CINCINNATI — Besides drafting two rookies who have yet to crack the regular rotation, the Bengals kept their offseason search for a receiver to complement A.J. Green in-house.
Sunday’s results indicate they didn’t find one. They found two or three.
A depleted Browns secondary allowed Green to catch seven passes for 58 yards Sunday, but the daggers came from the other guys. Andrew Hawkins’ second big game of the season included his first NFL touchdown, and Brandon Tate caught three passes for 71 yards and a 44-yard touchdown in a 34-37 Bengals win.
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Armon Binns also had five catches for 66 yards, and tight end Jermaine Gresham didn’t have a huge day but did have an acrobatic third-down catch along the sideline to set up what was essentially the game-sealing field goal by Mike Nugent with 2:09 to go.
It will get tougher going forward — the Browns were without suspended cornerback Joe Haden and kept veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown on the sideline — but the Bengals turned a game they needed into a model they hope can be replicated. When opposing defenses shade coverage and commit extra defenders to Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and the other guys have to make them pay.
“I’ve been saying all along that we’ve got a lot of talented receivers,” Dalton said. “It’s great to get in the game and great for these guys to make the plays that they did.”
Dalton completed 24-of-31 passes for 318 yards and touchdowns to three different receivers. Green was in one-on-one coverage on his 10-yard touchdown, Tate blew by Browns safety Eric Haag on his, and Hawkins got his on a 50-yard catch after coming back to the ball along the right sideline and cutting all the way across the field early in the fourth quarter to push the lead to 14 points.
Green is the centerpiece, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and a Pro Bowler in his rookie season. The Bengals are hoping the faith in the others — Hawkins and Binns are former practice-squad players and Tate was a waiver-wire claim last year — will pay dividends.
At 5’7, Hawkins is the shortest receiver in the league. He looked like he might be one of the fastest on his touchdown, a play that started with Dalton having to escape the pocket and ended with Hawkins zigging and zagging to avoid defenders and picking up downfield blocks from Brian Leonard and Green.
“Hawk is so talented when he’s got the ball in his hands and when he’s got some space,” Dalton said. “For him, it’s just getting him the ball — find ways to get him in that space. That (touchdown) shows what kind of plays he can make and shows what kind of runs he can make after the catch.”
The Bengals have lined up Green on both sides this season and have played him in the slot to challenge defenses that use an extra defender or play a safety deeper than usual to Green’s side. Binns, a big target at 6’3, got going early in Sunday’s game and had four catches in the first half. Hawkins had both of his catches in the second half.
“It’s definitely nice to see everybody involved,” Green said. “Those guys, they fight. We go to work every single day.
“Some days it’s my day and others it’s going to be Armon or (Hawkins). I know those guys are going to deliver when their number gets called.”
Through two games, Green has 12 catches, Hawkins has 10 and Binns has nine. The Bengals still need to protect Dalton better — he was sacked six times Sunday — and still will want to feed off the big plays and deep passes Green is capable of catching, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said “everybody realizes” that defenses will try to limit Green and, given the choice, let the other guys beat them.
“On Fridays (at practice) I usually stick A.J. right by me (on the sideline) and let everybody else go to work,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “People don’t like to see No. 18 (Green) beating them on (TV). He had some great plays today, he’s a very good player, and we’ll continue finding things to shake him clean.”
Two other Bengals receivers finding the end zone is a good place to start.