Third-down was not kind to the Bengals on both sides of the ball in 2017. The team’s 33.7% conversion rate on offense was good enough for 29th in the league and their opponents’ conversion rate of 40.7% was only slightly better for 25th in the league. So it was of great surprise when I incidentally discovered the player who scored the most times on third down in the entire league: A.J. Green.
Six out of Green’s eight scores from last year occurred just before the Bengals offense was about to send the kicking unit onto the field to salvage three points, something they were forced to do far too often close to the end zone. No other ball carrier in the league had more than four third-down scores, five if you include fourth-down.
What’s interesting about almost each one of Green’s six third-down touchdowns is the pre-snap work put into each play and seeing how couple adjustments based off coverage checks led to six points each time. Most of these plays were not only impressive from Green, but were some of the quintessential examples of quarterback Andy Dalton’s pre-snap cerebral capabilities from the past season. In addition to breaking down each of the touchdowns, I’ll do my best to rank them from least to most impressive. Let’s begin.
#6: Week 8 vs. Indianapolis
The 10-yard post has been very good for the entirety of the Dalton-Green era, and it proved to be a lethal route near the goal-line last season. Late in the second quarter, down by seven to the lowly Colts, the previous two possessions from the Bengals against a very subpar defense at home were a blocked field goal and punt.
Suddenly, life was injected into the group with a 19 yard completion to Tyler Kroft to convert a third-and-long, and a 67 yard screen pass to Joe Mixon. That plays advanced the offense all the way inside the five-yard line. Following an Andre Smith false start, Dalton isolated Green on the play side of the formation by motioning Joe Mixon into the backfield, causing the play side safety to creep up and further into Dalton’s field of view.
At the snap, Green staggered and ensured an inside release as he worked up to the stem of the route and broke toward the goalposts. The route combo between him and Tyler Kroft put the safety in a bind. If the safety increased his depth to account for Green’s post, Kroft’s deep drive would have become the desired read because he’s one-on-one with a linebacker. But since the safety was caught flat footed semi-committed to Kroft’s route, the window for Green’s post was open. He already had inside leverage on the cornerback because the safety was supposed to help on any in-breaking routes to the end zone. And the timing of the throw kept the MIKE linebacker in the deep middle out of the window. Green hauled in an easy and uncontested toss to tie a game the Bengals would go on to win by one.
#5: Week 13 vs. Pittsburgh
The Steelers pass defense as a unit performed better than the talent that formed their secondary would indicate. The offseason addition of Joe Haden proved to be a solid investment, but unfortunately for this game, it was one of the five he missed due to a fractured fibula suffered in the middle of the season. His replacement for those games was Coty Sensabaugh, and Green and Dalton knew exactly how big of a mismatch that was on this play.
At the end of the Bengals’ second drive of the game, they had yet to record a negative play and Dalton had thrown two incompletions on nine attempts. Earlier on the drive they converted a third-and-seven to Brandon LaFell, who was covered by Sensabaugh. Eight plays later, they targeted the sixth-year backup once more.
It’s worth mentioning that the Steelers seemed to do their homework and prepared for a short post from Green, but the greats do great things, and make fools of their opposition more times than not. Green released inside and practically baited Sensabaugh to stab his outside shoulder to keep him inside. Once this happened, Sensabaugh was fully committed in his coverage and was vulnerable. Green worked off his jab and came back with an outside jab of his own to cross his face and utterly leave Sensabaugh in the dust.
#4: Week 3 at Green Bay
If the Bengals snuck their way into the playoffs after a 0-2 start because offensive coordinator Bill Lazor completely turned around the offense, this would’ve been the play that sparked that transformation.
The offense failed to reach the end zone in its first two contests. The blame for their futility was placed on former offensive coordinator Ken Zampese’s shoulders and he was ultimately let go less than a calendar week after the start of the season. Lazor took over and his first drive calling the plays ended in the Bengals’, and Green’s, first score of the season.
Nine plays and 69 yards into the drive, Dalton saw Green had the play side safety bracketing him. He knew Green would be able to cross his face and get inside of him, but he still had the linebacker underneath to avoid. At the top of his drop-back, Green was not open by his viewpoint, and Dalton threw a strike to him with no hesitation. Green covered ground quickly with how much explosion he released out of his break and the linebacker couldn’t react to the throw fast enough despite reading it the whole way.
#3: Week 13 vs. Pittsburgh
A full quarter since Green’s first touchdown against Sensabaugh, the Bengals defense continued to suffocate the Steelers offense and had taken the Ball out of their hands. In the final minute of the half, one more score would put an exclamation point on the Bengals’ best first half of the season since Week 4 against Cleveland. A third-and-long was standing between them and exactly that.
There were two factors that made this touchdown possible. To start, the Bengals’ protection picked up the Steelers’ blitz perfectly with a simple slide protection to the weakside of the formation. The Steelers sent both their slot cornerbacks to blitz and a pre-snap three-man rush turned into a five-man rush, and it was completely stifled. In addition, the Steelers were showing one deep safety and he started cheating toward the field side where the Bengals had three receiving options. Green had just Sensabaugh playing off coverage and T.J. Watt dropping back into the flats.
Sensabaugh knew he had no help, but the blitz did get the ball out of Dalton’s hands quickly and he had the chance to jump the route if Dalton led Green too far. But he didn’t, and that’s the second factor.
Dalton threw this post like it’s a hitch and targeted Green’s inside hip, the exact opposite location where Sensabaugh would be coming in to break up the pass. Green adjusted and Sensabaugh, once again, had no chance.
#2: Week 4 at Cleveland
Coming out of the end-of-quarter break, the Browns tried to execute their own disguised dime blitz. Dalton read both safeties and realized they both had man responsibilities on both receivers in the slot (Green to the left and Kroft to the right) while the slot defenders were going to be sent on delayed blitzes. He adjusted the protection by bringing in Kroft as a blocker to even the numbers.
Kroft was never going to be the first read because of the route combo on the field side with Green and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals offense is no stranger to this version of smash, the route combination that opens up the slot corner route with an in-breaking route by the outside receiver. Too much space is given to Green for the safety, Jabrill Peppers, to possibly mirror the route or mitigate Green’s break toward the back pylon. Easy separation was created and a perfectly placed pass was thrown for the first of four touchdowns for Dalton in Cleveland.
#1: Week 11 at Denver
There’s not much that happened on this play that you can’t decipher on your own. The Broncos decided to play cover 1 man inside their own 20 yard line and it ultimately gave Green another one-on-one situation close to the end zone. Like the touchdown against Green Bay, Dalton targeted Green with an uber-level of confidence when he had created no separation at the release of the throw.
By the apex of the pass, Green successfully stacked cornerback Bradley Roby. The free safety was breaking on the ball but he wasn’t going to get an opportunity to make anything of his tracking. That’s because the throw was placed right on the back shoulder of Green, who opened his hips at the perfect time and gave Roby no time to locate the ball. He flailed his hands up blindly to no avail. The touchdown put the Bengals up two scores, which was the cushion they needed to end their two-game losing streak and, at the time, keep their playoff hopes alive.
That’s how I would rank the six scores, how about you?