What to make of the slow start by Bengals' A.J. Green

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green knew what he had to do on the first offensive play of the game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2.

Go deep.

Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow heaved a long ball down the left sideline for Green, who appeared to haul in a 35-yard reception before going out of bounds. However, a replay review nullified the catch, the first of many missed connections in the Bengals' 35-30 loss.

In his first game action since 2018, Green, 32, is still looking to find the form that made him a seven-time Pro Bowler. That means finding a way to catch more balls thrown to him. Coming into this season, Green had caught 59.6% of his career targets. Through two games, Green's catch rate is 36.3% -- by far the lowest of his career.

But a couple of factors suggest that trend is unlikely to continue.

Green was limited throughout the preseason as he battled a minor hamstring injury and hasn't played extensively since Week 8 of the 2018 season, when he suffered a toe injury that eventually put him on injured reserve.

Green has to build a good rapport with Burrow, the top overall pick in the 2020 draft.

"That's going to come over time," Green said on Sept. 10, a few days before he started his 10th year in the NFL.

More playing time could be the elixir that helps Green overcome a slow start to the season.

Against Cleveland, Green had three catches on 13 targets, the second lowest of his career in a game where he was targeted at least 10 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The timing between Burrow and Green appeared to be off, which is understandable given the circumstances.

While Green did work with Burrow during training camp, the action was limited because Green didn't go through a full practice until the end of the preseason. Green also did not participate in any of the Bengals' camp scrimmages that were a substitute for the exhibition games canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's really hard to simulate," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said after a Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. "And when you get a chance to go play in a game, the only way you can get into game shape is by playing games."

Some of Green's difficulties this season stem from a vertical passing game that has struggled to connect. Green leads the team in average air yards per target (15.9) and the Bengals rank 13th in that category, but they are last in the NFL in yards per reception.

The circumstances of the Bengals' loss to Cleveland also restricted Burrow's ability to stretch the field.

After the game, Burrow said the Browns positioned their defense to restrict any long passing plays, which forced the QB to opt for shorter completions to move the offense. With the Bengals playing from behind for most of the game, Burrow threw the ball 61 times for 316 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Burrow shouldered some of the blame for Green's low production.

"I missed some throws to A.J. again," Burrow said Thursday. "I am just going to have to fix that. I can't keep missing throws to A.J. when he gets open like he does."

But the numbers from the loss to the Browns suggest those struggles are unique to the Burrow-Green relationship. Bengals receivers Tyler Boyd and Mike Thomas caught 11 of their combined 12 targets from Burrow, according to NFL Next Gen. Green’s catch rate was 14.6% lower than what was expected.

Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles (0-2) will give Green another week to run more routes with Burrow at quarterback. That extra time could be what he needs to get in sync with the rookie, gain confidence in his third game since the 2018 season and be the receiver the Bengals need after they gave him a one-year franchise tag worth $18.2 million.

"The more he gets out there and plays and the more he feels like he's getting in shape so he's playing at the speed he wants to play at, he's going to be helpful to our offense," Callahan said.