Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is quickly becoming a household name to NFL fans. After being a top-five draft pick and racking up two Pro Bowls in his first two years in the league, he has propelled him to stardom. As if that wasn't enough, Green will likely be a star in the upcoming "Hard Knocks" miniseries airing this week.
Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden, a solid player in his own right, has the misfortune of facing off against Green twice a year. While Haden has performed well against the Bengals' star receiver at times, he still has had some bumps in the road. In his four career games against the Browns, Green has four touchdowns. In speaking with ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi recently, Haden gushed about Green's ability as a wide receiver and the matchup nightmare he brings with his size.
At 5-11 and 190 pounds, Haden has average physical dimensions for his position. But as receivers 6-3 and taller keep churning out of the college ranks, Haden is shrinking. His opponents are getting bigger.
"It’s harder for me to cover smaller, quicker guys than taller guys," Haden said. "But as far as, like, Calvin Johnson, he’s a freak. A.J. Green, he’s a freak. These dudes are freaks at wide receiver. And the thing is, I know I’m not gonna grow anymore, but I’m physical. I have a 41-inch vertical. I can jump with these dudes
"The main thing about them is them pushing you off at the top of their route. You’re in the corner of the end zone and then pushing and jumping off. It’s about them using that body more than how tall they are. I’m gonna be right there with them. The big, tall dudes aren’t gonna run away from me. I just have to fight through their hands and be able to play the ball, so I’m not worried about the taller receivers."
A "freak" indeed. Then Grossi brought up the painful memory of Green's biggest play against the Browns. You remember "the grab", right? After a hard-fought game in Cincinnati in 2011, it didn't look as if the Bengals were going to pull out a win. Then, with Haden covering Green, quarterback Andy Dalton sailed a pass in the middle of the field where "the freak" hauled it in to set up the game-winning field goal at the last second.
The image of Green soaring over Haden and plucking a ball out of the air in the middle of the field to set up a Bengals win in their second meeting in 2011 is a reminder of the one play that Haden can’t defend. Until that 51-yard reception to set up a game-winning field goal, Haden held Green to two catches.
"I thought the ball was gonna fly over everybody," Haden said. "That play is a great player making a great play. Sometimes that’s gonna happen. I was with him the whole game, every play. You can’t take anything from him. This dude just jumped up 13 feet in the air and grabbed the ball. That’s just a really, really good play. It was in traffic, too. There’s no secret formula to that one. A.J.’s a great player."
High praise coming from a quality player. It will be interesting to see how this matchup continues to go over the next handful of years. Both teams will want to hang on to these young stars and the Browns' focus will likely be on shutting Green down. Haden will be the key player in that gameplan.