A.J. Green, the Bengals franchise receiver for their generational quarterback, admitted before Thursday's practice that he's rusty as he gets used to head coach Zac Taylor's offense
But he's got company. He hasn't forgotten a pass interference call wiped out his winning touchdown catch in the opener or that he got bounced around in Cleveland last Thursday night while being held to three catches and 29 yards despite 13 targets.
(The Bengals think he got held on the game's first snap, an incomplete bomb on which Green made a diving catch out of bounds.)
"I think the officials are rusty as well. We'll keep it at that," Green said.
But he can feel it. The greats know.
After not playing a full game since the last weekend in October 2018, because of toe and ankle injuries, Green is off to the slowest start of his career with eight catches for 80 yards in the first two games. The only stretch close is five years ago when he opened 2015 with eight catches for 108 yards. The only time he didn't have one catch of least 20 yards in the first two games was eight years ago in his second season.
"We know I missed a year and a half and then came into a new offense, so we've still got a lot of stuff to work out with myself. We've still got to get some things ironed out," Green said. "I'm just still rusty. I'm still learning this system, I'm still trying to get comfortable in the routes that I'm running. Just little things like that. I knew there were going to be growing pains, but I want to be great and I accept the challenge. For me, all I know is to keep working and I know I'll get better each week."
There are a couple of issues at play. Before rookie quarterback Joe Burrow arrived, 59 of Green's 63 touchdowns had been delivered by Andy Dalton, so there has been a new arm to learn. Then, what time the pandemic left for them to bond was taken away by Green's balky hamstring that basically took him out of Burrow's entire training camp.
"New quarterback, it's the first time in the offense and we had no preseason," Green said. "What we have to correct is going to be on the fly. We have a good group of guys. For me, I just have to keep working to get better. Just little things, me and Joe have to meet together. We are going to go over a lot of things about what he sees and what he likes and what I need to do better. "
As Taylor noted after the Cleveland game, Green had only four full-speed team practices. And that highlights the other issue of Green playing in a new offense for the first time. While Green had four offensive coordinators before Taylor arrived, the scheme was basically the one Jay Gruden installed when Green was a rookie. Taylor's scheme is brand new for Green since he never played in a game last season.
"It's different. It's definitely not my first couple years," Green said. "This is a whole different offense. It's more complex. You're moving around more. There are a lot of different things. So, for me, it's just getting comfortable with all these routes and all these concepts and all these positions."
Take a look at that first play in Cleveland. The 30-plus-yarder that Green nearly kept in bounds with his fantasy footfall. Who knows? Maybe back in the day his sleight-of-hand footwork would have saved the day again like it seemed to do at least once a game.
"I could have gotten my feet in and I definitely could have dragged my right foot. I'm used to that, that's just some of the stuff I need to see more and do more and just get back into playing football again," Green said. "You can't say what if, what if. It didn't happen, so you have to continue to work."
And he will do that. Don't expect him to surface on the injury report resting.
"I don't know anything but work. I want to work every day," Green said. "No days off. No matter my age. I feel like when I have to start monitoring my reps in practice, it's time for me to leave. My body feels good, so I'm going to go until whenever. I want to practice every day, so I don't believe in all that body resting early in the season."
MIXON SEARCHING: With 35, running back Joe Mixon has the same number of carries as Austin Ekeler, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Josh Kelley, Jonathan Taylor and one fewer than Melvin Gordon and all have more yards than his 115 at 3.3 per carry.
Hard to take for the man that rushed for more yards over the second half of last season than everybody but NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry, already with a staggering 56 attempts.
But his offensive line isn't the same line. There's a new left tackle in Jonah Williams and there have been three right guards. In Philadelphia Sunday, Fred Johnson gets his second NFL start at right guard.
Mixon agreed that could be part of the slow start as they try fight through the fewer camp reps.
"A little bit. I would think so. I mean you've got guys that are not so experienced and you've got guy's that's trying to pick up them guys that aren't experienced," Mixon said before Thursday's practice. "Our veterans do a good job with the leadership that they show in the O-line room and then coach (line coach Jim) Turner, he be on that line all the time. For me, I'm going to just try to do whatever I can in the running game to stay locked in and true to my reads and get them two and three yards. Because by you doing that, you're wearing the defense down. And no matter what, you keep calling them runs, eventually it's going to start popping. Like I said, just try to do whatever I can to stay true to my reads and to the game."
The toughest run to swallow Thursday night was the goal-line call where Mixon immediately got turned sideways for a four-yard loss. It shows you how much timing you need in the run game and how one breakdown can blow it up. It turned out to be rookie tackle Hakeem Adeniji's first NFL snap as the extra lineman and when he struggled the play never got off the ground.
Mixon gets it. He's just trying to help.
"Last week the guard got caught up trying to pull and he just blew up the play. We've just got to execute on the goal line," Mixon said. "These things are out of my control. At the same time, I stay true to my read and if I can make something happen, I will. But on the goal line you're supposed to get north and south. That's what you plan on doing every time. But when they blew up the play, I was trying to make something happen. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose."
INJURY UPDATE: It looks like the Bengals won't have defensive tackles Geno Atkins (shoulder) and Mike Daniels (groin) for a second straight game. Daniels was dressed and on the field for the start of practice, but was listed as not practicing because of the injury and personal reasons.
GREEN REACTS: Green was asked about the lack of police indictments stemming from the Breonna Taylor shooting in Louisville, Ky., and if it would spark more protests across the NFL.
"I think this is bigger than just protesting. I think it's bigger than the flag," Green said. "It's bigger than all that, so I know a lot of people are going to be angry. It's just, 'How can we change this? How can we change this narrative about black people?' Like I said, it always starts from the ground up and we've got a long way to go."