Lack of separation. Zero speed. That's been the constant cry of Bengaldom in a year without A.J. Green and John Ross to stretch the field and scorch defensive genius. You just have to read Tom Brady's Sunday night lips and Zac Taylor's Wednesday morning mind to know how important that all is across the NFL.
For the Bengals that means Andy Dalton, whose lack of big plays cost him his job. For running back Joe Mixon, the reigning AFC rush champ TKO'd by eight-man fronts sitting on the remaining receivers. For 1,000-yard receiver Tyler Boyd wriggling to get free. That's why Ross' return to play Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Cleveland has given the week around Paul Brown Stadium some snap.
"Can't play the safety six yards in the box. It helps me a lot. If you do, we'll make you pay for it," says Mixon of the Ross Factor. "It's that simple. I'm happy to have him back. I'm sure Andy is. I'm sure Tyler is. It makes my job easier when you've got a seven-man box instead of an eight, nine man box."
Here's the thing. You can put the star-crossed Ross right in there with first-year head coach Zac Taylor's offense that has lacked Green all year and Ross most of it. There is that tantalizing might-have-been and what-might-be shadow of potential lurking.
"We talk about that each and every day, just how special we can be," Ross says. "We have so many key pieces and so many guys who have proven themselves time and time again. We have a lot of guys stepping up and doing a lot of things. I feel like we can have a complete (offensive) room with everybody back."
You can play a lot of what if games now that Ross is back in the lineup for a game and you can start with one of his opposite numbers for the other team when the Browns' Jarvis Landry tees up his AFC-leading 919 yards Sunday.
Project Ross' 328 yards that he compiled in the first four games before breaking his sternoclavicular and if he had kept that pace he'd be leading the AFC with 984 yards.
Or take Ross' 20.5-yard average on his 16 catches. Could he have kept it rolling with 48 catches? Maybe you're looking at a guy like the Vikings' Stefon Diggs (50 catches at 18.1) or Titans rookie A.J. Brown (34-18.4) or the Steelers' James Washington (30-19.3).
Forget the projections, then. In the first four games Ross played the Bengals had nine passes of at least 30 yards and he had four of them, two of which are still the Bengals' longest plays of the season on Dalton touchdown passes of 66 and 55 yards. In the eight games since, they have six plays of at least 30 yards, according to Elias.
Dalton calls Ross the fastest man in the league, but that 4.22 combine-record 40-yard dash may be more curse than celebrated.
"That's what keeps guys in the league. The ability to separate," Ross says. "Every guy isn't a burner. It's more of a technique thing. There are guys who aren't 4.2 or 4.3. Look at Tyler Boyd. He separates each and every week from whoever goes up against him and that's just a testament to how talented he is. How hard he works. It's not (all) about speed. I try not to use speed for everything. There are a lot of things you have to practice. Once they figure out all you are is speed, you become a one-trick pony."
Whatever it is. Speed, separation, Ross gives them something they haven't had since 16 seconds left in the first half in the opener in Seattle.
Dalton stepped up in the pocket to fling the ball down field, safety Tedric Thompson misplayed the ball in front of Ross and Ross timed his leap perfectly after dismissing cornerback Tre Flowers by running past him on out-and-up, which Ross characterized as a wide go route because of that release off the line. The speed was nice, but go back to the release. Yeah, his speed wilted Flowers. But go back to the timing of his jump. Suddenly, a 55-yard play turned a 14-10 deficit into a 17-14 half-time lead.
(Note: Since Ross got hurt, they've scored 17 points or less six times.)
It wasn't so much a play call as it was a marker on the table at last call. You know, what the other teams do on those other highlights.
"It was, 'Give him a chance and let him make a play,'" Dalton recalls. "And he made it. When you get those chances you want to give guys the opportunity to make plays. And that was a big play at that moment. That was more that he played the ball really well and went up and got the high point."
Go back and the only other go-up-and-get-it-make-a-play of the season was Boyd's 47-yard one-handed beauty from Ryan Finley against the Steelers ten days ago that basically doubled their yardage in the first half on the last play before the two-minute warning.
The Bengals have had only one play longer than Ross' Seattle stunner and that was Ross' 66-yarder the next week on the one play the 49ers were trying to defend in the last moments of their rout. Ross and Taylor aren't sure how much he'll play this Sunday. But they think his timing is good. He began his third week of practice Wednesday and that first week he was running in the scout team with Dalton.
"We threw a touchdown pass," says Ross of two weeks ago when Dalton was playing Mason Rudolph. "We did some good things. It was fun, and once I got cleared, Andy was fired up, I was fired up … I had some time with Andy so I don't think it's so much the timing. I think it's that game-day groove that you kind of miss and you're not in the offense that long. It's hard to simulate a game during practice because there's only so many things you can do, so many looks you can give, but it's not full-speed tackling and things like that. So I think that's some of the things I'm going to have to adjust to real quick."
Ross' entire NFL career has been an adjustment. A perpetual comeback from injuries. He lost all but 17 snaps as a rookie because of shoulder surgeries and knee problems. Last year groin and hamstring issues nagged him, as did getting in some coaching doghouses. Still, he played 60 percent of the snaps and although he caught just 21 passes, seven went for touchdowns.
But he was truly breaking out this year until the Sept. 30 Monday night game in Pittsburgh when he thought the lights went out after his head hit in the ground. Fearing he had a concussion, instead he was told he had broken the bone between his breast bone and shoulder. He had the most painful three weeks of his life in more ways than. He was often slumped because there was too much pain to stand up, and he just couldn't believe his luck. He thinks it was a six-week fog.
"It was very frustrating, because I felt like I had done everything I was supposed to do to prevent a lot of soft tissue injuries and then I go out and get something that is a rare injury. It's almost like sometimes woe is me," Ross says. "This was a very rare injury that was very painful, so it was something I knew I couldn't control, but you feel like you've been doing everything right, living right, eating right, feeling good, and then this happens.
"It almost feels like it's supposed to happen, but I talked to my grandparents. They are people I can turn to all the time, and they told me, 'You can't look at it like that. Bad things happen to good people all the time.' I just had to let it go, take a couple breathers and I'm blessed to play again this year, so I'm happy about that."
So are his mates. Guys like Mixon and Dalton.
"Regardless of what he's doing, wherever he lines up, they're going to know that he's the fastest guy in the league," Dalton says. "His ability to play at that level and to have that speed on the field helps us out a lot."