Offense finds Greener pastures

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Not his best catch, A.J. Green says.

Right tackle Eric Winston tells A.J. Green all the time that he's the best player on the field "probably by a lot,' and to go play like  it.

On Sunday he told him that even before his Steve Sabol-NFL-Films tip-tip-catch masterpiece for a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown on the last play of the first half kept the Browns' hellish winless season alive for another week as the air-out-of-the balloon play in a 31-17 victory at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

"And he's been playing like it," Winston said of Green's torrid 1,771-yard pace. "Let's face it. In this league hopefully every team has a few stars. He's a bright, bright star. We have to keep finding ways to get him the ball. That Hail Mary catch was unbelievable, but so was the (48-yarder) down the sideline. But he does it all the time."

Enough that when you talk about the best wide receiver in the NFL, the answer just may be Adriel Jeremiah Green. His third 150-yard plus game with a touchdown this season gives him nine in his career, tying him for the lead on the active list with Steve Smith Sr. and Andre Johnson.

Green yanking the tipped ball out of a maze of four Browns with one hand and pulling it into his body to give them a 21-10 half-time lead symbolized the 3-4 Bengals pulling  within a game of 4-3 Steelers in first place and into a tie for second with the 3-4 Ravens in the suddenly jammed AFC North.

"It was going be a gut check. We were down two four. We can't go to 2-5. Not an option. We've got some great leaders,' said Green, who is certainly one of them after offering a 169-yard clinic on eight catches romping through the Cleveland green-as-grass secondary.

Now the offense can see some light as they head for London and a date next Sunday with old friend Jay Gruden's Washingtonians.  Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert, their maestro of the red zone, played for the first time this year and even though he played sparingly (one catch for nine yards on two targets and 15 snaps) he said he's ready to play as much as needed. The running game, dormant all season, ripped off its biggest game in 16 years with 271 yards, more than half the 539 they lugged into Sunday. And quarterback Andy Dalton's 11 yards per pass attempt generated 559 yards, the most since a 1990 overtime win in Los Angeles.

In a twist of fate that could only happen in Bengaldom, Browns head coach Hue Jackson, the Bengals offensive coordinator the previous two seasons who helped engineer Dalton's career year and 8-0 start last year, reportedly took off his headsets late in the game and gave the play-calling duties to Pep Hamilton in frustration that can only come from playing his sixth quarterback.

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Another big day for Brandon LaFell with 83 yards on four catches. His projected pace of 850 yards would be the most by a Green running mate.

As Green regaled the media with tales of how he uses those hands to be a handyman around the house, the Bengals hope to be building something close to that 2015 offense.

"The explosive runs were amazing for this offense," said wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who had an acrobatic 44-yard touchdown catch himself. "It shows you how much things spread out. They start putting extra guys in the box and we were able to take shots. In order for us to keep making these shot plays and big plays in the run game, receivers have to continue to block and Jeremy (Hill) needs to keep running that thing the way he's been running."

LaFell and Winston, imported veterans have seen it all before. Winston sees it the other way, too.

"Getting the ball down the field helps the running game," Winston said. "It helps stretch out the safeties. They can't come up for support as quickly. I thought we did a great job with play-action passes down the field. All of it ties into itself. When A.J. and LaFell are making catches down the field, the safeties just can't come as close in the run game."

LaFell got his touchdown, which put the Bengals back ahead, 14-10, with 4:09 left in the first half, beating one-on-one coverage by a wide margin on first down on a double move down the left sideline. Cornerback Tramon Williams Sr., let him off the line as Dalton hunched his shoulder slightly as if to run a zone read with running back Giovani Bernard.

"He was in off coverage. He bit on the move and he tried to grab me at the top. I just went by him," LaFell said. "Us running the ball like that and having guys (that have to) play one-on-one coverage lets us get behind those guys and make plays. They were sucking up on play-action."

Whether the run opens up the pass or the pass opens up the run, it all starts with the best player on the field. But how Green got a chance to make the play of the day is a story in itself. With the crowd already restless with a meager 14-10 lead over the winless Browns, they booed the Bengals' hesitant clock management from their own 15 with 1:03 left in the half.

Jackson appeared to help his old friend make up his mind to go for a score when Jackson called a timeout with 58 seconds left. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis then called one with 47 seconds left after they got a first down.

When Green pirouetted for a 16-yard gain with 20 seconds left at the Browns 49, they were in business. Until right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi's troubles continued and he gave up a sack. And when running back Giovani Bernard had plenty of room down the sideline to get in field goal range but he, with help from the pass, couldn't stay on the field and went out of bounds at the Browns 48 with seven seconds left, the call was "Hail Mary."

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Marvin Lewis, now 2-0 vs. his former assistants, eyes Jay Gruden across the pond next Sunday.

"I don't know if he was the tipper or I was the tipper," Eifert said. "They say if you can go up and get it, go get it. Just make the play."

Green says "Hail Mary," is simply everyone meeting in the back of the end zone and it is to no one in particular. If you're out of the end zone, tip it in.

"I got a clean break off the line, so I beat everybody else down there and I had the first dibs on the jump ball," Green said. "I was just trying to get my hand on it. Someone was holding my left arm, so all I was trying to do was get one hand on it."

And he did. Amid four Browns. He tipped it with the right hand at the top of his jump and as he came down he kept his eye on it as it bounced out of the scrum and he tipped it again before snatching it with the right hand.

"I tipped it to myself. I felt it twice off my fingertips a little bit. It was pretty sweet," Green said.

Ho hum. As Green impassively broke down the play in full gear in front of his locker, LaFell recounted how he ripped off his chin strap in excitement as he ran into the end zone.

"I was very excited for my guy. That has to be in Sports Center's top ten," LaFell said. "He's never excited. He doesn't show any emotions … Every time A.J. makes a big catch, he just shrugs his shoulders. That's A.J. … As long as he keeps making plays like that, he can do that."

The Cincinnati Bengals host the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in week 7 of the regular season 10/23/2016

Green shrugged.

He says he's had more difficult catches.

His best catch ever?

Another shrug.

"I had some good ones in college and some good ones in high school," Green said.

But yes, he liked this one better than the 51-yard Hail Mary that tied a game in Baltimore that got lost in overtime three years ago. It will be recalled after that game that Green scolded himself for nearly running himself out of the play when he put his head down to run and he ran past the scrum at the goal line and the ball just happened to be tipped to him in the back of the end zone.

"That was right place, right time," Green said. "I like this one. This one. We won."

And, maybe in a way, it set up Hill's 74-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach early in the third quarter, 28-17, out of one of Jackson's funky shifts that dominated the playbook the previous two seasons.

More irony.

On second-and-nine from their own 26, Winston started off next to left tackle Andrew Whitworth. He then shifted to right tackle and tight end Tyler Kroft came along with him. Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling pulled, Winston and Kroft sealed and ….

"(The shifts) keep the defense off balance. The more they have to think, the slower they play," Winston said. "We ran it last year and the year before. It's an old play. I'm sure the old Washington (teams) with the Hogs ran it. I ran it in high school. It's been around awhile, but we've done well with it."

Sure the Browns are winless. And they're near the bottom on defense and on Sunday their secondary had the experience of a college all-star team rather than an AFC North entry.

But, like LaFell said, they were in a bad way and needed a win.

"If anything else, it gives us confidence. It reinforces what we've been saying," Winston said. "We can do it, we're close, but we have to commit to it. I think it helped that we came out right away and scored a touchdown and played most of the game with a lead.

"If you really looked at our running game, I feel like we've had had some good holes," Winston said. "But there was one guy that we missed or one guy that didn't break a tackle. Whatever it might be because everyone of us took a turn. I feel like today we were getting at guys downfield and we were breaking those tackles."

This was the balanced offense everyone envisioned. Like a guy like LaFell when he signed in free agency. But there was no time for reminiscing Sunday.

"It's a lot of fun when it's like this, but we have to keep doing it," LaFell said. "We need to go on a run."

Start with Hill's nine runs and go from there.

 
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