CINCINNATI -- As if Jeff Driskel already wasn’t under enough pressure taking over for Andy Dalton as the Cincinnati Bengals' starting quarterback, now he’s tasked with trying to turn around the offense without his biggest weapon.
The Bengals put A.J. Green on injured reserve this week, after he on Sunday re-aggravated the toe injury that sidelined him for three games.
Green, the Bengals’ first-round draft pick in 2011, finished his eighth NFL season with 694 yards and six touchdowns on 46 receptions, and now Cincinnati has to figure out how to move forward without him.
The Bengals travel to play the Los Angeles Chargers (9-3) on Sunday.
“That's huge,” Driskel said. “Losing A.J. is a big deal, but at the end of the day, we have other good players out there, and the coaches are going to do a good job of getting those guys in position to make plays, and we have full confidence that whoever is out there playing receiver is going to make those plays.”
Green originally injured the toe making a catch against Tampa Bay to set up the game-winning field goal and thought immediately afterward he had just jammed it.
However, the next day, his foot was in a boot and later during the bye week Green met with a foot specialist in Green Bay to determine whether he needed surgery. That ultimately was ruled out but now appears necessary four weeks later with a torn ligament.
In the second quarter against Denver on Sunday, a 24-10 loss that marked the Bengals’ fourth defeat in a row, Green crumpled to the ground two steps into his route and couldn’t put pressure on his right foot. He was in tears going to the locker room on a cart.
“When you lose anybody, especially a guy like him who can take over a game, it makes it tough,” Driskel said after the game. "I'm just hoping for the best for him and his health. Any time you lose an A.J. Green, it takes its toll on the football team."
Driskel said “it’s definitely different” preparing without Green. He had just gotten comfortable with the idea of having the team’s most highly regarded receiver available to him after Driskel was thrust into action early in the third quarter of a loss to the Browns on Nov. 25 when Dalton injured his thumb trying to recover a botched snap from Billy Price.
Green was not active for that game, despite hopes earlier in the week that he was ready to return. The seven-time Pro Bowl receiver finally resumed practice last Wednesday and was a full participant by Friday but only had one catch for seven yards Sunday in Driskel’s first start.
On the route Green was injured, he finally had single coverage for the first time in the game and Driskel said he was looking to throw to Green but noticed him on the ground. He ended up taking a sack.
“It's definitely different,” Driskel said of preparing without Green. “You have to draw some things up a little differently, move some people around, but we're going to have to overcome and make some plays in his absence.”
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said losing Green mid-game made things a little more difficult on Driskel because the whole game plan was built on the idea Green would be playing.
“We planned as if A.J. was back,” Lazor said. “We assumed not playing for a while, he might need a break during the game at times but we were going to call it like he was in there. When he wasn’t in there it was the next guy to go in and take his spot, which was pretty much what we did. We tried not to move too many pieces around after he left the game. It’s a big strategic piece to miss because he’s a great player as well emotionally I think the team was fired up for him to be back. We’ve gotten used to that.”
Tyler Boyd stepped up as usual with some spectacular catches and finished with 97 yards on six receptions, but beyond him the leading receivers were backup running back Giovani Bernard and tight end C.J. Uzomah with 32 and 33 yards, respectively.
John Ross had just two catches for 13 yards and Alex Erickson, now the most experienced receiver in the room, had one reception for two yards.
Third-year receiver Cody Core came up with a 30-yard touchdown for his lone catch of the day with four targets, and the Bengals are hoping that can be something for him to build off in an otherwise disappointing third season. His first NFL action on offense came in 2016 in the final six games when Green also was out with injury.
“He has to be more consistent,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “You have to be where you’re supposed to be when your opportunity comes. You have to free yourself, whether it’s man coverage, zone coverage, whatever it is, you have to get to the right spots. If the quarterback’s progression leads you there, you have to be in position to make the plays.”
Green has always been that player the quarterback could count on, and Lewis expects him to be able to make a full recovery without lingering issues.
The team will know more about his timeline for a return once he is done meeting with his specialist, but the hope is he can be ready for OTAs.
“I think they feel very confident that with his injury, albeit the same injury he had a month ago, whatever they decide is the best course of action, he would be healed 100 percent,” Lewis said.
Green has one more year left on his four-year, $60 million contract and said last week he remains committed to the organization.
When he and Dalton arrived together in Cincinnati in 2011, they were able to “turn a lot of things around,” and Green said they still have the opportunity to do that with some “more pieces around” them in the future.
“My goal when I got drafted was to always stay in one place the whole time,” Green said last week. “No matter what the situation was. I want to win, I want to bring something to this city. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, A.J. left because he wasn’t winning.’ It’s not about football, that’s just who I am to stay loyal to whoever gave me an opportunity. It’s been fun. I wouldn’t rather be nowhere else. In tough times that’s why I’m here, try to lead these guys and get this thing back on the road and for the future. I have one more year on my contract and then we’ll see what happens.”