Go list the top five wide receivers in the NFL right now in your head. Antonio Brown is in there. For biased reasons or not, Odell Beckham Jr. is in there. For some, A.J. Green is there, but probably not enough and that’s unfortunate because Green has been one the NFL’s top receivers over the past few seasons and he’s having the best year of his career in 2016.
Green is the current 2016 leader in receptions (59) and receiving yards per game (112). He’s second in raw receiving yards (896) behind Julio Jones (970) with one less game played than the Atlanta receiver. As the best receiving threat on the Cincinnati Bengals -- and the lone one at the start of the season with Tyler Eifert injured -- Green has helped carry the offense to another above average year. The Bengals are seventh in Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) for overall offense and sixth in DVOA for passing offense.
Andy Dalton ranks third among quarterbacks in yards per attempt this season behind MVP candidates Tom Brady and Matt Ryan heading into Week 10. Much of that can be pinned to Green, who has been the intended target on 30.5 percent of Dalton’s passes this season. Green’s had at least 10 targets in five of Cincinnati’s eight games this season, including an 18-target game Week 8 against Washington. In the Bengals’ other three games, Green was thrown at eight times. Even at that high volume, Green has been one of the most efficient receivers in the league. He’s third among receivers in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), a counting stat, and seventh in DVOA, the efficiency stat.
Cincinnati’s passing game runs through Green and he excels in so many different ways, it’s hard to stop him.
Green is the type of receiver where the quality of coverage on him barely matters because he’ll be able to make the catch anyway. Below is a play from Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins. Green (bottom of the screen) had a deep route and Miami’s corner Xavien Howard stayed with him the whole way. But when the ball goes up, Green made the adjustment to get around the cornerback, put himself in the best position, and made the contested catch for a 51-yard gain.
Even taking away a hand doesn’t really work to stop Green. Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7, Green beat his man down the field, but as the ball came, Green’s left hand was being held. It didn’t matter. Green just used his right hand to make a one-handed catch and remain on his feet for a gain of 48.
Green has the ability to get open deep, but many of his targets come in the short or intermediate parts of the field. With weaker corners needing to respect the threat of a downfield attack, Green can get open easily with quick breaking routes off the line. Once he gets the ball in his hands Green is also a menace to take down. He’s sixth among wide receivers in Yards After the Catch and seventh among receivers in missed tackles forced.
There are a few ways the Bengals use this to their advantage.
The first is just letting Green be Green and know he can get open no matter the coverage. When Cincinnati played Washington, Green was matched up against Josh Norman for much of the game. The Bengals trusted Green could find ways to win in that matchup and they were right as Green finished the day with nine catches for 121 yards. Green won deep a few times, but he was also able to out-physical Norman for some short passes. The slant below might be the most impressive of the bunch.
Norman (bottom of screen) pressed Green off the line of scrimmage, but Green was able to win the hand-fighting and get himself inside for the slant. Once he got free, Green was able to adjust himself for a poorly thrown ball.
That play also showcases Green’s outstanding catch radius. That should have been an easy play once Green broke open, but the pass was off target. For many receivers -- even good ones -- that pass falls incomplete because of the ball placement, but Green has been bailing out Dalton with these types of catches for years. It’s an underrated part of his game that really makes him special.
Now we’ve seen Green’s strength getting himself open, but the Bengals also have some plays to scheme their best receiver open and get him into space. He’s dangerous with a defender on top of him, he can be deadly with a wide open field.
This is a third-and-4 play against the Dolphins this season. Cincinnati lined up with a trips bunch to the left and Green isolated to the right. At the snap, all three receivers from the bunch ran towards the middle of the field to set up a massive natural pick. Green ran a crossing route underneath and when he caught the ball, the entire left side of the field was open. The only thing that saved a touchdown was the cornerback’s ability to catch up to Green to force him out of bounds.
Green is also one of the league’s smartest receivers when running routes. He recognizes coverage well and can adjust his route to create space against a defender. This last play came against the Denver Broncos, who have arguably the league’s best cornerback duo in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Green saw Talib for much of the day as he was held to eight catches for 77 yards, his third-lowest yardage total in a game this year. Much of the success Green did have -- and if you want a look into how good Green has been, we’re considering a 77-yard day an off-game -- came from reading the coverage in the secondary.
On this play just outside the red zone, Talib plays well off Green to the right of the formation, while Chris Harris lines up on the line of scrimmage across from Brandon LaFell on the other side. Green saw where Talib was lined up and when Talib continues to backpedal at the snap, Green turns to face Dalton with about a five-yard cushion between him and the defender for an easy catch.
How will the Giants defend Green?
The matchup against Denver will likely be the closest thing to how the Giants will defend Green. While the Broncos have the overall better defense this season, the Giants still have two outstanding cornerbacks who could both take the Green assignment. By DVOA, the Broncos are No. 1 in defending against opposing No. 1 receivers, but the Giants are close behind at No. 3.
Both Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have been outstanding this season. By Sports Info Solutions cornerback charting from Football Outsiders, there have only been two cornerbacks in the NFL targeted at least 20 times with a Success Rate over 70 percent and those two corners are Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie (Football Outsiders defines their Success Rate by allowing less than 45 percent of yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down).
Green has been having a great season for the Bengals and one of, if not the best for a wide receiver this season. He’ll be the toughest receiver the Giants have faced this season, but they could be in a decent position to prevent a monster game. With so much of Cincinnati’s offense running through Green, slowing him down will be the key to stopping the Bengals.