BEREA: It could have been one of the NFL’s marquee match ups in Week Two.
No, not the Browns and Bengals game as a whole. But the game inside of the game — the chess match that would have been dynamic Bengals receiver A.J. Green going against the Browns top corner Joe Haden.
Alas, it won’t happen in the teams’ first match up of the season. Haden will miss the next four games while serving a monthlong suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, reportedly for taking the attention-deficit disorder drug Adderall.
Without Haden, the Browns are forced to find a way today to slow down the 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green, who in just his second season out of Georgia, is becoming one of the league’s top receivers.
“He’s a physical specimen,” said Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker, who was drafted by Cincinnati and spent six seasons with the Bengals before signing with the Browns as a free agent. “The kid just has ‘it.’ In this game, there’s a whole bunch of guys who can play football. But when you watch film, you can tell the guys who have a natural ability. You can have a room full of guys, but Emmitt Smith stands out. Barry Sanders stands out. Now, A.J. stands out.”
The Bengals first-round pick (fourth overall) in the 2011 draft, Green led all rookies in receptions (65) and receiving yards (1,057) while tying for second with seven touchdowns last year. All this, despite missing a game and a half with a knee injury.
“His size, speed and ability to catch anything that’s coming his way, it’s hard to defend,” Rucker said. “It’s easy to say, ‘We’ll just double team him.’ But he still ends up with eight, 10 catches. They find a way to do a good job of getting him in a position to get the ball regardless.”
How do the Bengals manage to do that?
“They move him around,” Browns second-year coach Pat Shurmur said. “When you’re an outside receiver and you line up in a two-back slot, there’s times when you’re inside. … I see them trying to use him the same way and it was effective for them last year.”
Ah, last year. Green burned Cleveland twice on key plays (with Haden covering) that led to two Bengals victories, as he hauled in a total of four passes for 151 yards. In the season opener, a quick snap caught the Browns defense napping late in the fourth quarter, as Cincinnati backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski lobbed a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to Green for a memorable first NFL touchdown.
Then, in Week 12, Green caught three passes for 110 yards, including a clutch, fourth-quarter, come-from-behind 51-yard strike from quarterback Andy Dalton that set up Mike Nugent’s game-deciding field goal.
“He’s a big time threat, as we all know,” Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said of Green. “Scheme-wise, we’re going to do what we do. [But] Joe’s a guy who’s almost impossible to replace, because he’s such a good lockdown cover corner.”
But for as much as Haden’s absence will affect the Browns, Green seemed disappointed to not be going up against the former Florida Gator.
“Joe’s probably one of the premier corners in the league,” said Green, who had five receptions for 70 yards in the Bengals 44-13 Monday night loss to Baltimore. “I always looked forward to it in college when I used to play him. It was a great challenge for me and also for him.”
Without Haden, (coincidentally, the teams play each other again the first game when he returns from his suspension Oct. 14 in Cleveland), the Browns will take a varied approach in covering Green.
“We’re going to do it by committee,” safety T.J. Ward said. “We’ve got a lot of good defensive backs on this team, who I think are going to step up.”
Assuming veteran Sheldon Brown plays (he practiced all week despite nursing a sore neck), he and Dimitri Patterson will be the starters at corner. In nickel coverage, Patterson moves into the slot and second-year player Buster Skrine moves to the outside.
In the unlikely chance that Brown doesn’t play (he has a 161-consecutive regular season game streak on the line), then Patterson and Skrine will start. Rookie seventh-round pick Trevin Wade (who was inactive last week), would substitute in at slot in nickel packages.
“I’m just gonna take the same approach I’d take if Joe was there,” Green said. “They’ve got a lot of veterans who have played a lot of football, so I’m pretty sure they’re gonna step it up.”
One key to Green’s instant success in the NFL has been his working relationship with Dalton.
“You can tell the time they spend time together off the field watching film together,” Brown said. “They adjust routes and Andy will make some throws that young quarterbacks don’t make to young receivers. Andy trusts him that he’ll make a play. Even when you have him covered sometimes, he’ll make that throw.”
With Haden out for the next month, the Browns defense is simply going with the next-man-up theory.
“Football is a physical, violent game,” Patterson said. “Guys are going to get hurt and others gotta step in. Guys don’t want to be in the NFL just to watch, they want to play. You never know who can play if someone doesn’t go down. So, here we have another opportunity to see who can play.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.