The Pittsburgh Steelers have had the services of cornerback Joe Haden for 16 games now, including the postseason, over a season and about a third. They have used him a few times over large stretches of some games as a cover cornerback, following an opposing team’s best wide receiver. They took that approach on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, who was held without a catch through the first three quarters.
They have to make the decision this week as to whether or not they want to take the same approach again on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals and A.J. Green, who has been one of the most consistent wide receivers in the NFL since he was drafted.
This season, the former fourth-overall draft pick has caught 26 passes so far for 409 yards and five touchdowns, which is tied for the second-most in the league with Antonio Brown, behind Calvin Ridley. He has caught 582 passes for 8622 yards and 62 touchdowns so far into his eighth season.
And according to Head Coach Mike Tomlin, Cincinnati is using him more versatilely this season, which makes it all the more complicated to try to ask one defender to follow him around the field all day. While it’s not as complicated for the player doing the shadowing, it has a ripple effect on the rest of the defense.
“They just make it tough to minimize his impact on the game in terms of knowing where he’s going to be”, Tomlin said. “He’s not going to be on the strong side, he’s not going to be on the weak side, it’s not going to be on the one-receiver side. Directionally, right or left, they’re going to thoughtfully move him around”.
In other words, the Bengals are using him all over the formation. He could be outside or in the slot. He could be in a bunch formation or isolated by himself. He could be in a 3×1 split and then motion to the opposite side. They are making it more difficult under Bill Lazor for defenses to get a lock on him.
So it’s no surprise that he is on pace to have a career year. He is on pace for 83 receptions for 1309 yards and 16 touchdowns. His previous career-high in touchdowns is 11, though he has bettered those numbers in other seasons.
The Bengals are also spreading the ball around more this year, with third-year Tyler Boyd becoming a bigger part of the offense and running back Joe Mixon becoming a bigger part of the passing game, along with Giovani Bernard. But it’s without a doubt that Green is the feature of the offense.