Going into the season, it looked like Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was going to have his choice of weapons to throw to.
Tyler Eifert was healthy, John Ross and Tyler Boyd were coming off an impressive preseason and of course there was always the reliable A.J. Green.
Now, the Bengals (5-3) are trying to figure out who they can count on while Green is out with a toe injury suffered at the end of the Oct. 28 game against Tampa Bay. Heading into Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints (7-1), Boyd is the only proven target left among the receivers, and C.J. Uzomah is the last of the tight ends left from the original roster at the beginning of the season.
“You’re losing the best player on our team,” Dalton said in his weekly press conference Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium. “Just from the start, you never want that to happen. The coverages may be different because he’s not out there. We’ll have to see the plan and what teams are going to do now with him not out there, and we’ll have to adjust.”
Boyd is likely the player most affected. He’s already been seeing more double coverage during a breakout third year, and now the focus of opposing defenses likely turns heavily to him.
The 2016 second-round draft pick has 620 yards and five touchdowns on a team-high 49 catches.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to keep my focus and not allow them to make me feel like I’m not going to get open or still continue to be a great player out there,” Boyd said. “I just want to do a great job of creating chances for myself to get open and just catch footballs.”
The double coverage can get frustrating at times, Boyd said; however, that just means other players will have more opportunity.
No one else has more than 19 catches this season, though. Joe Mixon and Uzomah are options – and maybe the Bengals ramp up the running game too — but of the wide receivers, Alex Erickson, Ross and Cody Core have combined for just 18 catches.
“I believe in the guys always, no matter what,” Boyd said. “Since A.J. is down, it opens a large percentage of balls thrown to the next guy, whoever comes in there and does what they have to do. The sky is the limit for whoever wants to come in and take full advantage.”
Ross is the guy the Bengals most need to step up, assuming he returns this week as expected.
Hampered by a groin injury, he’s been limited in five games and has just 79 yards (but two touchdowns) on seven catches. Ross struggled with confidence last year and was heavily criticized earlier this season for stopping on routes and causing interceptions.
“We just need him to play his game,” Dalton said. “I’m glad we’re getting him back (from injury). He’s going to be a big part of what we do. He just needs to play his game and not worry about anything else.”
Dalton said Boyd has been playing with a lot of confidence and the team just needs some of that to rub off on the other players.
“You try to get everybody to play that way,” Dalton said. “Confidence is contagious. With the way he carries himself, how Joe Mixon carries himself and some of these other guys, it will rub off on everybody. You want to play fast and play your best, and that’s what we’re going to try to do with everybody we’ve got out there.”
Regardless of how the Bengals adjust, there is no doubt the offense is impacted.
Green, who leads the team with 687 receiving yards and six touchdown catches on 45 receptions, has played in 110 of a possible 122 games since the Bengals drafted him fourth overall in 2011, and Cincinnati is 4-7-1 without him on the field.
The seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver most recently missed the final six games of the 2016 season after injuring his hamstring in the first quarter of a game against Buffalo. The Bengals went 3-3 the rest of the way and also lost that game to the Bills, as the offensive production went from averaging 380 yards per game with Green to 326 yards per game without him.
“We’re getting ready to play New Orleans and when A.J. is back and ready to go he’ll back and ready to go,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “Hopefully through that time, whether it’s this week or next week or whenever, we have an opportunity to grow and get better with other people and that’s important. A.J. will continue to do what A.J. does, bust his tail to get back out there as soon as he can.”