The Cincinnati Bengals‘ Mohamed Sanu has been receiving plenty of plaudits in recent weeks for his performances. Sanu has become a bigger piece of the offense over the last five games and he must receive a lot of credit for the Bengals’ recent winning streak. Statistically, Sanu’s numbers don’t jump off the page, except for in one area.
Sanu didn’t have a reception until Week 7 of the season, although he did throw a touchdown pass to AJ Green against the Washington Redskins in Week 3. Since Week 7, Sanu has accounted for 16 receptions, 154 yards and four touchdowns. Sanu is averaging just 9.6 yards per catch, along with five carries for just 15 yards.
Statistically, Sanu hasn’t been very good over 11 games of the season, but when you take his most recent three-game stretch into focus, his impact becomes major. Sanu has 11 receptions for 98 yards over the Bengals’ last three games. Again, those numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming, but he has found his way into the endzone four times in three games. Rarely does a receiver put up less than 50 yards on a regular basis while still getting into the endzone consistently.
Generally, receivers who have that kind of production are specialist redzone threats. The most recent example of that player would be Plaxico Burress, who scored eight touchdowns on 45 receptions last season. Sanu is far from Burress. Sanu was drafted in the third round of this year’s draft as a slot specialist receiver. He is a dynamic player in space and while he doesn’t have massive breakaway speed, he does get separation against man coverage and find spots against zone coverage very well with his agility.
Sanu is the style of player that Wes Welker and Danny Amendola are also, but he has one key aspect to his game that makes him a completely unique matchup prospect for opposing defenses. Typically slot receivers rely on their speed to take advantage of space and escape defenders, it’s a reason why many of them are punt and kickoff returners, but Sanu does not play the game that way. Instead, Sanu relies a lot on his physicality and size.
Standing at 6-2 and 210 pounds, there are very few nickel defensive backs who can beat Sanu in tight single coverage. That means when the Bengals move into the redzone, both Sanu and Green become obvious threats unless double covered. Only the very best of nickel cornerbacks, like Lardarius Webb and Charles Woodson, could stand up to Sanu in these situations and not every team has one of those.
Against the Oakland Raiders this past week, Sanu was lined up to the left of the formation at the goalline as the only receiver split wide. He was in a one-on-one matchup with Ronald Bartell. Andy Dalton threw the ball up for Sanu to go and get. Despite good coverage, Sanu was able to snatch the ball out of the air with one hand over Bartell, who himself is a big cornerback standing at 6-1, before keeping both feet in bounds for the touchdown.
Sanu’s second reception showed off his ability to make a catch in traffic and be agile in the process. On the five yard line, the Bengals came out with four receivers, three to the right and one to the left. Sanu was the inside slot man to the right as the Raiders lined up in off coverage, hinting at zone. Dalton hit Sanu with a perfectly timed and expertly accurate pass as soon as he turned on a curl route. Still, Sanu reacted well to the rocket pass and corralled it well before it hit the ground.
They may not have seemed like much, but Sanu was able to make a play that a Welker type of receiver couldn’t for his first touchdown, before then making a play that a Burress type of receiver couldn’t for his second. That kind of dynamism makes him very difficult to defend.