Bengals receivers need a little space -- and an upgrade in talent

CINCINNATI -- One of the biggest question marks concerning the Cincinnati Bengals' long-term future worked out on the team's rehab field during practice on Wednesday.

With blue resistance bands clipped to his back, veteran wide receiver A.J. Green ran in short bursts while a member of Cincinnati's training staff pulled the bands. It was the latest development in Green's attempt to return from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the first 10 games of the season and counting.

In the absence of one of the NFL's top playmakers this decade, Cincinnati's wide receivers have struggled. Whether the Bengals need to re-sign Green, find a similar player or get more production from someone already on the roster, the numbers show they need more high-impact receivers.

For the second straight week, Bengals coach Zac Taylor implored the unit to create more separation and give bigger passing windows for rookie quarterback Ryan Finley.

"Everybody else has to do their jobs as well and catch the balls that are thrown to them and get open and protect up front," Taylor said Wednesday. "It makes life a little bit easier on the quarterback."

Entering Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5), Bengals receivers have caught 56.8 percent of their targets. That number is 6.1 percent lower than it should be, according to NFL Next Gen, the largest negative margin in the league.

The Bengals (0-10) have also struggled to break free from opposing defenders. Cincinnati's receivers are averaging 2.6 yards of separation per target, per NFL Next Gen, good for 25th in the league (Cincinnati was last in 2018).

Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said inconsistency has been part of the issue this season. To give the receivers more help, the coaching staff has tweaked formations and used pre-snap motion to provide more wiggle room on routes.

But things tend to play out differently against quality defenders, as the Bengals have discovered in recent weeks.

"They get their hands on people and make it hard for receivers to separate," Callahan said.

Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross were slotted to be the top three receivers on the roster before the season. Green tore ligaments in his left ankle during the first practice of the season and Ross has been out since he suffered a shoulder injury during the Bengals' Week 4 loss at Pittsburgh.

Boyd has been the most reliable receiver for the Bengals this season. However, he received only three targets in last Sunday's loss to Oakland, his lowest since a Week 6 loss to Cleveland in 2017. That frustrated Boyd, who talked about it at length on Monday.

Finley, who was 13 of 31 passing for 115 yards against the Raiders, was receptive to Boyd's criticism and aware of how receivers who create space are a big asset for quarterbacks.

"It makes it a lot easier," Finley said. "Watch tape on (Boyd)."

Ross will be eligible to return from IR and be active for the final four games of the regular season. Green's status is unknown as he continues to work through a rehab process that has been much longer than initially anticipated.

Getting either one of them alongside Boyd and the rest of the receivers this season will give the Bengals' front office a good evaluation of the unit's outlook for 2020 and beyond. Green and Ross could be short-term solutions to the current problems. However, Green will be a free agent after this season and Ross has been plagued with injury issues since Cincinnati selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft.

The unit's struggles in recent weeks underscore the type of impact a big-time receiver can make on Cincinnati's offense.

"We are just trying to find ways to give our guys a chance to be explosive," Taylor said after the Oakland loss. "We are going to keep searching."