Grabbing the Spotlight

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A.J. Green returned to the lineup for the Bengals on Sunday after missing three weeks with a lingering toe/foot issue. He was supposed to revitalize the passing game, and open up space for a running game that had been rather inconsistent during his absence. Both of those things happened, just not in the ways most of us anticipated.

Green was solid—three catches for a modest 44 yards and a touchdown, and another touchdown that was called back due to a penalty on Green lining up offsides—but he wasn’t the story of the game, as many thought he’d be upon returning. The headlines were reserved for Mohamed Sanu’s continued emergence and the complete explosion of Jeremy Hill.

Sanu was the saving grace of the Bengals offense during Green’s three-week hiatus. He totaled 299 yards and a touchdown on 18 receptions, surpassing 120 yards against Carolina and Baltimore. It would’ve been easy to chock up Sanu’s production to the fact that he was the only healthy receiver on the Bengals depth chart who had any business being a starter in the NFL (looking at you, Greg Little and Brandon Tate). But Sanu wasn’t just benefitting from an increase in targets—he was making plays Bengals fans are used to seeing only Green make, most notably an interception-saving, one-handed grab against Baltimore and the improbable 53-yard catch to extend the Bengals final drive, which eventually culminated in Andy Dalton’s game-winning touchdown run.

Despite his increased production, there was no way of knowing how Sanu’s role would change as a result of Green’s return. It was logical to expect that he’d naturally slip into the number two role behind Green (which will more than likely still happen), but it didn’t happen this weekend in the Bengals closer-than-the-final-score 33-23 victory against the lowly Jaguars. Instead, it appeared as if Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson planned to use Green—likely still somewhat hobbled—as a means of keeping Sanu involved. On Sanu’s 19-yard touchdown catch, he ran the shorter route underneath Green’s streak down the sideline, and Green occupied the safety on two of Sanu’s other long receptions, including a 36-yard, sprawling, over-the-shoulder grab that set up the Bengals second touchdown.

Sanu led the Bengals in targets (eight) and yards (95) on Sunday, and he continues to quietly move up amongst the NFL’s leading receivers. He ranks 14th in the league in yards (628), 12th in yards-per-catch (16.1), and 11th in yards-per-game (78.5), all while ranking just 26th in total targets (66).

Sanu’s emergence as a legitimate number-one target will prohibit teams from singling in on Green, which makes the Bengals passing game and Green’s path back to 100-percent health far less obstructed. That probably would’ve been the biggest takeaway from the weekend, if Jeremy Hill hadn’t gone Hammer Time on the Jaguars defense.

With the exception of Giovani Bernard’s 89-yard touchdown run against the Panthers, the Bengals running game was held very much in check in the three games leading into Sunday. Green’s return meant that the Jaguars wouldn’t have the luxury of stacking the box quite as aggressively as Cincinnati’s previous three opponents. But with Bernard out of action, suffering from a proverbial grab-bag of injuries that certainly aren’t a good sign just nine weeks into his first season as a starter, the opportunity fell to Hill. It goes without saying that he didn’t waste it.

Hill rushed for 154 yards on 24 carries (6.4 ypc), scoring twice and debuting the “Schmoney Dance” for all the world to see. There was quite a bit to analyze from Hill’s performance, but the 60-yard touchdown seems like an obvious place to start. Hill, bursting through the hole, outran two defenders and physically embarrassed a third with a high-step hesitation and final burst to the endzone. The run righted the ship for the Bengals—who were clinging to a 26-23 lead before the play—on the heels of an “Evil Andy Dalton” sighting early in the fourth quarter.

(FYI: Evil Andy Dalton is Andy Dalton’s alter ego, who shows up for one or two plays a game to do things like accidentally throw the ball off the pads of two of his own linemen for an interception deep in their own territory. This is the same Evil Andy Dalton who fumbled trying to throw the ball with his left hand last week.)

Even if you completely negate Hill’s game-sealing run, he still would’ve averaged more than four yards per carry in a performance that looked the part of a very good starting NFL running back. Hill notched eight plays of at least nine yards, showing a good balance of tough running, speed, and receiving out of the backfield. He also demonstrated the value of his size and athletic ability with a massive blitz pick up away from his alignment AND on Dalton’s blindside on Green’s 28-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals a 26-10 lead with 13:54 remaining in the game.

Not to be overlooked are Hill’s six carries for 23 yards on the Bengals final possession, which ran all but 45 seconds off the clock and left the Jags with no chance of a comeback. The Bengals have struggled to put games away this year, but Hill, who was known as a “closer” at LSU, lived up to the billing.

Honestly, Hill already deserved more carries than he was getting before this performance, and it looks as though he’ll get them all again on Thursday, with Bernard still listed as doubtful on a short week of preparation.

But when Bernard is fully healthy, why not play them together? By my recollection, Bernard and Hill have appeared on the field at the same time on less than 10 plays this season. With Marvin Jones out for the year and Tyler Eifert still out for the moment, Green and Sanu are essentially the Bengals only receivers of any consequence, and the lack of dynamic play from the tight end spot has already been well documented. So why not incorporate the use of several two-back sets to feature both Hill and Bernard?

Bernard—who caught 56 passes last—could be motioned to the slot, utilized more frequently in the screen game, or stay in the backfield as the featured back. Hill, on the other hand, has the size and power to act as an accent blocker for Bernard, and would receive the amount of snaps necessary to handle the share of carries he’s now proven that he deserves. Opposing defenses would continually have to anticipate two very different running styles, as well as the threat of multiple receiving routes out of the backfield. If nothing else, it would limit some of the wear and tear Bernard has been absorbing without removing his big-play potential from the field all together.

This also provides Hue Jackson the option to do more of the trickery he so notably loves, with the possibility to run some sort of crazy Sanu/Gio/Hill wildcat formation. I don’t see a reason not to do it, especially when Eifert returns to the fold—possibly next Sunday—and can add another true receiving threat from the tight end position. Regardless, isn’t it more valuable to try and utilize this dynamic running back tandem simultaneously than it is to have empty snaps from Brandon Tate, Greg Little, Dane Sanzenbacher, or whoever the hell else the Bengals have to throw out there? The answer to that question seems pretty obvious.

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