CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals begin opening up their passing game and directing more balls to more receivers, their star pass-catcher, A.J. Green, should fare better than other receivers who have gone through similar offensive changes on their teams.
At least, that's what the numbers, and my personal theory, seem to suggest.
Since the Bengals' Week 4 loss at Cleveland, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has made much more of a concerted effort to make Green just another piece of his offensive puzzle. Instead of honing in solely on Green like he did that ill-fated Sunday against the Browns, Gruden has started looking at other ways to advance the football and getting his team scores. He's still going to Green often, but he's committed to exploring other options, too.
Those options include targeting running backs and receivers 15 times combined against New England two weeks ago (the game before, Green alone was passed to 15 times). Those options also include getting No. 3 receiver Marvin Jones involved in the offense on space plays like his 34-yard end around at Buffalo last week. They also include giving speedy rookie running back Giovani Bernard swing screen or shovel screen pass-catching opportunities.
Plays like those are part of the "matchup problems" that left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth regularly discusses. If the Bengals can continue to get other playmakers involved, their offense ought to thrive like it has the past two weeks, and help propel Cincinnati to even more wins.
"The combination of all of them makes you different," Whitworth said. "How do you match up against all the different guys? If we play to our ability, it will be hard for teams to cover everybody the way they need to."
It's sort of a trend across the NFL. The days of having one megastar receiver or one megastar running back are over. These days, the league is about versatility, and in Cincinnati, there's a lot of it.
While Green's overall production should take a hit from its preseason projection because of the Bengals' more diverse offense, that hit doesn't appear it will be as hard as we might anticipate. In fact, in some respects, it'll be hard to detect him taking a hit at all.
Last season, arguably his best so far, Green, as the Bengals' unquestioned premier playmaking option, caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also hauled in 61 first-down receptions.
This season, he is on pace to catch 99 passes for 1,237 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also coming away with 59 first-down grabs. By comparison, that looks like a pretty normal season. But when you consider the fact that Cincinnati might have six players go beyond the 500-yard mark in receiving this year, and have two running backs go beyond the 750-yard rushing plateau, those numbers look rather remarkable.
Consider this. Last season, Green posted those figures while having a running back who finished six yards shy of 1,100, and just two receivers who went beyond 500-yard receiving mark. In much more statistically diverse offense, he still should shine just as brightly by the end of this season.
In an effort to try to see if other premier NFL receivers have struggled when faced with changing and more diverse offenses that feature multiple receiving options, we looked at three, somewhat random, players. Since so many teams incorporate different backfield and deepfield options into their offensive arsenals now, we probably could have picked any number of "elite" receivers to detect the pattern of drop-off. But here are the ones we selected: Denver's Demaryius Thomas, Atlanta's Roddy White and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.
In White's case, we looked at his average stats before Julio Jones arrived in 2011 and compared them to his numbers after Jones began playing for the Falcons (they don't include this year's stats). In addition to Jones, White also has played with tight end Tony Gonzalez in that same time frame.
We did the same for Fitzgerald and the eight years he spent before Michael Floyd arrived, and the one year, 2012 (not counting this seasons' stats), they played together before this year. We also looked at Thomas and his three seasons playing with Eric Decker. Before he was drafted by the Broncos, Thomas was essentially the only receiving threat at the end of his collegiate career at Georgia Tech.
Green's projections in receptions, yards after catch, touchdowns and targets exceed what White, Fitzgerald and Thomas had once they started sharing pass-catching duties with other top targets. Unlike the one season -- again, not counting this one -- that Fitzgerald spent sharing time with Floyd, White's numbers actually increased across the three years he spent, before this season, playing with Jones and Gonzalez.
Although Thomas' numbers weren't very high in the three previous years he spent playing alongside Decker and others, they are projected to be much higher, even higher than Green's, this season. Much of that is the function of playing with Peyton Manning in what currently is the NFL's best offense.
Here's a breakdown of the numbers for Green and others: