Dec 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) during warmups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
This was going to be Mohamed Sanu‘s year. After his rookie season ended with an ankle injury and he was “spread to thin” in 2013, this season was setting up for Sanu to make his mark on the Bengals. When Marvin Jones went down with a preseason injury, the number two job was Sanu’s to take. Then, star receiver A.J. Green went down with a toe injury, which took several weeks to heal, while Tyler Eifert also went down. Now, the receiving game was really Sanu’s to grab hold of. After starting the season in spectacular fashion, Sanu faded down the stretch. His disappearance from the offense was so quick that many seemed to not even notice. So, what happened to the burgeoning Sanu?
Mohamed Sanu began the season as the Bengals’ clear-cut number two opposite A.J. Green; a strong preseason and injury to Marvin Jones assured as much. Sanu didn’t waste the opportunity. He began the season with a flurry of spectacular plays. The throws, such as the 50-yard pass to Brandon Tate, the runs, such as the end-around 26-yard gain (see highlights here) against the Ravens, and the catches, which came in an abundance, forced fans and pundits to take notice of the rising star.
In the first half of the season, Mohamed Sanu produced 39 receptions (66 targets) for 628 yards and four touchdowns. He also had four rushes for 40 yards and two passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. An excellent start especially when considering the Bengals’ penchant for spreading the ball around.
Yet, when the second half of the season rolled around, Mohamed Sanu disappeared just as rapidly as he rose to prominence. The second half of the season saw him produce only 17 receptions (32 targets) for 162 yards and one touchdown. He had only three rushes for 11 yards and one pass for 11 yards. So, why did all this happen?
There were seemingly two (or three depending on how you look at it) reasons for Mohamed Sanu’s disappearance. The first was undoubtedly in his control. Sanu seems to have an issue with dropping passes. The spectacular and timely catches during the first half of the season largely masked this issue. Nonetheless, he’s had an issue with drops over the past two seasons.
In 2013, Sanu dropped six passes on 78 targets, which gave him a 7.7% drop percentage (according to Sporting Charts). In 2014, with increased targets, Sanu’s drop percentage rose to 9.2% (nine drops on 98 targets). Naturally, over the course of the two years, Sanu’s reception percentage also dropped.
This would leave many to wonder if Andy Dalton‘s confidence in Mohamed Sanu waned as the season wore on. In an offense where Dalton’s attempts were declining and his responsibility was largely to deliver timely, accurate passes to “move the chains,” could Sanu’s unreliable hands really be the best option? Conventional logic says no.
The second reason, and one that was somewhat out of Sanu’s control, was the re-establishment of A.J. Green, and the emergence of rookie sensation Jeremy Hill.
A.J. Green had missed four of the Bengals first seven games (if you include the Falcons game where Green exited very early on). This while Green was limited in the team’s eighth game as they chose to ease him back to action. This gave Mohamed Sanu many more opportunities early on in 2014. When the second half of the season rolled around, Green was healthy and commanded his usual attention from Dalton. This left Sanu with less opportunities and gave Dalton a more sure-handed receiver to look to during crucial plays.
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Jeremy Hill’s emergence began during the Jaguars game. Giovani Bernard had been banged up during the Colts and Ravens game and consequently missed a few games. Hill took advantage of Bernard’s absence and began a second half stretch which saw him become one of the league’s most prolific rushers. His emergence also brought validity to the Bengals’ focus on establishing the running game. Hill’s production allowed the Bengals to have Bernard increase his impact in the receiving game, which is evidenced by his game log. This increased focus on running further decreased the focus on throwing the ball while Hill’s emergence unintentionally provided Dalton with another receiving target (Bernard), all of which worked against Sanu.
The re-establishment and emergence of players shouldn’t necessarily equate to Mohamed Sanu’s stark fall. If Sanu offered more reliable hands, it’s highly likely he would’ve continued to be largely successful. His numbers would’ve undoubtedly taken some hit as the opportunities began to fall, but having another reliable target other than A.J. Green would’ve been welcomed by Andy Dalton. Instead, with all the injuries to the Bengals’ receiving targets, Dalton often relied on throwing short passes to Jermaine Gresham, which often produced few yards.
If Mohamed Sanu wants to make good on the promise he showed early in 2014, he’ll need to solve his drop issues over the off-season. The return of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones in 2015 will only cloud Sanu’s situation further. Sanu has his work cut out for him over the next nine months or so.