Will the real John Ross please stand up.
For the first two years of his career, Ross had more than his share of detractors. In fact, most people had already begun referring to him as a bust.
The speedster from Washington, who had set the NFL Combine record with a 4.22 40, had no receptions his first year in the league. Last year, in his second year, Ross finished with 21 catches for 210 yards. There was some room for optimism, though, with seven of those catches having gone for touchdowns.
Ross started 2019 off with a bang. Through the first two games, Ross had 11 receptions for 270 yards, an average of 24.5 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. His longest reception of 66 yards was the longest Bengals’ reception since 2017.
Things were looking so good for Ross that he was being mentioned in the same breath as Bengals’ greats Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Eddie Brown, Isaac Curtis, and even A.J. Green. And his accomplishments to date were not far behind the Cowboys’ all-time great Bob Hayes.
“He’s got a great understanding of this offense, and he’s probably doing some different things than he was doing in years past,” Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton said in an interview with Bengals.com. “His attention to all the details has been on point, and he’s playing with confidence. He knows he’s going to make these plays, and I think it’s a belief in himself and that’s shown in the way he’s played so far.”
Then came Sunday, and Ross came tumbling back to earth – with a crash.
Ross began the game against Buffalo with a drop. Then, when he finally did make his first reception early in the second quarter, Ross fumbled the ball away. Fortunately, that mistake did not cost the Bengals, as Buffalo eventually fumbled the ball back. His next mistake did.
“Obviously we can’t have those plays, and he knows that he can’t have those plays, but we still went back to him,” said Zac Taylor after the game. “It’s not like – he didn’t tank, he didn’t go down, didn’t get down on himself, so he just kept playing. That’s what he has to do and that’s what everybody has to do if you make a mistake.”
Then late in the second quarter, with the Bengals having been totally outplayed yet trailing by only a 14-0 score, Ross seemed to be a little slow coming out of a cut and saw a sure touchdown pass sail just out of his reach.
All of this may have led to Dalton losing confidence in Ross when it as crunch time.
With the Bengals trailing by a score of 21-17 and 1:50 remaining on the clock, Cincinnati drove from its own 25 to the Bills’ 28 on the back of six completed passes. Three went to Auden Tate, two to Giovani Bernard and another to Alex Erickson. Dalton didn’t even look for Ross.
Ross finished the day with just two receptions on six targets for 22 yards and the fumble – and a lot more questions about whether this guy can ever be the man that the Bengals hoped he would be when they selected him with the 9th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
This was the kind of performance that would have broken Ross’ confidence in previous years, so how he responds in Wee 4 will say a lot about how much he’s improved physically and mentally.
And for the Bengals to beat the Steelers in Week 4, they’ll need the Ross we saw over the first two games. He’ll have a great chance to do so vs. a Steelers team that has the second-worst passing defense entering this week.
In addition, the Steelers may be without cornerback Joe Haden, who has a shoulder injury that led to him missing Thursday’s practice. This is a game where Ross should absolutely have several big plays that either get the Bengals into the red zone or end zone.
It’s time for Ross to be the kind of player who can rebound from a bad performance and not let it affect his confidence going forward. That’s why Monday feels like one of the biggest games of his young career, so hopefully, he’ll ball out and help Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh for the first time since 2015.