Much has been made this offseason of Andy Dalton's sleek new arsenal of offensive weapons. Buzzing is an eager fan base with lofty expectations for the offense that grew with every passing selection in April's draft.
Tight end Tyler Eifert. Running back Giovani Bernard. Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. Running back Rex Burkhead. Lately, water-cooler talk regarding the Bengals has come to a full boil about the offense's high potential.
But if NFL fans in general are starting to grow a tiny bit skeptical of the old adage "defense wins championships," who can blame them? If a final impression is truly the most lasting, memories of Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick and company running wild in last season's Super Bowl may well cause everyone to forget about defense altogether.
But the memory of the last season's Super Bowl may be the most telling. Call it Baltimore's "Red Zone Stand."
It started at the Ravens seven-yard line, with 2:39 remaining and lasted four plays, surrendering two yards and, of course, zero points. It ended with Kaepernick's now-famous (or infamous) fourth-down incompletion to wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone.
The 49ers racked up 468 yards that night, but failed to convert touchdowns on four of their red zone opportunities, including that final series. Each of the other three red zone trips resulted in field goals, a total of 12 potential points left on the field.
After last week's final spring practice, Bengals red-zone specialist Mohamed Sanu offered a glimpse into his own mindset when inside the 20-yard line. Of Sanu's 16 receptions in an injury-shortened 2012 season, four were red zone TDs. His philosophy, while simple, sums up its importance.
"You're closer to the end zone, and the end zone is six points," said Sanu, a second-year wide receiver whose modest demeanor belies his confidence. "We need touchdowns. The more points we put on the board, the better it is for our defense and the easier it is for us to win."
Dalton echoed Sanu's thoughts.
"That's when you score points when you get down there," he said. "You know you have to get points, but you have to at least get a field goal. If you have a chance to hit a play, you have to hit them."
The league-wide yardage explosion over the last four seasons has put a heavier burden on red-zone efficiency, specifically on defense. Relative to the pre-player safety-rule days, yardage has practically grown on trees. When the field gets shorter and wider, though, the game changes.
"When you get down there, the windows are tighter because you're playing with less space," Dalton said. "So you have to get the ball out of your hands quick, and into the hands of your guys."
Since 2008, yardage gained per game has jumped nearly 20 yards in the NFL (347.2 average last season). Looking at playoff qualifiers—perhaps a more telling indicator of successful offensive trends—several other season-long averages have also spiked: the number of passes over 20 yards (up nine to 51 last season), yards after catch (up 316 yards, to 1,864), rush yards per attempt (up 0.22 yards, to 4.38) and first downs (up 36 to 341).
Exhibit A for this trend is the 49ers-Ravens offensive extravaganza. The game was supposed to feature two of the league's top defenses, but instead featured combined totals of 835 total yards and 65 points.
Consider Cincinnati's success in 2012. At the midway point, the Bengals were 3-5 as the defense ranked 30th in red zone TD percentage. By the end of the regular season, coordinator Mike Zimmer's defense had jumped to a tie for 10th and the Bengals lost only once the rest of the way.
Over the final eight weeks, the Bengals defense allowed only five red zone TDs. One of those was meaningless late in the Nov. 11 blowout of the New York Giants and two more came in the regular-season finale against Baltimore when both teams rested many of their starters.
Zimmer credits that improvement to his defense's growth between the ears, saying last week, "I think we started understanding where we were supposed to be a little bit better."
Cornerback Leon Hall agreed with the notion of a smarter defense being more successful in the red zone, saying football IQ plays a greater role when the field is smaller.
"You have less time to react, so if you can kind of play the game between your ears before the snap, you kind of have an idea what's going on and you can react faster," he said. "That's what you need in the red zone, because you have half as much time as you do in the middle of the field."
In Hall and Terence Newman, the Bengals boast two of the game's more astute cornerbacks. Hall says that his preparation plays a big role in how he approaches the red zone.
"It's a whole different game in the red zone, and you kind of try to separate it (from the middle of the field)," Hall said. "It depends on the offense, though. Some teams have a totally different package in the red zone than they do out in the middle of the field. Depending on the team, you definitely take a different approach."
While Zimmer says nothing changed strategically in the red zone last season, he noted how he instructs the defense with a smaller field.
"We have a list of red zone principles. We have different techniques that we do down there with the whole defense, things we're trying to pound into them," he said.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, maestro of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense widely considered one of the best in NFL history, expanded on that philosophy.
"You know that you're going to be put in a situation where the space is reduced, but it becomes more lateral, horizontal space, rather than vertical space," said Lewis, clicking off the elements that are as important now as they were in 2000. "So you've got to get matched up on things quickly.
"For the front-seven guys, you've got to maintain your run integrity and run keys. The DBs have to do a great job of being disciplined and making sure they know what their keys are. They have to match up with receivers and routes quicker. They have to understand the concept of defense that you're presenting, and then dictate to the offense where they'll allow the ball to go and where they won't."
Back on the offensive side, Sanu says football IQ and heightened awareness play key roles for him.
"You've got to be a lot smarter when you're in the red zone," he said. "You've got to know what the defense is going to throw at you. And the ball is going to come out a lot faster, so you have to be more precise in your routes and getting your head around. The ball is going to be there a lot faster."
With a crop of intelligent, savvy skill players on both sides of the ball, it would seem that Cincinnati's current structure aligns with a proven formula.
But what about all of those new offensive weapons? So much has been made about defenses now having to adjust to the Bengals, but will the offense shift its approach regarding Xs and Os? Don't count on it, says Lewis.
Even with NFL's lofty yardage and complex air attacks, Lewis says the principles for effectiveness in the red zone remain the same. To more effectively use the new weapons, he says the offense must first execute its fundamental strategy.
"When you get the ball in the red zone offensively, your first goal is to not turn it over," Lewis said. "The field gets compacted, so you want to maintain your run effectiveness. The more effective you are in the running game in the red zone, the more effective you'll be throwing the football.
"You have to go in there with the mindset that, 'If I have to, we can pound it forward for a first down.' That can make your pass game more effective down there."
To prove the current importance of red-zone efficiency, look no further than the playoff performances of last year's Super Bowl teams. In the postseason Baltimore converted TDs on 71.4 percent of its trips to the red zone, while San Francisco converted on 70 percent. New England led the NFL during the regular season at 70 percent while New Orleans was second at 68.4 percent. The Bengals checked in at 54.4 percent, ranked smack in the middle at 16.
So there is room for improvement on both sides. Just ask Zimmer, who is quick to critique the red zone play of his current troops.
"We were a little better at it today than we have been," Zimmer said of that last practice. "We've spent more time working on it the last few days, and we got a little better at as we went, but we've still got to get a lot better."
Perhaps Zimmer can provide some perspective at the next water cooler conversation.