An area of criticism we highlighted last week was the team's general lack of success in the red zone. Now we should point out before anything else that when Cincinnati's offense does reach inside the opponent's 20-yard line, they do score points; rather than turn the football over or miss field goals; additionally the Bengals have scored points on 15 of 16 possessions in which they've crossed the opponents 30-yard line.
That being said, through the first three weeks of the season, Cincinnati reached the red zone eight times, managing to score three touchdowns. That (and third down conversions) were big reasons that the Bengals lost 13-8 during the third week against the San Francisco 49ers.
It was, however, a big reason Cincinnati beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday (yes, we're on the verge of making Sunday a city holiday).
Cincinnati entered the red zone four times on Sunday, posting field goals during their first two trips; the second bringing the Bengals to within an 11-point deficit early in the third quarter. With 9:21 remaining in the third quarter, after Jerome Simpson committed one of those migraine-inducing false starts for a wide receiver, quarterback Andy Dalton faked a handoff to Cedric Benson at their own 23-yard line and rolled out right, completing the pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham a yard short of the line of scrimmage. Safety Bryan Scott wrapped Gresham's ankles and spun himself off of the tackle (a theme on Sunday). Gresham picked up 11 yards after the reception giving the Bengals a manageable second down conversion that was gift-wrapped to the Bengals after Kyle Williams was flagged for a neutral zone infraction.
Cincinnati's offense would roll, picking up 16 yards on two Cedric Benson runs and an A.J. Green nine-yard reception, setting up a first and ten from the Bills 36-yard line with 6:47 left in the third. Dalton faked the handoff and rolled out right on a naked bootleg (again). Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, as the slot receiver on the left, ran a crossing pattern from left to right while A.J. Green, wide on the right, ran a ten-yard hitch. Dalton unloaded a pass on the run, hitting Hawkins not ten yards from Green's spot for the 17-yard reception and the first down.
At the time my first thought was, damn it. We reached the red zone and therefore we're setting up for a field goal. The brief historical trend was conclusively justified with the Bengals posting field goal on nine of 12 red zone appearances so far this season. This obviously was in error -- or maybe it's the downcast expectation turned welcome surprise. Who knows. At the 17-yard line with 5:33 left in the third, Andy Dalton play-fakes out of offset-I with Jermaine Gresham firing out of this three-point stance to Andrew Whitworth's left. Gresham sprinted into a vertical route, fading towards the back of the end zone as Andy Dalton arched a pass towards the back left pylon. While boxing out safety George Wilson, Gresham extended his arms to haul in the 17-yard touchdown reception, reducing Cincinnati's deficit to four points.
It wouldn't be long before the team was reunited with an old friend, nicknamed Reddy the Red Zone. OK, I made that up (and it was about as stupid as stupid is). With just under eight minutes remaining in the game, the Bengals lined up in a standard-I formation at their own 26-yard line. Andy Dalton fakes the second-and-four handoff to Benson, looks downfield and scrambles out of the pocket feeling pressure. Just as Dalton was preparing to walk out of bounds, he guided a cruise missile down the right sidelines to the double-covered Jermaine Gresham, hauling in the pass just as he ran out of bounds for the 25-yard pickup. You could say that it was all Gresham, running vertical before turning around only to see his quarterback busting his ass out of the pocket. Gresham stopped his route and turned towards the sidelines to give Dalton an out. Gresham said after the game:
“The guy was playing heavy inside of me on the route and I broke out of it,” Gresham said. “Andy being smart and savvy, he stayed alive and saw me downfield.”
Just like Clarence Carter, the Bengals be "Strokin'".
And as time milked away and the yards faded, the Bengals converted one of the game's biggest third down conversions on a 17-yard reception by, you guessed it, Jermaine Gresham. The conversion put Cincinnati back inside the red zone with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter. A five-yard Benson run, followed with an eight-yard A.J. Green reception eventually lead to a second-and-goal from the Bills three-yard line with 4:19 left in the game.
Andy Dalton huddled his guys, dictated the play and sent them on their way. Empty backfield. Jermaine Gresham, A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Andrew Hawkins were spread out along the line of scrimmage. You just had to know that someone was running a hook route, crossing pattern, bubble screen or a fade to Green towards the back pylon. It was going to be an explosive fireworks of destruction that would produce brown-strain blots on those beautiful white Bills uniforms.
It couldn't have been more different.
After taking his third step out of shotgun, Dalton watched the blocks develop. Linebackers naturally cleared out due to the team's spread formation, leaving four defensive players for five offensive linemen. Kyle Cook and Nate Livings doubled Kyle Williams, opening Andy Dalton's running lane on the quarterback draw. Are you kidding me? Touchdown and the Bengals tie the game at 20.
Cincinnati's defense would hold Buffalo to a four-play ensuing possession before punting it back to the Bengals, who said, "here Brian Leonard, have fun." Mike Nugent would go on to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Two of the biggest keys in any game is converting third downs to sustain drives and scoring points inside the red zone; more importantly scoring touchdowns rather than field goals. And they did it on Sunday.