The amazing thing about Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's second NFL pass against the Browns last week is not that he dropped a 25-yard dime over running back Giovani Bernard's shoulder as he went out of bounds. Or that he heaved it virtually across the field for about another 40 yards after getting the ball from quarterback Andy Dalton.
But the guy didn't even warm up before the game with a couple of tosses.
"Not if you don't need it," Sanu said. "You have to do it once when the play is called."
And he only threw it twice in practice the week before, and once to backup running back Rex Burkhead.
Put that on top of his 73-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Green out of the Wildcat on the first play of last year's victory over Washington and Sanu has a perfect career passer rating of 158.3. Who needs layup lines? He now has the Bengals all-time lead over running back Archie Griffin's 144.8 passer rating on three of four passing for two touchdowns.
But it was Sanu's first touchdown catch of the season a few players later on a leaping six-yarder the Bengals hope ignites a run by the non-A.J. receivers. Since wide receiver Marvin Jones had four touchdown catches against the Jets on Oct. 27, Sanu's TD is the only one from Sanu, the other starter, and Jones, the third receiver.
And Dalton has had a tough time hooking up with them for completions in the last three games. In the previous four games he had gone to Jones 19 times with 17 catches for six touchdowns. Since then, Jones has had 16 targets for six catches with no TDs after making one catch last week on two tries against Cleveland.
Jones and Sanu are ranked 44th and 47th, respectively, in the NFL when it comes to catching percentage of targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones has just one drop and Sanu has five, according to PFF.
But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden doesn't see much difference in the way defenses are attacking his other options.
"The good thing is usually if they have a marquee corner like (Cleveland's) Joe Haden, (Jones) is usually going to get the second one," Gruden said. "He should have a matchup we feel good about every week. This last week it was just a weird game. We had those two early interceptions and then the next thing you know we're up 31-13 and it's windy and rainy and we really didn't have to throw the ball that much. We really feel like Marvin can go up against anybody and have a good day."
Jones says maybe corners have become a little more physical, but he sees no major differences in coverage. When the Ravens denied him six times on seven targets back on Nov. 10, Jones chalked that up to a defense with two safeties playing behind the coverage of him and Green on the outside (two-high), but he said no one is taking him away.
"It's not like somebody is locking me up; that's not happening," Jones said. "All I can control is what I can control … there's no difference. I'm still the same guy. I'm still running the same routes and I've got to catch the ball when it comes my way."
Jones, a native of Orange County, is coming home Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) for the game in San Diego and it was right about this time last season in his rookie year he started to come on. It was also the stretch that Sanu didn't play last year because he broke his foot in practice the day before the Bengals left for San Diego for the game on Dec. 2.
Knock on wood and Sanu says he has been thinking about the games he missed.
"I was thinking during the bye week that this is the point I didn't play and I need to come off this week and keep making an impact," Sanu said.
He admitted he felt "a sigh of relief" after scoring last week as he tries to regain the touch from last year, when he scored four red-zone touchdowns in the three games before he got hurt.
But this is a much different looking receiving corps. Sanu started the season as the slot receiver, but now he's pretty much only playing first and second down with Dane Sanzenbacher and/or Andrew Hawkins in the slot with Green and Jones on the outside on third down. Last week, Sanu played 21 snaps while Sanzenbacher (20) and Hawkins (5) combined for 25.
"Coach has been using a lot of different guys. He knows what he's doing and we've got to let him do what he's doing," Sanu said. "It's tough with so many receivers. Everybody wants the ball and there's only one ball to pass around. You have to keep doing everything you can to spread the ball around and we've been doing a great job at that."
One of the questions dogging the Bengals offense is if the lack of consistency stems from having so many weapons and if the process is still ongoing about who fits where. But Gruden says he likes the diversity and believes it is one of the team's strengths.
"I like keeping people fresh and that's the big thing. If you have a number of guys that can help you, we should never have a guy say he's tired," Gruden said. "So we can sub guys in and out and guys can be fresh and playing fast. If I see a guy on film running a route slowly because he's tired, then we're doing a poor job. Because there's no reason. We have able guys. Hopefully we have fresh guys all over the joint at receiver and tight end. We have to make sure we keep them fresh so they're running hard.
"Our guys are playing hard, they're running well and I feel good about any of these guys in the game at any given time. I really have no preference right now. If you ask what our favorite personnel grouping is, or who are our best receivers other than obviously A.J., I could go a lot of different ways. I feel good about all of them."
STILL BACK: The Bengals are hoping their defensive line rotation gets a boost Sunday with the return of second-year tackle Devon Still. It's a much different universe from the one where he injured his elbow against Detroit on Oct. 20. Still rejoins a line without two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and where tackles Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson have taken pretty much all the first and second down snaps inside.
"I look forward to helping any way I can. DP and Brandon are taking all the reps. They're getting tired out there," Still said, "It's good that we can somewhat get that rotation back in place."
Still worked for the first time Monday and said he had no problems with the elbow, but he's waiting to see how it responds Wednesday, when he expects the team will go in shoulder pads.
What has also happened since Atkins got hurt is that no one has had a true set position up front and while the club has only talked about using Still some at end, it could be an option.
"I played it in college in nickel," Still said. "They talked about it during games … like in cases where Mike (Johnson) and them got hurt and they had to come in and get checked. But it didn't play out that way because they ended up being able to go back into the game. Whatever position they want me to play on that line, I'll play."