Would the Bengals have pulled out a victory on Sunday against the Bills if star receiver A.J. Green was healthy throughout the game? We'll never know for sure, but it definitely didn't help Cincinnati's chances when the Pro Bowl pass-catcher went out on the first possession of the game with a hamstring injury. While it doesn't sound like a season-ender, Green will likely be out of the lineup for the next couple of weeks.
Aside from the shame in Green missing time in a season that was looking to be one of his finest, statistically-speaking, the Bengals need to get by a slate of games without Andy Dalton's favorite target. There is good news and obvious bad news with the scenario.
The good news is that there is talent, in the form of young wide receivers still growing into NFL form and a handful of talented pass-catchers at the tight end position. Tyler Eifert is the most explosive and experienced in the Bengals' offense among the group, and if he can stay healthy, which has been an issue in the past, he could lead a group to help out the offense. Though, Eifert will need to learn how to handle double teams, which will surely be coming his way.
"Even A.J. said something like, 'It's not fun, is it?'" Eifert said, via ESPN of facing double teams. "But I've got to find a way to get open and make plays."
On the negative side aside from the Green injury itself, the Buffalo defense showed a glaring deficiency in a Green-less Bengals offense. In many cases during the second half, the Bills' secondary played deep coverage because they didn't respect any deep threats left on the roster. And, unfortunately, their disrespect against the long ball without No. 18 on the field proved to be fruitful for their defense.
Further complicating matters is running Giovani Bernard going out for the year with an ACL injury. While he isn't a receiver, he is currently second on the team in receptions (39) and grabs a handful of passes every game to help out the offense as a Dalton security blanket. It also means that leaning on the running game will be tougher without the two-headed rushing attack.
"You can't really replace a guy like A.J.," Eifert said. "So we're going to have to find a way to make up for his production. Not just the guys that are going to play more now that he and [running back Giovani Bernard] are down, but the guys that are still in there, the O-line, Andy [Dalton], all of us, everybody has to raise their game."
So, which one of the Bengals' receiving options needs to step up the most in Green's absence for the team to keep its very slim playoff hopes alive?
As mentioned before, the Pro Bowl tight end has the most experience in this offense, even though veteran Brandon LaFell has more years in the league. Because of his size, red zone abilities and past production, he could be the major focal point in this offense without Green in the lineup.
In Weeks 8 and 10 against the Redskins and Giants, Eifert racked up 12 catches for 198 yards and a score. Yet, with Green out of the game on Sunday, Eifert had just three catches for 37 yards. So, does Eifert have trouble getting open without Green out there with him, or did Dalton just not target him enough in critical situations? Might it also be because other receivers aren't readily getting open?
Whichever it is, Eifert's output has to start being higher than what it was against Buffalo. Ken Zampese's scheme probably needs to be switched up for that to happen.
LaFell has been a bit of a pleasant surprise for the Bengals this season, as he currently is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with four. Still, the veteran free agent addition has been a feast-or-famine type of player this year, which can't continue to be the case with Green out of the lineup.
In the past three games, a stretch where Cincinnati has gone 0-2-1, LaFell had just six total catches for 47 yards. In two of those games against New York and Washington, LaFell had just one catch in each contest, pointing to the inconsistent ebbs and flows of his 2016 season.
While Eifert is the most seasoned Bengals pass-catcher, LaFell needs to use his longer-standing NFL veteran status and Super Bowl-winning experience to help out the team in its time of need.
The rookie might be the wildcard of the group in this situation. He's shown a penchant for making tough catches in traffic and moving the sticks--the two aspects that were prevalent from his college tape. But, as evidenced when Green got injured, his inability to get open deep and consistently get separation from NFL defensive backs is a little bit alarming.
Even so, would it shock you to find out Boyd has as many receptions on the year (33) as LaFell? It's a positive that he scored his first touchdown this week after coming oh-so-close last week against the Giants, so perhaps he's growing more comfortable with his niche in the offense. Boyd had six catches for 54 yards and a score against the Bills on Sunday, with five of the catches going for either a first down or a touchdown.
There is one major thing that needs to change though: Boyd's 10.6 yards per catch average. You don't want to make him into a player he just isn't ever going to be, but perhaps more yards-after-the-catch plays could be rotated into his repertoire to get more explosive results from him.
If Boyd is the wildcard, then Wright is the dark horse of the group. After a lack of college production and a long recovery from a knee injury he suffered in 2014, Wright has been back with the Bengals this year and is seeing some time at receiver. He had two catches for 22 yards against the Bills on Sunday and played more snaps than any receiver outside of LaFell. That's because the Bengals are sticking with Boyd in the slot and using Wright as Green's replacement on the outside.
With a 4.46 40-yard dash time in the Draft process, Wright might be the best candidate to stretch the field in Green's absence. The Bengals and Zampese seem to recognize this to some extent, as Wright has been used in almost an Andrew Hawkins-like way, getting handoffs, bubble screens and other familiar plays.
It's very possible that Wright's effect in Green's absence is minimal, but he could also become the biggest surprise, if used correctly.