With Mixon out vs. Browns, onus on Bengals' wide receivers to step up

Tyler Boyd believes it says a lot about the Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver room that a player like John Ross can’t get on the field.

Ross was a healthy scratch in Week 3 and 4, then sick during the practice week before the next game and inactive once again. He was back in the gameday roster Sunday at Indianapolis but played just one snap, and by Tuesday, it was being reported he had requested a trade.

Ross did not practice Friday because of illness and is questionable for Sunday’s game against Cleveland (4-2).

Earlier in the year, Auden Tate was a healthy scratch one game just because of how crowded the receiver unit was, but unlike Tate, Ross just hasn’t shown what the Bengals would have expected from their 2017 first-round draft pick. He has two catches for 17 yards, all in the opener, and the only other game he was targeted, he finished with no catches in the first “Battle of Ohio” meeting against the Browns.

“I think we’re all great players in a sense,” Boyd said about the team’s receivers. “It’s just some things that we all do differently. I can’t foremost say who’s the best and who’s the least. I think we all should be playing at the end of the day, everybody in our room should be playing. It’s just the way that the coaches want to use guys in certain ways and certain plays. I can’t really say too much on it, but I feel he should play at the end of the day and I think all the players do. We’ve just got to figure out what he does best and what he can continue to do consistently to help us win games.”

The receiver unit will be especially important Sunday, as running back Joe Mixon is out with a foot injury and will not play, according to coach Zac Taylor.

Ross was not made available during this week’s Zoom news conferences with local media, but Taylor addressed the issue Wednesday, saying he didn’t have “any information on anything like that.”

Taylor did say Ross hasn’t changed the way he goes about his work.

“I think anytime players aren’t playing they get frustrated,” Taylor said. “He’s handled his business the right way around here.”

It’s not a bad problem for the offense to have with the way Boyd has been playing, how rookie Tee Higgins has stepped up and now with A.J. Green finally looking more like his old self Sunday.

Boyd has 416 yards and one touchdown on 37 receptions, while catching a career-high 77.1 percent of the passes thrown his way this season. Quarterback Joe Burrow has commented that he knows if he goes to Boyd, he’s going to make a play, and that means something to Boyd.

“I take that very personal as well,” Boyd said. “You know I feel like every time there’s a route call, I feel like I gotta win because I’m a reliable target for Joe, especially being in that slot, so I’ve got to move my way around, zone and always winning (in) man. ... I feel like he’s very comfortable looking my way in man pressure but he knows how much I separate and win, and even in zone routes, he knows how much field I have and can find those windows. Even though they’re not there, I can create different opportunities for him to throw in in different lanes.”

Burrow said things are “trending in the right direction” now with Green, who had a breakout game with 96 yards receiving Sunday after entering that game with just 14 catches on 34 targets for 119 yards. The rookie quarterback felt like they were finally on the same page and senses that he’s started to build on the momentum this week in practice.

Taylor said the receivers all just need to have patience at times when things don’t seem to be going their way -- that’s just the product of a talented group.

“We knew that there was going to be a time, like the Indy game, where he was gonna have his production, and that will continue,” Taylor said. “There may be games where we have key receivers who have one or two catches and some other guys have big production, and then other games where they have 10 catches for 100 something yards. When you have a good receiver room that’s deep, you can’t be overly concerned with that stuff. You just let it all play out natural.”

Higgins has gradually been showing improvement each game in his rookie season. The second-round draft pick had his first 100-yard receiving game Sunday and perhaps opened the floodgates on the Burrow deep ball that everyone has been waiting to see. Burrow found him on a 67-yard bomb to set up a touchdown for Joe Mixon early in the second quarter for a 21-0 lead.

That was something Higgins wasn’t able to do earlier in the season, as he said he was showing his hands too early. Burrow tried to go deep to him in the first matchup against Cleveland, and Higgins couldn’t make the catch. He looks forward to showing he’s a better receiver now.

“I’m looking forward to just going out there and sharpening my game even more from last week,” Higgins said. “They definitely are not going to see the same receiver that I was in Week 2. I’m more confident and more confident with the offense that we’re running and more familiar with defenses now. It’s definitely a different guy.”

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