Bengals receiver A.J. Green was looking for a chance to work out in Atlanta during the NFL lockout heading into his rookie season. Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi — another former Georgia Bulldog — invited him to join his group.
Also in the workout group?
Green got to know Detroit's Calvin Johnson that summer, learning a lot of things about what it takes to excel in the NFL. They've kept at it, working out together five days a week during each of the last two offseasons.
They talk about what it's like to be the focus of an opposing defense. They watch each other's moves. They push each other to grow.
"I take note of what he has done on and off the field and try to apply it to my own," Green said.
On Sunday, the two Pro Bowl and All-Pro receivers will meet in Detroit when the Bengals (4-2) play the Lions (4-2) in a game that will have a bearing on first place in their divisions.
A little friendly competition to see which one does better, perhaps?
"I don't think so," Green said. "I just go out there and play my game and he will do the same. I don't try to get caught up in all that stuff."
Both are having a bit of a tough time this season.
Johnson had one of the most prolific seasons in NFL history last year, his sixth in the league. He led the league with 1,964 yards on 122 catches and set a record with 10 consecutive 100-yard games.
An injured right knee has forced him to miss a game and slowed him in others. Johnson has been limited in practice this week but is expected to play. Even at less than full speed, the Bengals consider the 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver the best there is. Johnson has 24 catches for 337 yards and four touchdowns.
"If he's not the best, he's definitely way up there," cornerback Leon Hall said. "He's big but he can run really fast. He jumps probably better than anybody in the NFL. So you've got to be smart about what you do out there."
Green's chances to catch the ball have been diminished this season as defenses lock onto him. Andy Dalton has been spreading the ball around more with rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard as new options.
Dalton completed passes to eight different receivers during a 27-24 overtime win in Buffalo on Sunday. Green had six catches for a game-high 103 yards. He's tied for seventh in the NFL with 37 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns.
"You don't know how it's going to happen each week," Dalton said. "Some weeks it's going to be one guy, some weeks it's going to be — shoot, eight guys like it was last week."
Just as Johnson and Green are close, so are their coaches. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Detroit's Jim Schwartz were Ravens assistants in the 1990s and stay in touch. One of their topics: The similarity between their two leading receivers.
"He's been a great role model for A.J.," Lewis said. "Ironically, Schwartzie and I were talking about that last offseason, before the 2012 draft. He was just sharing some things about Calvin.
"They are very similar personalities. He's a guy, from what Jimmy has said, that hasn't let his success on the field really alter the type of person he is; very Larry Fitzgerald-like. He's a guy that's still very grounded and really wants the team to succeed. That's important to him. It's the same characteristics we see in A.J."
Johnson said the two of them are close and help each other get through the challenges of their positions.
"More so, we talk about the things that are going on within the season," Johnson said. "Everybody has their struggles.
"We're just kind of on an even level. We're just so cool now. He's like a brother."
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