Of all the positive stats — and there were many — in the Cincinnati Bengals’ 28-6 victory at Kansas City on Sunday, perhaps the most encouraging was the offense’s continued production in the red zone.
Four times the Bengals drove inside the Chiefs’ 20-yard line, and all four times they reached the end zone — giving them seven touchdowns in their last eight red-zone possessions, and 11 in the last 14.
“That’s a great job,” head coach Marvin Lewis said. “That’s key.”
The Bengals entered Sunday ranked 16th in in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 51.6 (16-of-31) thanks to a slow start that saw them convert only 11-of-24 chances through the first six games.
But they were 3-of-4 two weeks ago against the New York Giants and, after settling for an early field goal the week before, finished 2-of-3 against the Denver Broncos. It’s a run of success that has the players expecting to finish in the end zone each time.
“You’ve got to have confidence when you get down there that you’re going to make a play,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “The windows are tight. Throws have to be perfect, and runs after catch are paramount. And obviously the determination to get extra yards is very important.”
Proof of that came in the second quarter Sunday with the Bengals facing third-and-goal at the 8. Quarterback Andy Dalton hit Jermaine Gresham with a short pass at the 5, and Gresham fought to drag Kansas City defensive back Eric Berry down to the 1.
Had Gresham been stopped on contact, the Bengals would have settled for a field goal attempt. Instead, they went for it on fourth-and-goal, and Dalton ran a bootleg for a 1-yard TD.
“We stress getting down there and once you’re down there, not kicking field goals,” Dalton said. “We have had some great play calls for what we’re seeing, and it’s huge. We have to keep that going.”
Dalton hit A.J. Green with a 4-yard TD pass and BenJarvus Green-Ellis dove in from 1 yard out on first down plays, but Dalton’s scoring strike to Mohamed Sanu came on a third-and-10.
Against the Giants, all three of Dalton’s red-zone touchdown passes came on third downs — an 11-yarder to Andrew Hawkins on third-and-10, a 10-yarder to Gresham on third-and-8 and a 10-yarder to Sanu on third-and-4.
“It’s execution, no question,” Lewis said. “It’s the fact you have so many new guys doing things. For each opponent, you’re facing different coverages. Great execution by the quarterback, and we have to keep building on things week after week.”
The Bengals had their most productive running game of the year Sunday in Kansas City with 38 rushes for 189 yards.
It was the first time they had that many rushes in a game since a 34-20 win at San Diego on Dec. 26, 2010. And the 189 yards were the most since putting up 210 in a 16-7 home win against Cleveland on Nov. 29, 2009.
“It was important,” Gruden said. “It’s important for our guys to get dirty. Guys like (right guard Kevin) Zeitler, who comes from Wisconsin. He likes that stuff. And (center) Trevor (Robinson) from Notre Dame. It was exciting to see him play against a good nose tackle and get some movement.
“Of course, the rest of the guys followed suit and we ran the ball well,” Gruden continued. “We ran the ball 38 times, and of that 38 I don’t think we had any negative plays, which is also a very key element in continuing to run the ball.”
Green-Ellis led the way with 25 carries for a season-high 101 yards.
“It was important (to get 100),” Gruden said. “We were aware that he needed like 13 yards there at the end of the game, and he was grinding pretty good. He did get his 100, but it wasn’t easy.”
Monday marked the beginning of what is sure to become Carson Palmer week as the former Bengals quarterback is set to return to Paul Brown Stadium with the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
It will be the first time Palmer has faced his former team since demanding a trade and refusing to play last year. And while Lewis knows there will be plenty of questions asked this week, he made it clear Monday he’s not interested in talking about his former quarterback.
“Carson had a good career here,” Lewis said. “His family is great — wife, kids — but he no longer plays here. I don’t think we need to spend any more time talking about it. It’s no different from any other player that played here and comes back. It’s part of the NFL and professional sports.”