The Bengals play the Colts' top-ranked defense Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) in Indianapolis and they're going to need A.J. Green to play like A.J. Green.
For one thing, it looks like he's going to play after he missed the second half in Baltimore with a hamstring injury. Before practice head coach Zac Taylor indicated Green would take Wednesday off for a rest day he has been taking lately and that he expects him to practice Thursday. But Green showed up on Wednesday's injury report as going limited.
There's a lot of uncharacteristic speculation these days surrounding Green, a guy Bengaldom has spent the last decade not worrying about one iota and why should it? The man has been a day-to-day solid franchise player even though he missed the last season-and-a-half with injuries.
But, hey, 2020 has been rough on everyone. He's caught one ball the last two games, which is unheard of, and he's caught just 14 of 33 targets (none longer than 15 yards) for a profootballfocus.com receiving percentage that puts him at the un-A.J. rank of 166 with catching 42.4 percent of his targets.
That's about 16 points below his career average and two years ago in 2018, a year that was cut in half by injury, he was at 60 percent. His total of 119 yards is the low of any five-game stretch in his career that began with seven straight Pro Bowls.
Plus, there's plenty of buzzing about his glowering demeanor while sitting on the bench since late in the first half after he aggravated the sore hamstring that wiped out most of his training camp.
All Taylor said Wednesday about his mental state is "he's in a great place."
But his production is not and everyone has had a guess why. At age 32, have the injuries made him a mere mortal? Or, can't pick up a new offense? Or, is the new offense not very good? But rookie quarterback Joe Burrow vowed Wednesday to simply improve his chemistry with Green.
"A.J. is a great player and I'm going to continue to try to get him the ball and we need to get him going," Burrow said in his Wednesday Zoomer, "He's a big part of this offense and we just have to get it going. We're going to need some better chemistry. We do.
"We're putting in a lot of work together. We're here you know 14, 15 hours a day so we're putting the work in to get things right."
Burrow blew off one obvious fact about 2020. He didn't get to meet or throw to Green until late July. It's been a tough year for science, chemistry included, but Burrow doesn't like to cite the no spring ball thing as an excuse.
"I don't know. It's a work in progress and we are going to get it right," Burrow said.
It's not like they're ignoring Green. He's got 33 targets while Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill and Emmanuel Sanders all have 35. But look at their receiving percentage, according to PFF. While Green is at 42 percent, Kupp is at 80, Evans and Hill both at 62.9 and the 33-year-old Sanders is at 74.3 percent.
"We've got a lot of confidence in the chemistry of that group. We feel like that's really coming along. It's one of those things you don't want to force," Taylor said. "It comes naturally. We've got a lot of good dudes in both of those rooms (offense and defense) that just want to be productive and help our team win. That's the bottom line. That's where I feel really good about this team right now is it's OK for guys to get frustrated throughout the team. When you don't win that's the expectation. We're at a place with this team where we can move past that stuff and still be a strong unit and be able to put that one quickly behind us and move forward to what's important the next week. I think that's the growth we've seen with this team over the two-year process."
Burrow is focused on getting Green involved, not forcing it, and they talk informally.
"Throughout the week we'll come up to each other and talk about certain routes on certain plays against certain coverages," Burrow said. "How each of us expects it to be run and expects the ball to be. Just little informal conversations throughout the week that really make or break the offense."
Taylor says much of the getting-on-the-same page stuff is done after practice.
"We certainly do more things now as groups post practice to make sure all those voices are being heard," Taylor said. "What's most important is not always the coaches getting up there installing and correcting and saying all the things we have to do, it's the players communicating with one another in a meeting setting. We create those opportunities for those guys to make sure they're all on the same page."
Green has to be a factor Sunday. The Cols are first against the pass, are holding foes to a 70 percent passer rating and they've got two cornerbacks (Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie) ranked in the top 20 of profootballfocus.com's positional grades.
INJURY UPDATE: Besides Green, slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander (hamstring), who hasn't played the last two games, went limited Wednesday. Darius Phillips (shoulder), who replaced him, didn't practice. Neither did wide receiver Auden Tate (shoulder). Also limited was running back Giovani Bernard (groin).
End Carlos Dunlap, who could be back in the starting lineup with Sam Hubbard (elbow) out, took a rest day. So did tackle Geno Atkins (shoulder) after he played his first 19 snaps of the season in Baltimore. The plan is he'll get more in Indy.
"I'd say that's a strong possibility. I'm not going to make any declarations on the snap count," Taylor said. "How it will play out because each team is different that you face, but certainly he's getting healthier as he goes."
ANOTHER KING PHILIP WAR: This is the fourth different city in which the Bengals play Colts quarterback Philip Rivers. All three of his regular-season wins over the Bengals have come in different cities: Cincinnati, San Diego and Los Angeles. They meet for the ninth time in his 17th season, knotted at four wins each with one of Rivers' wins coming in a Paul Brown Stadium 2013 Wild Card. He's looking to beat his fourth different Bengals quarterback after going 2-1 vs. Carson Palmer, 1-3 vs. Andy Dalton and 1-0 vs. Jeff Driskel.
And at 38, Rivers is older than the 37-year-old opposing head coach. Don't think Taylor hasn't noticed. When he was a backup at Wake Forest, Taylor remembers Rivers lighting up his team for North Carolina State.
"Maybe he doesn't move as well as he did in 2002," Taylor said, "but he's still dangerous and capable and has a great, high-football IQ and puts his team in great position. He gets the ball out to those backs on checkdowns before you can get him on the ground. I've just always had such high respect for him. I feel like I've watched every game he's played in for 20 years. I guess that has an effect on you."
Taylor says Rivers is the only guy that makes him think about the age thing.
"Just because I was a true freshman at Wake, a third-string quarterback, and you're playing really the first big-time quarterback you've ever seen in person," Taylor said. "He looked like a machine out there warming up, and he just diced us up in 2002 or whenever it was. For whatever reason, that makes an impact on you. So to coach against a guy like that is a little bit surreal."
Take a walk down memory lane looking back at some of the best images from the Bengals versus Colts series.