Mohamed Sanu flashed his physical versatility in a bruising 125-yard effort against Baltimore on Sunday.
Don't look now, but wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is on pace for the 10th best Bengals receiving season of all-time and becoming just the fifth man in franchise history to have 80 catches. The nine seasons ahead of Sanu's projection got their guys into the Pro Bowl.
That all changes, of course, when three-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green returns from the toe injury that has taken him out of the last three games and virtually all of another. The toe, or The Toe as it is known in these parts and we're not talking Lou Groza, has been a mystery. But what we do know is that Green is expected back at some point. Maybe as soon as this Sunday in a 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium against Jacksonville.
What is certain is that the projected numbers show why Sanu is an MVP candidate for this team without Green and Marvin Jones starting at wide receiver. With 35 catches for 533 yards, Sanu is 18th in NFL receiving yards, just behind perennial Pro Bowler Andre Johnson (551) and just ahead of dangerous DeSean Jackson (528).
"I love watching Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson," said Sanu Monday as he reflected on his film habits. "They're just big, physical, strong guys and they play well. They're two of the best receivers out there, so I love watching those guys.
"Just how they play. They play with a passion. They play physical. They dominate. That's what I try to do."
The 6-2 Sanu could have been talking about himself on Sunday, when he threw all 210 pounds of his heart, soul, and versatility at the Ravens.
He had the biggest plays in all three touchdown drives and combined with quarterback Andy Dalton to save the day and maybe season with a 53-yard Green-like catch on third-and-10 and the clock ticking to three minutes left as he launched himself into the air for a contested ball as Dalton ran out of trouble.
"There's a trust factor there," said Dalton, and if he's not their first half MVP, then Sanu is.
Sanu is already staking his claim as the most versatile Bengal ever. He leads all non-quarterbacks with 166 passing yards, but he's got a ways to go with his 62 rushing yards. Green (96) and Jones (112) are ahead of him and wide receiver Peter Warrick, the non-running back and non-quarterback rushing leader with 355 yards, has a comfortable edge.
"I love having the ball in my hands," Sanu said. "Whenever you get an opportunity to make a play, it's fun to go out there and do so and to make a big impact in the game. It helps us that much more. So to be able to run with the ball is fun."
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson knows where Sanu lives and called his number twice Sunday on reverses. One went for 26 yards and set up a touchdown with the help of Dalton's block. The other one went for just one yard and Dalton's block was more daunting.
"As soon as that happened I looked down and cringed a little bit," Sanu said. "The first time I was like 'Good job. Good job.' But the second time it was like, 'Hey, you don't have to do that sometimes.''
Dalton had the wind knocked out of him before he and Sanu combined to take the breath away from the PBS crowd.
"I was about where I was supposed to be. Andy did a great job stepping up in the pocket and throwing the ball. I saw the ball in the air, and I just went up and came down with it," Sanu said of his out-and-up route that put the Bengals in position to win. "I wasn't sure where it was going to be because I wasn't sure what he had back there. I just saw it in the air and knew I had to catch it."
He's done it all year. He's on pace to catch 80 balls for 1,218 yards, more balls than Pro Bowlers Cris Collinsworth and Eddie Brown ever caught and more yards than Collinsworth, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh ever had in their Pro Bowl seasons. Only five receivers have caught more than 1,200 yards for the Bengals in a season. All-time leading receiver Chad Johnson did it five times, Green has done it twice and Eddie Brown, Tim McGee, and Carl Pickens did it once.
Sanu's 15.2 yards per catch would be fifth on that list of best receiving seasons. Just a projection, but it shows you what kind of season he's having.
This season just didn't come out of thin air. Sanu wasn't happy with how his 2012 season went (9.2 yards per his 47 catches), so he not only had a great offseason building up his body and endurance, but he also prepared trying to prevent his mind from "drifting," like he thought it did during the season.
"You feel great about yourself, being able to contribute to the team in the fashion I am right now. I just want to continue playing well and doing the things I'm doing," Sanu said. "You have to strive to stay focused within the week and do your stuff day in and day out and try not to chase anything. Just let everything come to you, and when you get your opportunity, make them."
Right now he is the poster child for opportunity. And he may get even more when Green comes back.
"Now it's going to be that they're going to have to play us straight up," Sanu said. "They can't cloud us or double coverage any one of us. They're going to have to play man-to-man. That's what we want."
A LOOK AT TOP TEN BENGALS RECEIVING SEASONS
1,440 - Chad Johnson 2007
1,432 - Chad Johnson 2005
1,426 - A.J. Green 2013
1,369 Chad Johnson 2006
1,355 - Chad Johnson 2003
1,350 - A.J. Green 2012
1,274 - Chad Johnson 2004
1,273 - Eddie Brown 1988
1,234 - Carl Pickens 1995
1,218 - Mohamed Sanu 2014 (projected)
1,211 - Tim McGee 1989