Understanding the Greatness of A.J. Green
It’s two nights before Super Bowl 49, and I’m at a Scottsdale steakhouse with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. The retirement that he’ll eventually announce is, at this point, still just an inkling making its way from the back of his mind. There are seven of us at dinner. As the evening wears down, the conversation shifts from dieting and deer-hunting to football. The name A.J. Green comes up.
In his first three NFL seasons, Green averaged 5.5 catches and 81.8 yards a game. But in three of his six contests against the Steelers, he was held to under 42 yards, and twice was held to just one catch. I once asked Green’s position coach, James Urban, what the issue was against Pittsburgh.
“Ike Taylor,” Urban said. Taylor’s long, sinewy arms, and crafty physicality made him the ideal defender for the wiry, 6-4 Green—especially given Taylor’s mastery of the nuanced help-coverage principles in Pittsburgh’s matchup zone scheme.
I remember my first encounter with Taylor. It was on Media Day for the Steelers-Packers Super Bowl. Taylor was in the final year of his contract and I asked him where he thought he ranked among NFL cornerbacks. (This was February 2011; at the time, it was universally agreed that Darrelle Revis was cornerback No. 1.)
“No. 2,” he said, no hesitation, staring at me with eyes that were either twinkling or piercing—I could never quite tell.
Four years later, at the dinner in Scottsdale, I share with the table what Urban had said to me about A.J. Green. After all, Ike is a cornerback, he likes hearing these sorts of flattering tidbits. The table turns and looks at him. Silence hangs and I see those eyes, still either twinkling or piercing. Then, a faint smile creeps across his face. Relaxation sets in.
“Yeah, but this past season, I’ll tell ya what,” Taylor says. “He got me. Green finally got me.”
* * *
“This is just a post route,” A.J. Green says. He and I are sitting in the Bengals’ defensive auditorium, watching film. On the big screen is his 81-yard touchdown against Taylor from last December. “I got the inside release with Ike and I saw the safety sit flat, way in the middle of the field and up the hash. (Andy Dalton) just laid a great ball out there.”
We rewind the play and examine Mike Mitchell—the safety who sat too flat on the other side of the field. Mitchell was reacting to Mohamed Sanu’s deep crosser out of the slot. Green had lined up outside of Sanu.
“Playing Pittsburgh when they had safety Ryan Clark, that’s all they did, they jumped every (crossing) route because Ike was not just a good corner, he’s a great corner. You trust him on an island with any receiver. So their motto was to cut the crossing route every time, even when Clark was there. I know Dick LeBeau, that’s his defense, that’s what he teaches. I’ve been playing against the Steelers for four years, twice a year and that’s all they did, they cut the crosser every time. We knew we had that post and once I saw press coverage here, all I was thinking was, Get a clean release, get speed up the field and run up the hash.”
In other words, Green faced Ike one-on-one and ran by him.
A few days later, I called Ike to ask if I could publish his private dinner comment about how Green finally got him.
“You can,” he said, “as long as you mention that that’s the only time he ever got me.”
Seriously? Come on, Ike.
“That’s it. That was the only time. Well, actually, wait, no, I guess you could say there were two times. The other was some little short slant for a TD on a Monday night or something like that. I guess you could say he got me then. That’s it, though. Two times.”
“Ike is a talker,” Green says. “But you know, rightfully so. He’s been a great player in this league for a long time. It’s always been a battle against him. Some years he got me some years, well, you know….”
You got him.
This, like most of what Green says, comes out quickly and curtly.
“A.J. is a man of few words,” says Urban. “If he can say something in five words, he’ll choose to say it in three.” Speaking with Green and seeing him navigate around the Bengals facility, you notice an underlining swiftness to him, as if his life is out of a 2:00 offense.
“Before meetings, the players usually have a five-or 10-minute break to go check their cellphones or whatever,” says Urban. “I’ve never seen A.J. do that. He always just goes straight to the meeting room and he’s sitting in there waiting when you walk in. That’s just the way he is.”
The 81-yard touchdown wasn’t Green’s only big play in the Steelers game. There was a 56-yarder earlier. On that one, he didn’t even have to face a cornerback. The Bengals were in base two-receiver personnel. Both wide receivers lined up on the right, Green in the slot. Based on Pittsburgh’s defensive principles, the Bengals knew they’d get zone coverage versus this look, with Green facing outside linebacker Jason Worilds and then a safety.
“The first step is (about getting) a clean release on the linebacker, because his job is to slow you up so you don’t have all that momentum going into the safety,” Green says. “Once I got that clean release and I got my speed up I know it’s all over because I saw the safeties. Troy (Polamalu) is turning and running a little bit but No. 23 (Mitchell) is kind of flat-footed. So I just split both of them. And once I got the head of steam, (Dalton) just laid the ball up there and I had the time to adjust to it.”
At what point in this play did you realize you’d won?
“Oh I knew I won right there when I got off the line.”
Even before you passed the linebacker?
“Yeah because I saw (No.) 23. He had no chance once I got the head of steam. And Troy, I could have just run away from him because he’s trying to play the leverage right now. I knew I had leverage on Troy, all I had to do was keep it up.”
* * *
Green and Dalton have been together their entire careers, which is why it’s baffling that so many interceptions (28 on Dalton’s throws to Green, more than any duo in the NFL during that span) have derived from miscommunication. A great example came against the Texans in Week 12 last year, when cornerback Johnathan Joseph stepped in front of Green for a third quarter pick.
“That was definitely on me,” Green says. We play the film back. “That’s on me.”
I ask him to draw what happened.
“It was a nine, what 10-yard stop? I’m supposed to stop. And you could see at the end I knew (Joseph) was sitting so I should have come back to the ball more. But I did a little, like, bucket step and my feet got all jumbled and he just cut right underneath me.
“Once (the ball’s) going, I felt him coming so I was trying to shoo him off with my body but he undercut me. You know like when you feel somebody driving on you?”
(I don’t; I’ve never been a wide receiver… or anything more than a middle school tight end, for that matter. But that’s okay, continue.)
“You’re trying to get in front of him so he has to run through you instead of under you. So he just side-stepped and cut right under me.”
This wasn’t the game’s only negative play. Earlier, Green had failed to convert a fourth-and-one fade pass in the back corner of the end zone. The throw was there, and again he blamed himself.
“I should have dragged my left foot, I didn’t put it down quick enough. My momentum took me out. Like when your body just goes limp; I should have just done that. I got my right foot in, but I couldn’t get my left in… I should have kicked back… It was all on me.”
How often do you watch the film and come away wishing you had done something differently on a play?
“Always. Always. There’s never a perfect play for me.”
* * *
The Texans—and dozens of other teams—might disagree. The Bengals were only in position to attempt the fourth-and-goal because Green had torched cornerback Darryl Morris four plays earlier.
“This was just a shake route. We really don’t run it against man-to-man like that, but he was bumping and running alright. So I was going to keep it going anyway, so I really had to push my dip, sell (the inside) route with the glance and then boom, back out.
On a double move, “your first move always has to be your best move. You always gotta get the eyes, because a lot of DBs, they’re just looking at you. So once you give them the eyes, coming out the second move is the easy part. The hardest part is creating that separation on the first move to get back out.”
* * *
The week before the Texans game last year, the Bengals had traveled to the Superdome. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, as he often does against elite receivers, kept both safeties back for most of the contest, playing a form of 2-high coverage. This made it easier to double Green over the top.
Combatting double-teams is not atypical for Green, of course. We watch some of them unfold from this game. “You still have to run your route,” he says. “Because you know, if (Dalton) didn’t have pressure, he probably would have still let it go. Because it’s me against a safety. The other side of the field is wide open so he probably would have just thrown me open.”
On the next play, Green is lined up across from cornerback Corey White. The safety is initially aligned more towards the middle of the field. But that’s a disguise. At the snap, White bumps Green and then lets the receiver get a step on him. He’s playing “trail” coverage, which means the safety will be helping over the top.
The safety is extremely deep, though—likely out of respect for Green’s speed—and there’s still a void in the coverage, much like what often forms against a Cover-2 zone. Green catches a 21-yarder on a deep-out along the sideline.
“Yeah we work on this all the time. It’s a ‘bench’ route. And it’s good against ‘2-trail’ because the safety is so high and the corner is trying to trail you. When you beat the corner, it’s hard for the safety to get over the top.”
On the very next play, the Saints again go 2-high. Now the Bengals are in a spread formation and Green is aligned outside the field numbers. In this arrangement, it’s nearly impossible for a safety to get over to help on him. Green draws one-on-one coverage and gets by cornerback Keenan Lewis. But Dalton throws incomplete to Mohamed Sanu inside.
On something like this, do you go back to the huddle and say, Hey, Andy, come on, throw me this ball over the top here?
“Yeah,” Green says before the question’s even finished. “And we saw it later that game. I scored off one and I had a big third-down conversion on another one, the same coverage.
“Andy knows if I tell him something, I’m usually right. He usually gets the ball to me if I say something about it. (In this instance) we had a single safety and we had No. 28 (Lewis) pressing a lot. Any time a corner is pressing, the safety is almost in the middle of the field and I’m one-on-one, it’s usually give me the ball. We always communicate on the sideline about the different matchups and what we see or what Andy sees. And (sometimes) I’ll go to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson or I’ll go to Coach Urban. And Andy will be like, ‘O.K.’ (Then) I can run past this guy or I can beat this guy on this certain route and it usually works out.”
We wrap up our film session and Green untethers from the tiny mic that our video department wired up his shirt. Most of what we’ve watched today has involved the star receiver facing some form of double coverage. It occurs to me to ask, in all seriousness: Is there a corner in the league you can’t run past?
Green seems to take the question very seriously. And then, very quickly he says, “No. Never.”