BEREA — Bengals receiver A.J. Green sent the Browns to defeat twice last year. And that was with top cornerback Joe Haden in the lineup.
In the season opener, Green was uncovered as Cleveland’s defense was late getting out of the huddle. The lasting image is Haden futilely chasing Green, like a dog after a car, on the deciding 41-yard touchdown.
In the rematch in Cincinnati, the Browns were ready at the snap and knew the ball was going to Green. They still couldn’t stop it. Green beat Haden on a crossing route, snatched the ball out of the air and ran to the 2-yard line to set up the winning field goal.
“He made big plays, no doubt about it,” defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said Thursday.
Green will host the Browns on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. He went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2011 — 65 catches for 1,057 yards (16.3 average) and seven touchdowns — and has much bigger goals in Year 2. Like being the top receiver in the NFL.
“That’s what I work for every day and I’m not gonna stop till I’m that guy,” he said on a conference call with Browns media. “That’s one goal I want to (accomplish), but I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Browns are at a significant disadvantage because Haden is suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson will start at corner, but neither possesses the talent of Haden, the No. 7 overall pick in 2010.
“We are going to miss him for the next four games, but the good thing is we have the depth right now,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “All those guys can cover and they all are willing to make a tackle.”
Instead of Haden following Green on every play — with some help from a safety — the Browns will likely keep Brown on one side and Patterson on the other. When the Bengals go with three receivers, Patterson will move inside and Buster Skrine will take over outside. Wherever Green lines up, he will get the Browns’ full attention.
“Teams are always crowding my side or cover-2 to my side,” Green said. “But I’ve just gotta be patient and work hard this season and be able to move all over the field.”
Green was the No. 4 pick out of Georgia in 2011. He is 6-foot-4, 207 pounds and caught five passes for 70 yards in the opening loss vs. Baltimore. One of the separators for him is the ability to go up and catch the ball in traffic, even if the throw isn’t perfect.
“He has size, he does a good job against bump-and-run, I think he catches the ball extremely well and I think he’s a very competitive guy,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “The one thing he does is there are times when the ball gets thrown up to him when it’s less than ideal situations for the offense and he finds a way to go up and get it. I think that’s a very strong attribute for a receiver.”
Green has a 6-inch height advantage on Patterson, but the seven-year veteran won’t concede anything. Patterson played predominantly in the slot last year but has always considered himself capable of starting on the outside, like he did for nine games in Philadelphia in 2010.
“I’ll see him,” Patterson said of Green. “It’s going to be a very competitive game. Football is a team sport but it’s an individual battle within that team. So I’m looking forward to it. I’m always looking forward to showing what I can do against quality players such as A.J. Green. So it’s a good opportunity.”
Skrine, a fifth-round pick in 2011, played 47 of 95 defensive snaps in the opening loss to Philadelphia after Brown left the game in the first quarter with a neck injury. Skrine may be the fastest player on the team, but he’s 7 inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than Green.
“I think Buster is an awesome player,” Brown said. “He has a really bright future and I think in 11 years, you’ll be standing here talking to Buster like you’re talking to me. That’s what I think.”
Jauron said anyone who tries to cover Green “is going to struggle” but he knows Patterson and Skrine won’t be intimidated.
“Both of those guys, they’re extremely competitive guys, they’re tenacious players, they’ll battle you on every down,” Jauron said. “They’ll challenge whoever they’re on.
“I’m not sure it’s going to matter too much to them who they’re on, but they’ll certainly know when they’re on A.J. Green. But they would play anybody the same way they’re going to try to play him. They only know one way and we kind of like that way. We like how they play.”
Veteran linebacker Scott Fujita said the Browns won’t alter their scheme without Haden — “We’re going to do what we do, everybody knows that,” he said — and Jauron said he won’t be hesitant to blitz. They have no choice but to move on and accept the challenge of trying to stop Green.
Something they couldn’t do in the big moments last year.
“Well, I think it’s great because you have guys where people don’t expect you to do anything, so it’s a win-win situation for you,” Brown said.