Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross has been keen to get back on the field since he was sidelined with a groin injury during a Week 4 win at Atlanta.
Now he appears on track to return at an important time, as Cincinnati prepares for a showdown of two of the NFL’s highest-scoring offenses.
The Bengals (4-2) travel to play the Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) on Sunday Night Football, and they’ll need all the weapons they can get to keep up with an offense that leads the league with 35.8 points per game. Ross has been a full participant in the first two practices of the week, and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had said last week he was improving.
“I’ve been anxious since we played the Dolphins, but definitely Sunday Night Football, prime-time game against a great team, I definitely don’t want to miss that,” Ross said.
In his last game, the 2017 first-round draft pick scored the second touchdown of his short career while trying to bounce back from a disappointing performance the week before at Carolina, where he was called out for stopping on two of his routes that led to interceptions.
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Ross carries with him the weight of still trying to prove he was worth his draft position, after injuries and struggles to adapt to the league last year limited him to just 17 snaps on offense. He impressed during training camp and the preseason, but in four games this season, he has been targeted 15 times with seven receptions for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m still confident,” Ross said. “I feel like I’ve showed flashes. I just have to continue to show consistency and get better every week.”
Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said he felt like Ross was making strides when he got hurt.
“As he got into that Atlanta game, momentum was building for him, and we’ve just got to get him to pick up,” Lazor said. “Part of the NFL is guys miss games here and there, so our job as coaches is to not let those little gaps in playing time be blips in their development. He’s been around and he’s been involved, so hopefully he picks up where he left off.”
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Cincinnati’s offense hasn’t played its best since that Atlanta game, which is also the last time the Bengals had Tyler Eifert. Two weeks ago against Miami, the defense scored twice to pick up the slack after the offense was shut out the first three quarters, and on Sunday against the Steelers, Cincinnati managed a season-low 275 yards of offense and 21 points.
Tyler Boyd said he has been seeing more double coverage the past few games, and Ross’ absence likely has something to do with that. Even when he wasn’t making plays, the speedy Ross at least presented another deep threat defenses had to account for.
“I think he’s a very sudden player,” Lazor said. “Most guys who are really fast aren’t also quick and sudden. He really is. As we were preparing for today’s red zone (practice), I went back and watched some of the red zone we’ve done already for the perspective of what the opponent is seeing, and on one of A.J. (Green)’s touchdowns, I just happened to notice John on the other side of the field. He can just accelerate away from people.
“…In the Atlanta game he got the touchdown, but he also had a good scramble play and came down the sideline. It’s a simple thing, but it was just the right reaction, came back to the ball, catch on the sideline and he looked like a receiver.”
That’s just what Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton is going to need if he is going to keep up with Kansas City’s offense. The Bengals haven’t had a consistent third target behind Green and Boyd all year.
“For us, we just have to run our offense,” Dalton said. “We have to know each possession matters because of how high-powered the offense is over there and how quickly they can score. We have to play our game and take advantage of every possession that we have.”
Especially since Kansas City’s defense has struggled.
“They’ve had tight coverage on things,” Dalton said. “The offensive guys (going against them) have made plays. That’s what it’s come down to. But, they’re right there. For us, it’s making the play in the tight window and making the contested catch. That’s the battle we’re going to have this week.”
Making the contested catch is what Ross needs to work on.
Ross doesn’t pretend he can solve all the problems for Cincinnati’s offense, but he hopes he can play a role.
“Every team is going to have those games where things don’t go their way,” Ross said. “Do I feel like I can help? Of course. That’s what I’m here for. I’m going to do my best to take pressure off A.J., take pressure off Tyler and the run game. I definitely think I can help.”
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