Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the most talented young players at his position. In his two seasons in the NFL, Green has amassed 2,407 yards, 18 touchdowns and 104 first downs on 162 receptions.
In 2012, he ranked 10th in the league in receiving yards, seventh in receptions, fifth in targets, fourth in touchdowns and ninth in first downs, all while being thrown to by a quarterback, Andy Dalton, who has been in the league for the same amount of time as him.
In both 2011 and 2012, the Dalton-Green connection helped lead the Bengals to the postseason and has produced an offensive renaissance that has nearly faded the Carson Palmer-Chad Johnson years into a vague memory of things past.
But a wide receiver—even one as naturally talented as Green—needs to be available to catch passes. Yes, Green—like his older contemporaries Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson—is prodigious in his ability to pull down completions even when double- and triple-covered (just look to his 2012 game summaries by FootballGuys.com for full details), but it's not safe for Dalton to continue to force passes to Green when he's covered by a cornerback (or two) and a safety at the same time.
Trouble ensues—passes are deflected, dropped, intercepted. Without another option to draw attention away from Green, the Bengals' star receiver can be neutralized; and when the Bengals don't have their top offensive weapon available to them, it's simply much more difficult to move the ball down the field, especially when we're talking about the Bengals' leader in first downs.
To the Bengals' credit, this is something they realized after Green and Dalton's rookie year. Green is dynamic, a playmaker—but he has to be open enough to make those plays. As such, the Bengals bolstered their receiving ranks by drafting Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and added veteran running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to join tight end Jermaine Gresham, speedy slot threat Andrew Hawkins and potential No. 2 receivers Armon Binns and Brandon Tate.
This didn't work according to plan, however. Binns got the start alongside Green for five of the Bengals' first six games in 2012, and though it began well—he caught 80, 100 and 100 percent of the passes thrown to him in Weeks 1 through 3 respectively—his production eventually dropped off, with a 57.1 percent and then a 40 percent catch rate in his final two starts (subscription required).
The key to having someone drawing defensive attention away from Green is to have that receiver be reliable. Binns wasn't—to the degree that he's no longer with the Bengals. Their next attempt was to put Tate in the No. 2 spot, where he started in Weeks 7, 9 and 10.
The bulk of Tate's NFL experience, however, has been as a return specialist, and it showed in his receiving numbers—in his three starts, he caught only 38.9 percent of the passes thrown to him. The Bengals, therefore, went back to the drawing board.
Sanu was the next receiver tasked with joining Green on the outside, and it was rather successful. After catching four of six passes thrown his way in Week 10, for 47 yards and a touchdown, he replaced Tate for Weeks 11 and 12, catching seven of 12 targets for 51 yards and three scores, making him enough of a threat to draw coverage from Green, who had 287 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Weeks 10 through 12.
However, Sanu then broke his foot in practice, ending his season. The Bengals turned to another rookie, Jones, to finish the season as the starting wideout alongside Green.
In Jones' starts, which spanned Weeks 13 through the wild card round of the playoffs, he caught 18 of 30 passes thrown to him for 209 yards and a touchdown—serviceable numbers, yes, but during that span, Green had just one game with over 100 receiving yards, indicating that Jones didn't concern defenses enough to take their attentions away from Green.
In the Bengals' defense, the situation they had at No. 2 receiver in 2012 was of little fault of their own. While they swung and missed when it came to Binns' and Tate's ability to help out Green, Sanu was a great fit for the job; that he fell injured is the only reason that experiment was cut short. Jones worked out well for a rookie and should be even better in his second season, but it is concerning that defenses didn't seem to care about his presence on the field.
The Bengals clearly saw that while they had a good group of receivers who can take the field alongside Green, they hadn't yet found the definitive answer to keep him from being double-covered play after play. And based on what the Bengals did in the 2013 draft it looks like they might not see a traditional wide receiver as being the sole solution to this problem.
With their first two selections in the draft, the Bengals added first tight end Tyler Eifert and then running back Giovani Bernard. While the latter was expected—even down to the player—to add a younger, speedier component to Green-Ellis' power running, the former was a bit of a surprise. At first, the Eifert pick was chalked up to the Bengals managing to simply take the best player available, but afterward it appears this may have been a conscious plan and not just a happy accident.
In 2010, the Bengals used their first-round pick on a tight end, Jermaine Gresham. In his time with the Bengals, Gresham has been solid, though not spectacular. He'll often follow up weeks in which he catches 75 or 80 percent of his passes with a catch percentage in the 40s or 50s and is susceptible to disappearing when the right safety or coverage linebacker is assigned to him.
While Gresham is not a liability, considering he was the Bengals' second-leading receiver in both yardage and touchdowns last year, his myriad assignments—pass protection, run-blocking and receiving—means that he can often be stretched thin. He's not always there to catch a pass if Green is well covered, depending on his responsibilities on a given play. Eifert's presence can free up Gresham, or vice-versa.
But the biggest impact of drafting Eifert will be seen when he and Gresham are both on the field alongside Green, when the two tight ends can free up the Bengals' most dangerous receiving and scoring threat—as well as be threats in their own right.
Already, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has confirmed the team will be running a number of two-tight end sets beginning in 2013. We've seen this implemented successfully around the league already, with the New England Patriots the most glaring example of it. With tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field with (until now) Wes Welker as quarterback Tom Brady's primary receiver, the Patriots re-imagined the concept of a passing offense.
This isn't a fad, by any means—this is a way to build and take advantage of serious mismatches between a team's offense and the opposing defense. A single receiving threat at tight end draws either a coverage linebacker or a safety traditionally. While that can free up a No. 1 receiver like Green to an extent, it still leaves him vulnerable to double-coverage with a corner and safety assigned to him.
Two tight ends with receiving skills, like Gresham and Eifert, will each need someone to cover them—either a safety and a linebacker, a safety and a corner or some other combination—while at the same time, Green also needs defensive resources to prevent from being wide open. Depending on how this divides up defensive attention, this formation alone can put Green in favorable one-on-one coverage, a matchup he's most adept at exploiting.
Eifert, Gresham and Green as a trio are dangerous as it is, but there are other ways to use the Eifert addition to free up Green in single coverage. Add another wide receiver, for example, like Sanu or Jones and even more defensive resources are spread about. Mix in a running back—either Green-Ellis or Bernard, both of whom are good receivers—and defenses can be left confused, allowing for all number of options for Dalton, Green included.
On a passing play, there are certain things known to defenses. The receivers—seeing as they're receivers and all—are either intended targets within the progression or (sometimes) decoys. Tight ends, however, are harder to read, and have become even more so since the Bill Belichick-Patriots model. Maybe they're receivers—or at least, they look like it pre-snap. Maybe they aren't. Often, it's hard to tell until the play is underway.
Multiply that by two—two high-quality receiving tight ends, mind you (the free agency acquisition of Alex Smith, for example, was for blocking purposes primarily)—and coverage-capable defenders, whether linebackers, cornerbacks or safeties need to be assigned to them or at the very least, completely aware of what the tight ends are doing.
That necessitates drawing coverage away from the receiver or receivers, and in the case of Green, that puts defenses right in the danger zone—otherwise known as right where the Bengals want them. Pass-catching running backs only further the confusion.
Football, after all, is a numbers game. It's about yards, inches, points—and simple math. The Bengals are answering the question of "How many defenders do you have who can cover?" with "We'll give you more than you can handle."
While the Bengals are already ahead of their opponents simply by having a receiver as talented as Green, adding Eifert as well as Bernard into the offensive mix increases Green's chances to get meaningful targets, receptions, yards and, of course, touchdowns with minimal defensive interference. And if he's double-covered? Then someone else is open.