Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who has watched A.J. Green catch everything in this 3-1 start, caught himself Wednesday when asked what style of receiver his gifted artist conjures on the canvas of the NFL.
"He's his own guy. I guess if you were to compare him, I don't know, I guess, I don't know," Gruden said after Wednesday's practice. "I don't want to compare him to Randy Moss because he put up numbers for a few years there that were sickening. I think he's got a ways to go but I think he's on the map right now. People know who he is. People are going to start comparing other people to him and not him to others."
Truth be told, when it comes to body type, the 6-4, 210-pound Green mirrors the 6-4, 210-pound Moss, and while Green says that's the guy he most closely resembles physically, Moss doesn't make his list of his top five favorite receivers.
That's a list of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and four current perennial Pro Bowlers: Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Roddy White, and the Johnsons of Detroit (Calvin) and Houston (Andre).
And after their first 20 NFL games, none have matched what Green has done in his first 19, a stretch he capped Sunday in Jacksonville when he racked up the first back-to-back 100-yard games of his career and finished the week with the second-most receiving yards in the NFL with 428. His defense can give him a hand because the man who leads Green by 27 yards, Miami's Brian Hartline, challenges the Bengals this Sunday (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530-AM) at Paul Brown Stadium.
|**FIRST 20 GAMES**||**CATCHES**||**YARDS**||**AVG.**||**TD**|
|**A.J. Green, CIN***||**92**||**1,485**||**16.1**||**10**|
|Larry Fitzgerald, ARI||85||1,148||13.5||10|
|Andre Johnson, HOU||83||1,331||16.1||6|
|Jerry Rice, SF||71||1,303||18.4||4|
|Calvin Johnson, DET||71||1,113||15.7||7|
|Roddy White, ATL||35||495||14.1||3|
|*Green's totals are through 19 games played.|
Green is closest to Calvin Johnson, a frequent workout partner in their offseason home of Atlanta, where Johnson played at Georgia Tech while Green checked into Georgia.
"I watched him at Georgia Tech when I was in high school. I watched him a lot in those first two seasons. He didn't have that great of a quarterback. He didn't have the numbers, but I always thought he was going to be a great player," Green said. "(The offseason) helped a lot. Just being around a guy of his stature and seeing his body of work. Just take little notes on how he works and I asked him different questions ... I just go out there and try to take the little things. Just the way he attacks the ball."
Since they are the closest in chronology and draft order (Johnson was the second pick in the 2007 draft and Green was the fourth in 2011), they seem to be constantly compared. Even though Green and Johnson have different body types and quarterback situations. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton came into the league together and haven't missed a beat while Johnson had to deal with a rookie quarterback in his third season that later got hurt.
"I'm just blessed to have a quarterback come in the same year as you and be productive," Green said. "Never take that for granted. I've talked to a lot guys and they say Andy and I have a great, special thing and I'll never take that for granted."
But these are the guys that Green is watching on tape. He knows he's a different type receiver, but he was still able to watch them and work on the one thing he wanted to improve this season when it came to getting off the line of scrimmage.
"I think I'm my own receiver. My body is different than a lot of guys. Calvin is big (6-5, 240). Larry is 6-3 like 220. I'm 6-4 like 210. I'm an average-sized guy, but I feel like my strength is my hands—I'm able to catch a lot of things—and my body control," Green said. "Stevie Johnson has one of the best releases in the game. How patient he is off the line. Larry, Andre. All the top receivers I watch.
"I'm more comfortable with the offense. Working on my release, being more patient off the ball when they try to pressure me. That's the biggest thing in my game is working off pressure coverage."
It certainly paid off in Jacksonville during his 30-minute torture of a pretty good NFL cornerback in Rashean Mathis. Green is finding out there is a fine line in beating double coverage that blurs into quickness and patience.
"A lot of times it looks like single coverage, but the safety is over the top and the safety doesn't get over there fast enough," he said. "That's just me being patient off my releases and selling different routes. ... When you're playing guys (shaded) to your side, the key is getting up the field fast. It's getting over there before the safety can."
The three longest throws to Green on Sunday (42, 30, 18) were courtesy of the right sideline and accurate darts from quarterback Andy Dalton that walled off the safety. Green finished off Mathis with the 18-yard TD off a fade when he froze Mathis with an inside move before going back to the sideline.
"I was being more patient on my releases. I have more time than I think. That's what I'm trying to work on," said Green, who may be watching guys like Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson because they've already played the Dolphins.
Gruden expects Miami to play Green like they played Johnson in the opener and Fitzgerald on Sunday, which is a combination of one-on-one from cornerback Sean Smith and Smith getting help over the top from a safety. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, just off an 11-year stint as the Bengals secondary coach, knows full well the danger of Green and comes straight from the church of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer that preaches no big play at the expense of constant blitzing.
(An interesting stat: The Bengals are tied for seventh most in the NFL with 16 passes of 20 yards or more. The Dolphins are tied for allowing the sixth-most 20-yard passes with 16.)
"Mathis has played a long time and covered a lot of great players and the week before (Redskins cornerback) DeAngelo Hall is not going to ask for help all the time and I don't think Sean Smith is going to want help every down either this week," Gruden said. "These guys are great players and they feel like they can cover anybody. They're not going to say, 'Hey, can you put a safety over me all the time?' They have pride and talent."
Miami's mixed coverages have split with the big guys. Last Sunday in the 24-21 loss to the Cards the Dolphins held Fitzgerald to eight catches for just 64 yards even though he was thrown 15 balls. He did score a TD, but his longest catch was just 13 yards. In Houston's 30-10 win in the opener, Andre Johnson wrecked the Dolphins on eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown.
"He's going to get singled. It's just a matter of us taking advantage of what he does," Gruden said. "(Jacksonville) won on some single matchups, too. But I think over the course of a game the more opportunities he gets in one-on-one coverage … if he gets eight of them, hopefully four or five of them are for big plays and that's what he's done so far."
Gruden smiled as he recalled that Green didn't make his first catch Sunday until the first snap after the two-minute warning in the first half.
"I said to myself, 'Self, not very smart. Let's try to throw it to A.J. every now and again,' " he said.
Whether he's singled or not.