Brandon LaFell had a season-high 95 yards Sunday.
Yes, Virginia. There is life after A.J. Green. And, it would seem, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
With Green shelved for the third straight game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Eagles dared his replacements to beat them with one-on-one coverage. When the smoked cleared from quarterback Andy Dalton's red rifle on a misty and rainy riverbank, rookie wide receiver Cody Core's first NFL catch was the first 50-yarder by a Bengals wide receiver since September, rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd's three catches upped his NFL-leading total among rookies to 18 third-down catches, and veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell converted third down three times on his way to a season-high 95 yards in the Bengals' 32-14 victory.
"When they go out there and play us one-on-one and Andy has time we have be able to get open and make plays," LaFell said. "Because it's real disrespectful when you play guys one-on-one all game."
There had been no dis-respect, but there had been an annoying hum ever since Green went down with a grade two hamstring tear on the second snap of the Nov. 20 loss to Buffalo. Dalton was coming off his worst four-game stretch since a Green-less patch in 2014. Plus, even before Green went down Dalton has been hit this season the most he's ever been hit and one of the theories is that he had been holding the ball because his receivers aren't getting open. And the longest catch by a wide receiver had been only 23 yards since Green went down.
But Core grabbed the 50 strafing cornerback Nolan Carroll and LaFell struck for 44 challenging cornerback Leodis McKelvin and his tender hamstring as Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz uncharacteristically unbuttoned his shirt to pressure Dalton and the Bengals offensive line didn't give up a sack for the first time all season. Dalton looked 2015 MVP good, spinning a 130 passer rating while hitting 74 percent of his passes chewing up gobs with each throw on nearly 11 yards per attempt
"We felt that was part of their plan,' said Dalton after his best passer rating day in more than a year. "They stacked the box a little bit and played one-on-one on the outside and our guys won. They definitely got open today. I think it just comes from the rhythm and timing and another week of working together with some of the guys that are in there now with A.J. out."
Yes, the Eagles are in the market for an elite edge rusher and upgraded corners, but this is also a defense that came in ranked eighth in the league, tied for fifth overall in scoring, and 10th in generating sacks per pass.
"It was a team effort on offense," said veteran right tackle Eric Winston, who made his first start of the season in place of Cedric Ogbuehi. "It's funny, you know when you're making some big plays when you look up and you see we've got 300 yards passing and you wonder how did we do that? We got big plays and that's important.
"They're good up front. I think we held them out as long as we could. I think our guys made plays down field and that's important," Winston said. "(The Eagles) had shown they were willing to gamble and be a little more aggressive than Schwartz has been in the past. I give our guys a lot of credit in the sense every one of our guys stepped up and made big plays. James Wright did, Cody Core did. Some unlikely names. Brandon LaFell was rock solid again and Tyler Boyd is stepping up and starting to take more of a mainstay role in this offense. That stuff is important. It's important to see all those names up on the board because when A.J. is out the ball has to go somewhere and we've got to get that production."
Cody Core celebrated his first NFL catch Sunday.
That's what the Bengals are seeing now. Bengals Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert is now getting the attention afforded Green and while he made a diving 13-yard touchdown catch at the end of the half ("Huge," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It swung the momentum."), it was his last of two catches.
"We've been getting more man-to-man coverage and they feel like we'll let these guys beat us and they're doubling Eifert," LaFell said. "And when they get up they start blitzing and just sitting with coverage in the back end."
After blitzing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers just seven times on 41 passes last week, profootballfocus.com had the Eagles blitzing Dalton 10 times on 31 passes and they took advantage. Whitworth said the Eagles were sending second-down blitzes and he says that's a reason the Bengals could only get 2.4 yards per carry on 33 rushes.
Bengals players wear specialized cleats dedicated to different causes and charities.
"But that gives you other opportunities," Whitworth said.
And the line held up while Dalton converted five third downs of at least seven yards with two going to LaFell, one to Boyd, one to Core and one to running back Rex Burkhead on a marvelous scramble that ignited the two-minute touchdown march at the end of the half.
"Third down was the big reason the game was the way it was," Dalton said.
Leading 3-0, Dalton faced a third-and-eight from his 45 and threw the 50-yard beauty to Core running what Fox analyst Chares Davis called "a mature route," as he deked the safety and then ran past Carroll from the middle to the left sideline. It was third-and-long because on the previous play Core ran flush into Burkhead running a sweep that lost two yards.
"The play before we switched the play. I ran the first play instead of the second play," Core said. "That's me. There's no better way to make up for it than on third down."
Core, the sixth-rounder out of Mississippi, called his first NFL catch "amazing." Just like they plucked Marvin Jones out of the 2012 draft in the fifth round, they think they've got something in a 6-3, 210-pounder that has speed to separate to go along with size and physicality. He showed it Sunday when he pulled away from Carroll and while Carroll claimed Core pushed off it was also clear that Carroll was dishing it out and on the broadcast Davis praised Core for keeping his eyes on the ball and the route on course despite getting jostled.
"I got a win so I got open and made the play," Core said. "He was trying to grab me and I knocked his hand down. I got a little separation and caught it. I wouldn't say I pushed off. He was a little touchy. I just knocked his hands down."
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd had three more catches on third down, two for first downs.
He ended up on the Eagles 2, so close as he stretched out.
"I wanted to get in the end zone. But helping the team win is amazing," Core said. "It was close. He got me below my jersey. I figured he would dive for my legs."
That set up running back Jeremy Hill's two-yard touchdown to make it 10-0. Then it was LaFell's turn on the first drive of the second half. On third-and-10 Dalton had time to float a 44-yarder to LaFell running past McKelvin. Then on third-and-five from the Eagles 8, he saw LaFell beat bracket coverage and threw it just high enough and far enough so LaFell could stay in the back of the end zone long enough to make it 26-0.
"Our coach was saying we not only have to beat man coverage, but we also have to beat the rush," LaFell said. "Philly has one of the best defensive lines in the league. We knew if 91 (tackle Fletcher Cox) and 55 (end Brandon Graham) got going it was going to be a long day for us. We got the ball out quick, we beat them quick and let Andy throw the ball in rhythm and on time."
The 44-yarder was a Dalton pearl thrown right over LaFell's shoulder in the middle of the field, one of seven successful third-down conversions out of 14. Dalton had all the time he needed.
"On that play everybody has their routes," LaFell said. "We throw the ball to spots that play. So I had to beat my man to get to a certain spot and Andy, man, you can't throw that ball any better. The ball was right there. My defender was behind me. Me, man, ball, that's what we teach around here."
What they also teach around here is throwing the ball high in the back of the end zone so only security can get it if not the receiver. That's what happened on his eight-yard touchdown catch.
"Andy had the safety cheating to the other side, he looked him off and the ball was in the perfect place where only I could get it," LaFell said.
Sunday's only unease is that in the 12th game of the season the Bengals benched one of their prized first-round picks in Ogbuehi and went with an 11-year year veteran like Winston. But Winston played well Sunday and the man now looks to be Jake Fisher, the second-round pick from Ogbuehi's 2015 class that rotated with Winston Sunday. Except for his first pass set on the game's third series, it looked like he held up.
"That's hard going in there like that," said Winston, who has been doing it for the last month. "He was sitting down for a quarter. He didn't get in there until the second quarter. Fisher is a guy that's been around and it was good to see him get some snaps."
Ogbuehi stayed on the bench even when Whitworth briefly left with a leg injury. He came back and the line finished off its first sack-less day since Nov. 29, 2015 in a PBS win over the Rams.
"Both those guys came in and did a good job," Whitworth said. "It's nice to have that and keep that rhythm, and they came in and played well."
Fisher left when he bruised his knee making his second NFL catch when he lined up as a tight end late in the game. But after it was over, he said he'd be back next week in Cleveland.
The Bengals hope the same thing for their offense.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Philadelphia Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium in week 13 of the regular season 12/4/2016