Play of young Bengals WRs gives A.J. Green reason to smile

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green smiled at his locker Thursday night when asked to discuss Bill Lazor’s offense following a 30-27 preseason victory against the Bears.

It was clear the veteran receiver was pleased.

"It felt good. Bill is a very smart guy," Green said. "He puts us in the best situations. Last year, he really didn’t have his hand stamped on his offense, but having an offseason under his belt really helped. The communication with all the receivers, all the players, he asks us what we need to work on and what we like and what we want to run. He’s a great players' coach and I feel like tonight really showed how complete our offense can be."

Green was quietly sitting at the same locker 11 months earlier, lamenting what had gone wrong in a 13-9 loss to the Texans in Week 2. Green, one of the best receivers in the NFL, wasn't targeted during the Bengals' final failed offensive drive. He couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if he had been in a position to make a play.

The simmering tension in the locker room threatened to bubble over that night, and less than 24 hours later, offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was fired.

Nothing ever seemed to go right that season, and even the normally unflappable Green was constantly frustrated in a year he deemed "crummy" by his standards.

The Bengals' offense was the worst in the league in yards per game in 2017. So it must have felt good for Green to get back to what he used to do against the Bears. As teammate John Ross put it, Green was just his usual self.

Green didn't stay in for long after catching two passes for 48 yards. On the first of the two, he ran a crossing route out of the slot and quarterback Andy Dalton quickly fired a pass to him. Green wasn't even touched before he went out of bounds after a 22-yard gain.

The second saw Green line up in his usual spot as the outside receiver. Dalton put the football in a tight window between Green and defensive back Marcus Cooper, who tried to leap for it and fell as Green ran for a 26-yard gain down the sideline.

Green was clearly smiling as he jogged back to the huddle.

"We’ve been doing that for a long time," Green said. "He just [threw] a great ball. The guy was sitting on the route."

There could be more of that if the Bengals' offense can find a way to put things together for the first time since 2015. They liked their young receivers enough to part ways with veteran Brandon LaFell early in camp.

The potential is there, particularly with Ross, a 2017 first-round pick who played fewer than 20 snaps last season. Ross is getting every opportunity to show off the speed that made him the ninth overall pick, but he still has a way to go. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis pointed out that it's essentially still a rookie season for Ross.

That was evident when he slipped on his route and allowed the Bears' Kyle Fuller to snatch the ball away for a pick-six.

"I lost my feet -- terrible job by me," Ross said. "It was a perfect ball by Andy; I just fell."

Ross also just barely missed a touchdown from Matt Barkley in the back of the end zone when he appeared to only get one foot in bounds. But he also made up for those things on a play in the red zone where he made the catch, appeared to head for the sidelines, and suddenly pivoted. Ross’ move caught Chicago's defender off guard and allowed him to gain 20 yards.

"I thought he was going to get in the end zone but they had a good pursuit on him," Dalton said. "He’s a special player. I think he’s going to make a lot of plays for this offense."

The Bengals also saw some sparks from Josh Malone, who had three catches for 41 yards, and Auden Tate, a 6-foot-5, 253-pound seventh-round draft pick whose big frame has impressed in camp.

Tate's night included a leaping grab that was negated by an offensive pass-interference penalty. But it was his contested reception for a 33-yard touchdown, caught right above the arms of the defender, that got his teammates talking.

"It was just an out route," he said. "They got some pressure and I saw [quarterback Jeff] Driskel scrambling. After that I just scrambled and went to the fade, and he just gave me a chance. I just went up for it."

Added Ross: "We all think he’s a freak. His catch radius is ridiculous, and he can go get the ball better than anyone I know. We knew it was coming, even the defense. As soon as [No.] 19 went in, we all tilted our heads and looked."