When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals square off on Sunday Night Football, there will be plenty of big names on the field. Players like Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison have filled trophy cases with their individual awards and team accomplishments.
But on Sunday night, the most dynamic, most explosive and most dangerous player on the field won't have any rings to his name. That player will be Bengals receiver A.J. Green.
Six games into his second season, Green leads the NFL in receiving yards, with 628. He's third in receptions, with 43. He's tied for second in touchdowns, with six. Green's on pace to catch 115 passes for 1,675 yards and 16 scores—truly eye-popping numbers.
Most young receivers, even ones as talented as Green, need time to mature and develop. Many struggle early unless drafted into established offenses with veteran quarterbacks. Green joined an offense just razed to the ground that offseason, and his quarterback was fellow rookie Andy Dalton.
How can Green be so good at such a young age? What makes him one of the most dangerous players in the NFL?
The first aspect of Green's game is speed. He's not the fastest receiver in the NFL, but he's more than fast enough to beat top corners outside and stretch deep zones.
In Week 3, the Bengals opened the game with a special play:
This play was run from the pistol formation, with receiver Mohamed Sanu in at quarterback. Green lined up in the slot, and Dalton was split out wide. The result was a lot of confusion on the part of the Redskins defense:
Between the Redskins' call to blitz and the success of the play-action fake, Green ended up one-on-one with safety DeJon Gomes. Green went full throttle and burned Gomes up the seam:
Sanu's pass was on target, and nobody was going to catch Green. The play was designed around Green's speed; if he didn't get past the safety, Sanu had no other downfield options.
Here's another play in which Green's speed devastated a defense:
Last week, the Bengals were down 34-17 to the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter. Facing 3rd-and-17 from their own 43, the Bengals needed a miracle or the game would have been effectively over.
Fortunately for them, Green's speed delivered.
The Bengals were lined up in the shotgun, with trips right and Green split wide to the left. Browns cornerback Joe Haden, one of the best in the business, is lined up in man over Green, but with over 10 yards of cushion.
Safety Usama Young, responsible for the deep zone to that side in Cleveland's coverage, cheats over a few steps. He knows Green will be the Bengals' only deep option to that side:
At the snap, Green fires off, and Haden begins backpedaling. By the time Dalton lets fly and the camera gets back to Green, he's already past Haden:
The ball is slightly underthrown, but Green beat Haden cleanly enough that adjusting to the ball will be no problem:
Green hauls it in, completing one of the toughest feats in football: beating a defense deep on 3rd-and-long when it knows the ball's coming to you.
Green is much more than a field-stretching burner. His long arms and sticky hands make him a threat all over the field. Watch this incredible catch:
It's 1st-and-10 on the opponent's 20-yard line, with the Bengals leading the host Jacksonville Jaguars 17-7. The Bengals are lined up in an offset "I," with tight end Jermaine Gresham having motioned into the fullback spot from the slot:
The Jaguars are playing man, and Dalton knows Green should be able to get open. After the snap, Dalton executes a quick play fake and locks on to Green. Dalton delivers the ball well before Green makes his break:
Green runs his curl well and gets separation. Dalton was right to get the ball to Green just as he's making his break, but the QB doesn't exactly put it on target. No matter:
Green's hands, including his incredible range, make this play. With many other receivers, this throw is so far off target that it's an incomplete pass—or worse, intercepted. But Dalton's faith in Green is well earned, and Green makes a phenomenal catch at the sticks:
It's arms and hands like this that make Green much more than a touchdown machine.
Size and Strength
But Green is a touchdown machine, too.
He's is listed at 6'4" and 211 pounds. That's a big, big target for Dalton to throw to, and it makes him a particularly tough matchup at the goal line. Check out this pair of scores made possible by Green's size and strength:
Against the Browns, Green is lined up against cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who gives Green plenty of cushion. Dalton reads this and, instead of leading Green into the end zone, hits him short. Patterson tries to tackle Green around the legs but practically bounces off of him. Green spins away from the tackle and into the end zone.
This is a classic fade route, perfectly executed:
Green is lined up one-on-one with Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith. Even though Smith knows this is coming and plays his man very well, Green has the strength to get off of Smith's jam. Green tracks the ball perfectly and simply goes up and makes a play over Smith's head.
When a receiver is that tall, with that strong of a base and core, he's almost impossible to defend. You can't move him off his route, and you can't go over him to make a play on the ball.
What really makes Green deadly is what many young receivers lack: the ability to run routes well. Here's a great example of how great route running can get a receiver open:
Green is lined up one-on-one with Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis at the bottom of the screen. Green is assigned to run a simple "go" route—get to the outside and get to the end zone:
Mathis is playing tight man coverage but can't jam Green because Green uses his body and a couple of stutter steps to freeze him. Finally, Green uses both a step inside and his body turn to convince Mathis he's going inside:
As soon as Mathis moves to defend the inside route, it's over. Green cuts hard back to the outside and hits the jets. Mathis does a good job of recovering but can't hope to catch Green. The throw is spot on, and it's an easy touchdown.
The Total Package
Green is a defense's worst nightmare. He's got the speed to roast the best cornerbacks in the game, the range and hands to make catches all over the field, the size and strength to make tackling him a chore, and uses all of those skills in combination with great routes, vision and body control.
Green is the total package: He can get open with the best of them, make catches with the best of them and get yards after the the catch with the best of them.
Green was one of the most talented receivers in the NFL the day he stepped on the field. Now, he's one of the most statistically productive. If he and Dalton continue to grow together, Green could end up being the best in the business, maybe even one of the best ever.
For this Sunday, though, he'll only be the best player on the field.