BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN vs. STEELERS CB IKE TAYLOR
When Taylor shadowed Green in last year's first game, he held him to one catch, an eight-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter. When Taylor was hurt for the December game in Pittsburgh, Green was his monstrous self with 10 catches for 116 yards and among them was that ice-cold 21-yard sideline route with eight seconds left to set up the field goal that put the Bengals into the playoffs.
"Ike Taylor is a real good technical player," says Artrell Hawkins, the Bengals Radio Network analyst who started 72 games on Cincinnati's corner. "A.J. is a highly physically-gifted player, but I don't think A.J. understands exactly how to beat Ike. There's a system on how to beat Ike. He's such a methodical, solid player. He's a lot like Leon Hall. He's one of the top five press, man-to-man corners in the league."
Hawkins should know. He played all but one season with the Bengals under current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and helped coach the Pittsburgh DBs a few training camps ago.
And Green understands this is going to be a different game than the one last week in Chicago, where he manhandled the Bears for nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He expects Taylor to cover him like Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did, which is to say he followed him all over the field.
"They're the same player," Green said. "But the Bears play a different kind of scheme. They're more zone and the Steelers are more man. The receivers have to win their man routes so Andy (Dalton) can get the ball out quick against their blitz."
LeBeau is going to play zone, naturally, because he'll be blitzing behind it with those fire zones he invented in Cincinnati some 30 years ago. But he'll be doing it with man-to-man principles. The Steelers play what amounts to a matchup zone and don't leave any of the holes like the Bears Cover 2ish scheme that Dalton exploited with quick throws on 79-percent passing.
"Last week I was really impressed with Andy," Hawkins says. "It wasn't a high-pressure scheme and he put the ball right on target with quick, decisive throws. He looked like a big-time quarterback going through his play-fakes and getting the ball out. Now he's got to figure out where the fire zones are coming from. The last couple of years LeBeau has won this one, but (Dalton) has the weapons now to combat it."
If the receivers have to win their man-to-man routes, then Dalton's go-to guy, the 6-4, 207-pound Green, must solve the 6-2, 195-pound Taylor. Still Pittsburgh's best corner, Hawkins says, in his 11th season.
"I like Ike. I like A.J. better," Hawkins says. "Ike understands that A.J. is a vertical receiver. From that point of view, you never want to be aggressive with A.J. at the line because I'd say about 80 to 90 percent of his routes are past 10 yards. You want to stay in front of him. Ike is very conscious of the vertical throw.
"There is a way to beat Ike. You have to give him a wiggle. Ike understands you've got to stay on top of A.J. Everything he does is to stay on top of A.J. for six to eight yards. That way he can break on the out, he can break on the in, and when the ball goes deep he's in position to make a play on the ball."
Hawkins goes back to Green's lone catch against Taylor last year for the eight-yard TD.
"He beat him on an inside route that was only 10 yards. If it had been 50 Ike would have been in great position to make a play on that ball. It just so happens Andy put it in a nice tight window."
Hawkins absolves Green and Dalton of any fault on Tillman's first of Sunday's two interceptions. Tillman, he says, just jumped the slant, something that Taylor won't do.
"That was just a damn good play by Tillman," Hawkins says. "Could A.J. have run the slant harder? You can argue that, but Tillman just flat out read the play. You had BenJarvus Green-Ellis in a one-back set and three receivers, Eifert, Gresham and Sanu, opposite (Green). Plain and simple. Back side of trips for a corner, you're getting an inside cutting route. A seasoned corner understands there is probably going to be action on the back side of trips. That back goes away and I see it, the safety is coming and Andy Dalton has to get rid of the ball because there's not enough to block because the line slid the other way. Tillman saw it and just jumped the route. It was a great read by Andy and the route was fine. Ike is not going to do that. Ike is not going to jump routes. Ike is a man-to-man press corner."
Pro Football Focus charted Taylor giving up all four passes into his area in last Sunday's loss in Tennessee, but the longest one went for just 14 yards. Hawkins wonders about Green's ball security and thinks if Taylor is close enough he can cause problems like the Bears did. In addition to creating a pick when the ball went off his hands, Green fumbled a ball that got kicked out of bounds as he tried to pick up yards after catch.
"If I'm Ike Taylor, I'm trying to get close enough to make A.J. put it on the carpet," Hawkins says. "Because A.J. is starting to take steps after the catch without tucking the ball in immediately. And then by the time he tucks it, it's putting him in a situation where he can't tuck it fundamentally correct in a three-point pressure. That's how the ball is coming out. So I'm trying to take the ball out.
"Ike can do that, but I don't know if he can do it over 10-12 targets. A.J. is going to win his. If I'm Ike, I have to win my share."