Bengals' 3 youngsters emerging on offense
The quarterback? A rookie. The top receiver? Rookie. The pass-catching tight end? One year removed from being a rookie.
Those low expectations for the Cincinnati Bengals' offense heading into the season were understandable. They had one of the NFL's youngest teams, one with playmakers who aren't far removed from the days of singing the school fight song.
They've stopped singing and started growing fast.
The Bengals are off to a 3-2 start in large part because quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham are playing beyond their years. Dalton has been cool in the biggest moments, and Green and Gresham have made incredible catches when they're needed most.
The rest of the league is starting to notice.
''It shows you that they're very talented, but very poised as well and that they have real good focus,'' Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell said on Wednesday. ''For a group at their experience level, they're playing like they've been in the league three, four, five years. They're doing it well.''
The trio will be a focus on Sunday when the Bengals play the Colts (0-5) at Paul Brown Stadium before another less-than-capacity crowd. It will be one of Dalton's best tests so far, given the Colts' reputation for putting pressure on the passer.
''I think they react really well to some things and they're a fast-flow defense,'' said Dalton, a second-round pick from TCU. ''So I think there are areas where we can attack and find some matchups that we like.''
Their best matchups involve whoever is guarding Green and Gresham.
Green, the fourth overall pick from Georgia, ranks 13th among NFL receivers with 402 yards. He's 21st with 24 catches; Gresham ranks 37th with 21 receptions.
They've come up big in the last two games.
Green had four catches for 118 yards during a 23-20 comeback win over Buffalo. Gresham had four catches for 70 and a one-handed touchdown reception. Dalton scored on a draw play to tie it with less than 5 minutes left, then dived for a first down to set up the winning field goal as time ran out.
Last week, Dalton pulled off a second straight winning drive for a 30-20 victory in Jacksonville. Green had five catches for 90 yards an acrobatic touchdown. Gresham also had five catches and an impressive touchdown.
Dalton and Gresham pulled off the saving play in the closing minutes. Facing a fourth-and-6 from the Jacksonville 19, Dalton scrambled away from pressure and threw a 9-yard completion to Gresham, who had to stretch high and away to pull it in. Three plays later, the Bengals scored for a 23-20 lead.
That's not the norm for players so young.
''We do have some pretty good chemistry for just being around each other for a couple months,'' Dalton said on Wednesday. ''We're getting more and more conformable with each other, knowing where they are, knowing how they're coming out of their breaks and just different things like that.
''It's just really fun to go out there and see it in practice and see how we're getting better each game.''
Sometimes, it has less to do with chemistry and more to do with simply throwing a pass and Green and Gresham make the play. Since training camp, Green has shown a remarkable ability to adjust to the throw and get the ball no matter how closely he's covered.
''We've got a lot of confidence in him,'' Dalton said. ''He's done an outstanding job. If you get the ball close to him, he's going to make the catch. He makes my job a lot easier.''
The Bengals didn't hesitate to make him their No. 1 receiver after trading Chad Ochocinco to New England.
''A.J. is somebody who stood out right from the beginning,'' coach Marvin Lewis said. ''We felt like he could really make a difference. With where we were picking, it was important to me that we pick the player that could come in and have an immediate impact, and obviously he has.''
Gresham was the 10th overall pick last year and set a record for a Bengals rookie tight end by catching 52 passes. Dalton is starting to trust the 6-foot-5 tight end the same way he does Green
''He's a really good athlete and can catch the ball wherever it is,'' Dalton said. ''He's definitely a lot like A.J. and like a lot of the guys we have here.''