1,500 yards, and 11 TDs in his first 20 regular-season games.
"I'm not the one to comment on personal goals; if we win mine will eventually come," Green said. "I just stick by that and that's what I do."
As he sees it, there's not much of an advantage playing against Haden so much. It's a two-way street.
"There's really not an advantage, probably on his part, because he knows what I do and I know what he does," Green said. "He knows my strength. Just a battle, we are just going to be out there grinding we are going to see what happens."