On Thursday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals released the surprising and uneasy news that rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu sustained an injury in practice and was going to be evaluated by the team's medical staff. Then, on Friday, head coach Marvin Lewis broke the unfortunate news that Sanu suffered a stress fracture in his foot. Give the recovery timeframe, Sanu will be done for the 2012 season. He will seemingly end the year with 16 catches, 154 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
Now, in all honesty, those aren't exactly paltry numbers--especially for a player who looked to be destined as the team's No.2 receiver going forward for the rest of the season. However, it's in the last three games where Sanu has really proved his worth. In those three victories, Sanu has had 11 catches for 98 yards and all four touchdowns. Additionally, he has also ran the ball four times for eight yards with two first downs on those carries. More importantly, Sanu has taken some major heat off of A.J. Green, which was a major problem for the Bengals' offense in 2011.
I've noticed that most fans here at Cincy Jungle have embraced the "That sucks, but they'll get past it", and/or the "next man up" mantras. On paper, that looks to be a logical attitude on the situation. I, personally, am not as optimistic on the situation as Josh Kirkendall apparently is, but I also don't see this as something that will stop the team from making the playoffs--if they replace Sanu's production adequately.
The team is getting back slot receiver Andrew Hawkins for the first time in two weeks, as well as a finally-healthy Marvin Jones to help the now Sanu-less receiving corps. After all, the coaching staff has a lot of faith in Jones, as they had plans to give him a bigger role before he was injured in the Steelers game back in October.
Here's the thing though: Jones and Hawkins don't give the offense what it had in Sanu. First, let's look at size. Sanu spends quite a bit of his time in the slot, which is where Hawkins will now be getting a lot of time at once again. Hawkins has quite a bit of speed on Sanu, but the rookie literally has seven inches of height on "Baby Hawk". The one-handed highlight grab off of a fade route that we saw Sanu make against the Raiders is not a play that we will see Hawkins make at any point. While Hawkins has a knack for making some tough catches, I find it hard to believe that he'll be as adept at making tough, contested catches as Sanu is and was.
I'm a big fan of Marvin Jones (as I am of both Sanu and Hawkins as well). However, it seems as if Jones' strength is beating coverage on deep routes and not so much on the intermediate and shorter routes. While that's a very valuable skill and will help out this offense (on a side note, has anyone else noticed how hard of a time opposing cornerbacks have with covering Jones on deep patterns?), they'll still need someone to make the tough catches across the middle and on the sidelines. That's not to say that Jones can't do that, it's just that we haven't had much of a sample size to go on. Unfortunately, it will have to be a trial by fire type of thing with Jones from here out.
The other thing that Sanu brings to the offense is versatility. We have seen him line up as a wildcat quarterback and throw a deep touchdown, as well as a halfback and pick up tough first downs on carries. While Hawkins can do some of these gadget plays, they won't be the same ones that Sanu is capable of. It's the ability to make plays from different areas of the field and disguising things that will be missed here.
Basically, the Sanu injury will be forcing all offensive receiving options, including tight ends, will have to pull together to make up for the loss of No.12. That statement isn't to say that Sanu's production is irreplaceable or that the team is missing someone along the lines of Green, but the offensive gameplan will have to be altered. There was a growing chemistry between Dalton and Sanu, particularly in the red zone, and that chemistry will have to be recovered somehow.
The Bengals have been cruising through the past three games as a finely-tuned machine and unfortunately, one of the cogs needs to be replaced. The pieces that they're using to replace him aren't the same, but if used properly they could keep the machine running at a high level. They'll need to if they want to continue to push towards the playoffs. Next man up, right?