ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The last time A.J. Green played in Detroit was his first time wearing an NFL uniform in a game. His first preseason game. His rookie year.
Already down two touchdowns in the first quarter, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw Green the ball on his very first play as a Bengal. It was intercepted by Detroit cornerback Chris Houston.
Not the start Green would have wanted.
“I had to make a tackle,” Green said. “I hope I get off to a better start than that.”
Since that point, not much has gone wrong for Green, who visits Detroit on Sunday with the Bengals.
Over the past three seasons, stopping Green has been a major issue. He has 11 100-yard games in his first 37 games. In his career, he’s only dropped 14 passes. Since entering the league as a first-round draft pick out of Georgia in 2011, he’s seventh in the NFL in receiving yards (2,871) and of guys in the top 10 in that span, only Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Dez Bryant have fewer drops.
In the past three years, he’s caught 22 touchdown passes, tied for 10th in the league during that span.
Part of what makes him good is he is incredibly tough to read as a receiver. He is a vertical threat, much like his offseason workout partner, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but his ability to run any route is what makes him completely dangerous.
“You can tell he works on every part of his game,” Houston said. “Some guys, you can just know that they just run nines, jump balls, and they are not good in-and-out of breaks.
“Him, you’ve got to play everything because he’s so precise in everything he does.”
There is a rare fluidity there, something only a few receivers have and even less are able to excel with. But Detroit cornerback Rashean Mathis has been around a while.
He’s covered a lot of receivers. As a former Pro Bowler, he’s handled a lot of them well, too. Green, though, he’s one of the best current NFL receivers Mathis has seen.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys,” Mathis said. “But there’s not a lot of guys that possess the smoothness of route running that he has, that capability. He can be an explosive guy as well.
“It’s a good combination he has.”
But the key to stopping Cincinnati’s offense is to keep Green from taking those vertical routes too often. Force him to use those quick stops and fluid movements he has when he’s making cuts to run hitches and slants instead of go routes, corners and posts.
This, Houston believes, is the way to frustrate Cincinnati’s offense.
In some ways, Detroit’s cornerbacks practice this every day because they have the older, perhaps more elite version of Green: Johnson.
Like any quarterback in the league, Dalton throws a lot of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and Dalton likes to go outside of the hashmarks on those throws. When throwing to receivers, Dalton has been his most efficient throwing to the outside of the field. His highest completion percentage beyond the line of scrimmage is to the left side of the field between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards away, where he is completing 75 percent of his passes.
Three of Dalton’s four highest QBR zones are on the left side from 10-to-20 yards away (94.3) and then deeper than 20 yards (86.7) along with over the middle more than 20 yards away (98.5).
“They want their quarterback not to make mistakes,” Houston said. “A lot of quick three-step (drops), lot of quick five-step (drops).
“Then, once you start biting up on the quick three-and-five step, then they hit you deep.”
A lot of that deeper success comes because of the route running fluidity Green possesses. When he makes it hard to read, he becomes that much more difficult to stop. And it has turned him into one of the best receivers in the NFL.
“You could put him up there,” Mathis said. “I’m not the one to crown anyone too quick but he’s made plays his first three years so to knock him, you can’t do that. You have to give him his props.
“He’s a very good young talent and if he keeps it up you definitely can put him in the top three or four receivers in the league easily.”
ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey contributed to this report. Information from ESPN Stats & Information was also used in this report.