Who will step up for Bengals with A.J. Green out?

CINCINNATI – The Bengals have some big shoes to fill on Sunday afternoon.

Wide receiver A.J. Green is expected to be out at least two games with a toe injury, which leaves a gaping hole in an offense already missing Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals have no choice but to preach “next man up.”

“This is kind of like a broken record to you, I’m sure, but I’ve said next man up since, I guess, the beginning of the season when we lost four of our tight ends,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “It’s next man up ... and someone like Auden Tate is going to have to step up for us and make plays, and we’re expecting him to. Obviously it puts a lot of pressure on us as individuals because we know what he brings to the table, because he’s A.J. Green. A.J. “Dream” is what we call him. ... We know that we have to go out there and execute and we can’t let that halt our offense.”

But who is the next man exactly?

Green’s No. 1 role will pass to Tyler Boyd, who actually leads the team in receptions (Green leads in receiving yards and touchdowns). It’s likely Boyd will draw extra coverage from teams while Green is out, and he’s expecting that to be the case, just maybe not on every play.

“I don’t think every pass play since they tend to play zone a little bit, but it just depends on how the game goes,” Boyd said. “I feel like if everything is working how they expect it, than I think I’ll see a lot more but if we’re clicking as an offense I think they’ll shy away from it and just try to play our offense as a whole.”

Boyd has played his part well so far, but after him, the rest of the group leaves much to be desired, and they need to step up in a big way.

“I still feel pretty comfortable even though A.J. is down, but it still hurts as a team,” Boyd said. “We just need guys to step up and fill his shoes and keep a smile on his face to show we have guys that can help him and get the job done."

It’s not what the Bengals envisioned back in training camp when they parted ways with veteran Brandon LaFell. It didn’t look like LaFell was needed anymore due to a young, promising group of receivers. None of those receivers has done much since that point.

Alex Erickson, Cody Core, Josh Malone and John Ross have combined for 19 receptions, 135 yards and two touchdowns. Malone has become a curious afterthought after being drafted in the fourth round last year.

When asked if he expected more out of the group to this point, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis focused on Ross, who has been dealing with a groin injury that mostly has kept him out of the lineup since the beginning of October.

“John has done good things when he’s been out there and healthy,” Lewis said. “We just have to keep pressing forward, and the other guys have to continue to make plays when they get opportunities.”

Ross has flashed promise on the field at times but hasn’t been consistent and appeared to quit on a route against the Panthers in Week 3 in a play that ended in an interception. Core has only three catches in the last two seasons, and dropped a pass that hit him in the hands on third down against the Steelers in Week 6.

There’s certainly no clear savior on the roster, but if anyone needs to step up behind Boyd, it’s Ross, whose speed can add another element to the offense that has heavily depended on Green since he was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. The Bengals are 4-7-1, including playoffs, when Green is out for the game, which most recently occurred when he tore his hamstring just a few plays into a game against the Bills in 2016.

Green missed seven games that season, including the Bills game, and the team went 3-4 in his absence, losing several close, low-scoring games. The offense, which was run by Ken Zampese, averaged 380.8 yards per game with him that year and only 326.3 yards-per-game without him. It did manage big numbers in wins against the Eagles (32 points, 412 net yards), Browns (23 points, 360 net yards) and Ravens (27 points, 371 net yards).

If there is one positive for the Bengals, it’s that the Saints' passing defense is almost as bad as their own. The Saints have the best run defense in the league, but their passing defense ranks 31st and allows 311.4 yards per game. New Orleans recently traded for cornerback Eli Apple to try to solve some of the woes in the secondary.

“They’re a big, hard-nosed team,” said Uzomah, who watched the Saints win against the Rams last week. “It was a good game, I think the Rams had that fake field goal that kind of put them behind the eight ball there, but I thought they were able to do things on offense, kind of exploit them in the deep end a little bit. ... I was impressed but I also saw kind of a little weakness. Things that we can exploit, I would say. I don’t think weakness is the appropriate word, but things we will be able to exploit come Sunday.”

Added Boyd: “I don’t think their back end is super unstoppable. They have great guys back there but ... they’ve got a great run stop. As long as we can establish some type of run game, get three a pop, four yards is good with us, everything will open in the back end. The linebackers come up in play-action every time so we’ll have windows and opportunities to throw it. ... At the end of the day we’ll just try to out execute every play.”

The Bengals believe they can find a way to put up a lot of points this week while shorthanded. But without their biggest weapon, it’ll be a tall task.

“You’re losing the best player on our team,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Just from the start, you never want that to happen. The coverages may be different because he’s not out there. We’ll have to see the plan and what teams are going to do now with him not out there, and we’ll have to adjust.”