Rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins caught his first two NFL touchdowns Sunday as well as two big tips he chalked up as lessons the day after a very busy 23-23 game in Philadelphia for the Bengals second-rounder.
Meanwhile, his idol, franchise wide receiver A.J. Green, keeps knocking off the rust still in search of his first 20-yard catch of the season, tying the longest big-play drought of his career.
Higgins gave himself a C despite scoring both Bengals touchdowns on passes of one and four yards from fellow rookie Joe Burrow, two of Burrow's rookie record 91 completions in his first three games.
That's because, A) he felt like he should have come down with what have been a 30-yard catch in overtime that may have broken it open and B) he knew he shouldn't have let the Eagles bump him out of bounds because it negated Burrow's 20-yard Houdini throw to him late in regulation.
Stand-up guy, this Higgins. He said to blame both plays on him. And, plus, he missed some blocks, too, Higgins said.
"I mean, Joe Burrow, he's like magician," Higgins said in Monday's Zoom. "He's always going to keep a play alive, and I just saw him make a play. At the time, I did not realize that I did step out of bounds, but I was just trying to find a void to get open to where he can make a pass and we can make a play."
Wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, who loves what Higgins has brought to the table from Clemson, began his Monday meeting by making sure his guys understand the NFL rule with a refresher course.
"Honestly, I can't remember what the rule is in college," Higgins said. "At first I thought if you were pushed out you could re-establish, but now I know that once you're out, you're dead no matter what. You can't be the first one to touch the ball. That one is on me."
But Bicknell is positive Higgins won't do it again. He's one of these don't-make-the-same-mistake guys and Bicknell is impressed with how Higgins does such things as going through a second walkthrough with assistant receivers coach Troy Walters after Bicknell installs the classroom on the field.
"He does a good job preparing. He takes it seriously and he's done a good job getting himself up to speed," Bicknell said.
Bicknell has been around the league long enough and well enough that when he went on the field Sunday he was on the sideline with his two-time 1,000-yard receiver in Tyler Boyd and on the other sideline was another of his 1,000-yard receivers in the Eagles' DeSean Jackson from seven years ago. Bicknell says what Higgins is doing (eight catches for 75 yards and two TDs in his first three games) is "really remarkable a little bit."
TOP BENGALS WRS OF LAST 20 YEARS
(First three games)
- A.J. Green, 2011 - 15-194, 2 TDs
- Peter Warrick, 2000 - 11-170, 0 TDs
- Chris Henry, 2005 - 10-130, 1 TD
- Tyler Boyd, 2016 - 11-120, 0 TDs
- Tee Higgins, 2020 - 8-75, 2 TDs
- T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 2001 - 6-62, 0 TDs
- Chad Johnson, 2001 - 2-28, 0 TDs
- Marvin Jones, 2012, - 1-5 0 TDs
- Mohamed Sanu, 2012 - 0-0-0
"With no offseason. These guys came in and just started practicing and now we're playing games and the season has just kind of gone by," Bicknell says. "It's tough. Just being able to throw and catch with everybody and learning the offense and all those things has been tough, so he's done a good job."
The big overtime throw was just so close. Burrow threw it on a beautiful line and Higgins had a step on cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. When Higgins brought his hands back, Robey-Coleman reached in at the last instant.
"I feel like that play is all on me," Higgins said. "They brought me into this organization to make those plays, and those are the plays that receivers like me have to make. Whether it be attacking the ball or showing my hands late, that's things that I have to work on. Everyone's good in this league. Those are plays I have to make.'
Higgins was even taking advice from a defensive player before that sequence.
"The crazy thing is Carlos Dunlap, he told me the play before because it kind of happened earlier in the game, that I showed my hands early," Higgins said. "And he told me that you've got to show him late. I heard what he said, but I wasn't thinking at the time. That's something I have to work on."
The Bengals defenders know all about late hands because no one is better at it than Green.
Bicknell: "Because the ball is coming that way, you can be late with our hands. A.J. does an unbelievable job of that. Just being late throwing your hands because if the defender looks at you and sees your hands go up to catch the ball, they shoot right to your hands. That's exactly what happened."
But this was also a coming-out party as well as a classroom and there were plenty of plays to celebrate and celebrate Higgins did. Before the game his mother gave him a motivational talk and they actually talked about touchdowns.
On the first one, a play-action flip from the 1, Higgins did a dance that his old college buddy, linebacker Isaiah Simmons, a rookie with the Cardinals, came up with and they vowed to do it. Higgins did it first because his first touchdown beat Simmons' first sack.
The second one came from the four on a slant and Higgins went with "The Bobble Walk," a dance he had seen on his phone just before he took the field Sunday.
"I just had to beat the defender with speed. The defense actually played a different kind of coverage than we thought," Higgins said. "Joe just fit it right there in the middle in a hole. I just had to make a play."
It was that touchdown that Bicknell thinks shows how tough it's been for Green. Not only is he playing for the first time in two years while learning a new offense, but foes won't let him step right in and become the old A.J. either.
It was Green who slanted opposite Higgins in the end zone and while the safety jumped Green to double him with the cornerback, Higgins snuck behind two linebackers to convert the juicy matchup.
"A.J.'s going to be fine. The other teams know where he is," Bicknell says. "It takes time learning the offense, plus getting your feet back under you and getting your legs back. It's frustrating, but it takes time and he'll get there. The guy's a great player."
When Bicknell arrived in Cincinnati in 2018, it was the last year of the Jay Gruden West Coast structure that Green had been in since he was a rookie. Gruden was long gone, but in '18 Bill Lazor, Green's fourth OC, was running his version of basically the same thing.
When Zac Taylor was hired last year, he brought a whole new system. Even though Green sat in on the installs while he was injured and missed all of '19, it just wasn't the same as playing.
"You have to learn everything," Bicknell says. "Even the way we talk to each other. A.J. played a lot of X receiver and the way they talked to the X, it was similar with Jay and Bill. Maybe not as much now."
Brian Callahan, Taylor's offensive coordinator, also doesn't expect Green to keep on this pace of 13 catches and 116 yards for not even nine yards per catch.
"I think every time he steps out there, he gets better and gets more comfortable," Callahan said, squeezing in a conference call on the always hectic Monday. "He really hasn't taken reps in the offense up until the season started, you know? He's been in meetings and he's been attentive and he understands. But going out and doing it sometimes is a lot different than it is sitting in a classroom.
"And that part of it, every day that goes by, he gets more comfortable. He gains more confidence. We need A.J. to help us. We've called on him in some big spots already this year and he's made plays for us. We've got to continue to find ways to get him the ball and give him more opportunities to make plays as well."
Green isn't the only guy still trying to pick it up. Callahan was displeased about their ability to execute the rub plays, where receivers use their own guys to get open against man coverage. It's not a concept that was used a lot in Gruden's offense and Green didn't look real good on two third-down throws over the middle that were nowhere near the sticks.
Come to find out Monday, Callahan believes Green could have broken both for big plays if someone else had done their job. On the first drive of the game on a third-and-two, tight end Drew Sample, in his first start in place of C.J. Uzomah as the man tight end, didn't get deep enough on his route and Green had no room on the back side. On third-and-four in overtime, Green couldn't get away from cornerback Darius Slay for any yards when it appeared wide receiver Auden Tate missed his legal pick on Slay coming across the middle.
"A.J. probably runs for another 20 or 30 yards after the pick," Callahan said.
Callahan doesn't think Green is now a possession receiver. He sees the long plays coming.
"I think coming off a hamstring injury that limited him for most of camp, I think he finally feels like he' fully ready to open it up," Callahan said. "He's done a lot of good things so far. He's caught a lot of contested balls that have been first downs and good plays for us to move the chains down the field. Finding ways to get A.J. down the field some more is something we need to keep prodding and pushing to get to that spot."
When Higgins pops a big one with late hands, he'll know who to thank.
"(Green) is a hard practice player and he's a guy who is going to go out there and teach when he can," Higgins said. "He's a guy who is willing to help others in a way like when guy has his head down he's going to bring you up. He's just a guy that goes out there and practices hard no matter what."