With Marvin Jones Jr. out, and A.J. Green sidelined too, Hue Jackson and the Bengals offense were left (again, as Green barely played at all in Week 2) with a subpar receiving corp led by do-it-all third year player Mohamed Sanu.
As Cincinnati didn't have any outside threat, the former Rutgers star was targeted 15 times (recorded a career game with 12 catches and 120 yards), but managed to beat his defender on almost every matchup, even though the Panthers' secondary is not the Legion of Boom.
Bengals-Panthers Rewind: Maybe Mohamed Sanu's best game. Saw plenty of attention w/ A.J. Green out, but kept winning 1-on-1 matchups.— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) October 14, 2014
And while there are some red flags (his five drops in five games almost match the six he had in all of last year, and he is fifth worst in PFF's drop rate), there is reasons to believe Hue might have found the way to maximize Sanu's talent, as he is the 11th best WR in yards per route run with 2.25.
Some think his huge performance against the Panthers had more to do with the amount of targets he saw, and others point to scheme (the slot, the quick throws) as another factor of his success, and, of course, other fans and pundits believe Carolina's secondary helped him big time.
@ChrisWesseling Big talent, very inconsistent. Wouldn't expect him to repeat that in a hurry— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 13, 2014
We are going back to the tape from Sunday's game to see why each perspective is right.
The first time Dalton targeted him, Sanu and the Bengals got everything right, but he dropped the football. It didn't hurt badly, as Cincinnati scored nevertheless at the end of that initial drive. Play-action kept the weak side linebacker busy at the LOS, and Sanu has a lot of space to work with for the out route.
Here, the cornerback played him loose, giving him 10 yards of cushion and with Dalton running the bootleg play, Sanu was wide open.
Later on, in the same drive, Sanu had a chance to redeem himself, this time in the slot. It was 3rd-and-6 and Cincinnati got seven yards out of this slant route. Sanu got underneath Charles Godfrey and made the diving catch.
The Panthers were trying to prevent the first down and were willing to surrender a few yards. Andy had a wide open window to throw the football too, and Sanu made the move at the right time so his defender stayed put and didn't jump into the route.
When he sped up to the left, Godfrey was still some yards away, sold on the deep move, and didn't have time to prevent the catch.
Here, Sanu is in the slot, but the defense is again playing off man, preventing a deep pass. The Bengals took what the Panthers gave them, and Sanu made a great effort to move the chains.
One of the reasons Sanu is key to this passing game as well is the way Hue Jackson is using him to see if defense is on man or zone coverage (helping Andy's reads), motioning in and out of the backfield, just like in this clutch throw to Gresham on third down in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
As an all-around offensive weapon, it makes sense to threaten the defense in any way he can.
#Bengals Film: Bengals regular use of Sanu presnap motion, often out of stack WR alignments.— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) October 15, 2014
I noticed the Panthers' cornerbacks started playing closer to Sanu later on more often (in fact, in the first play of the second half, Cason was called for holding when Sanu had beaten him off press coverage), as we'll see on this play. He's not going to be targeted, but he beats his man easily, something the coaching staff should be happy with, given nobody else looks like they can get open outside.
Of course it did not matter, but he beat the cornerback man-on-man at the release point.
Let's fast forward to the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing by 7 after turning the ball over twice in their last two drives. On this play-action pass, Sanu again takes advantage of an extremely generous 10-yard cushion by the cornerback.
He's got plenty of room on the post route and gets 22 yards to set up the touchdown play moments later. It is a nice design against zone coverage with the cornerback and the safety deep down.
This time the Panthers' defender plays press coverage, but Sanu beats him again one-on-one, and Dalton makes a heck of a throw with great anticipation and a man in his face to tie the game and gain momentum.
The cornerback is right there, but Sanu is bigger and stronger, makes the catch and stays inbounds to get the score, making full use of his size and athleticism.
As you can see, Sanu is not missing Gruden with the way he is taking advantage of Hue's scheme: Give the playmakers the football as soon as possible and let them make the plays. He is also being better against press coverage as he showed on the touchdown play, even though he does not have top-end speed.
His release and route running skills were also helped by a soft Panthers secondary, but he still beat his man one on one pretty often.
What Sanu made clear last Sunday is that he can be a very valuable piece to this offense, even when Cincinnati gets A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert back. He is leaving his past as a player with the tools and size but no execution behind him, or at least he is making a good case for it so far.