Bengals focus on expanding Sanu's role

CINCINNATI -- James Urban took off his sunglasses, put them on the top of his Cincinnati Bengals hat and looked his interviewer squarely in the eye.

On the final day of the Bengals' organized team activities earlier this month, the receivers coach was all business. He admitted he messed up. He didn't handle one of his best playmakers properly last season and felt bad about it.

"Mo's a good football player," Urban said, referring to wideout Mohamed Sanu. "I asked too much of him last year. I spread him thin. It's sort of the old thing where too much of a good thing is just as good as not enough.

"That's a shame on me."

Urban has vowed to make up for it by re-expanding Sanu's role.

In 2013, Sanu shouldered the shame of being a second-year receiver who failed to produce in ways he had as a rookie. He caught only two touchdown passes despite appearing in nearly double the games he saw his first season. In his nine appearances in 2012, Sanu caught four touchdown passes. It seemed evident that he would be a good No. 2 receiver to pair with A.J. Green for years to come.

Then came the mixing and matching and tweaking of Sanu's role at the start of last season, followed by Marvin Jones' somewhat unexpected emergence from Week 8 on.

Sanu became old news. With 10 touchdowns, Jones was doing the scoring. Sanu was simply catching a standard slant in the slot here or a run-of-the-mill out route along the sideline there. His effectiveness had been diminished, and before Urban or anyone else could realize it, the season was over.

"He bounced around and played three different positions -- really four different positions -- and on any given play, we bounced him around and asked him to do tons," Urban said. "He got spread thin."

Sanu became slower and less explosive than the Bengals knew he could be, and than it appears he now is. Urban said he thinks Sanu was faster this spring. The wideout said he wasn't sure.

As a result of Sanu's lack of explosiveness, the Bengals were shy about putting him in the scenarios in which he thrived the year prior. Once Jones started playing well, Sanu's climb became significantly steeper. The new model was working. It made little sense to go backward.

Urban's takeaway from Sanu's all-but-lost year? Better watch practice and game repetitions to make sure his receivers aren't getting overworked. Urban spoke glowingly, for example, about Green insisting on wanting to push when coaches needed him to pull back. That resulted in Urban physically charting each of Green's snaps during OTAs and minicamp.

"All these things I talk about as far as watching reps and making sure he's fresh with A.J., I've got to do the same thing with Mo," Urban said. "I've got to do it with Marvin. I've got to do it with everybody. If they're going to run the way we ask them to run and do the things we ask them to do, I've got to keep my eye on it. And I didn't do that last year. That's a shame on me."

One of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's biggest changes in the Bengals' West Coast system will be a stepped-up tempo. Players are going to be required to get plays in faster and sprint up to the line of scrimmage. The object is to have little standing-around time and to get into a rhythm a less-conditioned defense theoretically won't be able to match.

"They've embraced what we're doing," Urban said. "There was a lot of talk about finish [during the spring practices]. Talking about doing things down the field. Most of these guys have been with me, been with us for the last four years or so. So they know what to expect, and we've done great things.

"So how do you get their attention? We get their attention by overemphasizing finishing, overemphasizing getting off the ball and getting out of the huddle and getting set."

Sanu believes the offense will be more of an attack-first scheme.

"We want to set the tone and set the tempo. It's about us controlling the game," Sanu said. "Never let the defense control the game. We've got to be able to control the game and handle those situations the way we want to handle them."

As far as Sanu is concerned, setting the tone and tempo could mean having him catch passes out of the slot, running free on reverses, pitching back a double reverse or lining up under center and deciding whether to pass or run.

The former high school quarterback had his share of trick plays in college. He threw four touchdown passes at Rutgers while also setting Big East records as a receiver. During his rookie year in the NFL, he hit Green in stride on a 73-yard touchdown pass that came on a play fake. Last season, Sanu completed a 25-yard pass to running back Giovani Bernard before catching a 6-yard TD pass from Andy Dalton three plays later.

"It just keeps them off balance and keeps them on their toes," Sanu said. "When we're able to do that, you never know where it's coming. We could run the ball, run the ball, run the ball because we've got great running backs and a great quarterback who can put the ball anywhere, and we have a great bunch of receivers who can catch it. So you have to keep them on their toes and pull out those trick plays when we need it."

Cincinnati will have some trickery this year, and it looks like Sanu will be a big part of it.