Bengals, Steelers in a red zone alert

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A total of 11 of tight end Tyler Eifert's NFL-best 12 TDs have come in the red zone.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the oldest Bengal, celebrates his 34th birthday Saturday and on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown he observes his 149th NFL game, his 19th game against the Steelers, and what he hopes is his third AFC North title.

In order to clinch and sweep the Steelers for the first time since that first division flag in 2009 in his first season at left tackle, Whitworth sees red.

"It's going to come down to who plays the best inside the 30 and 40,' Whitworth said after Thursday's practice. "We can't have the kind of game where all we get is field goals because we know they can score, too."

Whitworth knows his stats. Red-zone production has been a huge key for the Bengals this season, tied for third in the NFL in scoring touchdowns once inside the 20. And the Steelers are 7-5 because they have been just as stingy in there, holding teams scoreless 12 times inside the 20, good for second in the league behind the Jets.

Quarterback Andy Dalton, himself starting his 10th game against Pittsburgh, knows exactly what it takes to get his fourth victory against Ben Roethlisberger.

"When you get a chance to make a play, you have to make the play," Dalton said. "You can't leave plays out there. They can score pretty quickly. So when you get the chance to move the chains for a first down or score a touchdown, you have to make it."

It helps that Dalton goes from the Red Rifle to the Red Baron in the red zone and has a history of shooting down any would-be interceptors. He has always been attentive in the red zone, where he is third among active quarterbacks when it comes to ratio of red-zone TDs to interceptions behind Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.

But he's transferred that to the rest of the field this season. After throwing 37 picks the previous two years, he's thrown only six in the first 12 games and is on pace for eight, fewer than the franchise-low for a 16-game season by a Bengals quarterback established by Ken Anderson in his MVP season of 1981 with 10.

(It's going to be of high importance Sunday. The Steelers are 22nd in defense, but they're in the top 10 in forcing turnovers. A total of seven different players have at least one interception and their 10 recovered fumbles are tied for third in the league.)

Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese ticks off the reasons why Dalton has cut his picks virtually in half:

"Continuity with his receivers. Comfort with the way we're calling it in the second year (with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson). Knowing it better than you ever did before. I think he's found a process that he's comfortable with in preparation. And the offensive line is playing great."

Coming into the season Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green had done some great things. You can't do much better than be the most productive quarterback-receiver duo in history for the first four seasons of its career.

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Just the presence of wide receiver Marvin Jones gives Andy Dalton a lift in the red zone.

But from 2011-2014 they also led the league in interceptions by a duo with the most constant criticism that Dalton locked on Green and tried to force it to him even if it wasn't there. The ensuing numbers would seem to give the theory some validity.

This season Green is 14th in the league in targets with 99, according to profootballfocus.com, and is on pace for 127 in 16 games. The last time Green played 16 games in 2013, he had the third most targets in the league with 172. But with Tyler Eifert now the starting tight end and scat back Giovani Bernard now teamed with big back Jeremy Hill, Dalton has so many more options that he doesn't have to jam it into Green.

Dalton says that's part of it, but not all of it. It's even more basic than that, he says.

Cincinnati Bengals travel to Cleveland to play the Browns in week 13 of the regular season 12/06/2015

"I'm a more mature player. That's part of the process. Knowing how turnovers affect the game," Dalton said. "I threw too many interceptions. I wanted to limit that . . . Every (interception), you can't say there's a common thing.

"I'm just being smart with the ball, knowing when to take chances and we're just on the same page more," Dalton said. "I wouldn't call it cautious. Taking chances when I know I can and not being stupid. I've played for a while. I've been in situations where I've learned what to do and what not to do. I'm not forcing anything. When there's nothing there I either move around or check it down."

The ability to stay away from the red-zone pick and he's only had five of them in his career is going to be especially huge Sunday. The Steelers have four interceptions either in the red zone or at the goal line this season and one of them against Dalton nearly killed the Bengals back on Nov. 1.  

On third down from the Steelers 5 with nine minutes left in a game the Bengals trailed, 10-6, Dalton didn't give wide receiver Marvin Jones quite enough air on a quick go route two yards deep in the end zone and left it too far inside for cornerback Antwon Blake. Right guy, wrong, bad throw.

"He has to make a better decision and throw, but the great thing is how he responded," Zampese said. "He went right back down the field for a touchdown and then came right back for a field goal."

It hasn't always been so productive inside the 20 for the Green-Dalton Bengals. They were 26th and 16th, respectively, in the league scoring touchdowns in 2011 and 2012. With the rise of Marvin Jones in 2013, they finished No. 2. But without Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert all season, and Green for basically five games, it's a miracle they fell to only No. 11 last season. Take a bow, Jeremy Hill.

"We've had some problems in the red zone in some years and it's hurt us," Whitworth said. "I think it gets back to having so many weapons. At that spot on the field, it's just hard to defend everybody. That's what good offenses have. They're not driven by one player. They may have a guy that you'll pay a little extra attention to, but for the most part you've got multiple guys. And that opens up the run game."

As multiple as the Bengals are on offense, that's one of the reasons why head coach Marvin Lewis says the Steelers are so good in the red zone defensively. Just go back to the last game they played and the rout of the Colts, where outside linebacker Jarvis Jones dropped in coverage and picked quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on the goal line on the game's first possession.    

"They change up who's at each spot very well, because they have some smart guys who've been in the system for a while, like Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison," Lewis said of the other backers. "One time James is the inside middle, dropped. Next time he's the outside flat dropper. James is such a smart player, he's able to move to different areas and create different issues for the offense."

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(A few hours earlier in Cleveland, the multiple Bengals spread the Browns so thin on the goal line that Dalton snuck in a three-yard TD while at least one defender had his back turned trying to figure it out.)

If Dalton is not cautious, then he's going to have to be judicious. As Zampese says, there are going to be downs where he'll have to simply "fight another day," and throw it away or run.

"With the outside linebackers, they're so well trained," Lewis said. "They understand the pass game, so they're able to do things in coverage as the field gets compressed to make it more difficult on the offenses. Teams then have to be more precise and on point, and you have to fit the ball into some tight windows. They do some things with a drop-eight-package, which they've gotten very good at."

The red zone is going to be a microcosm of what goes on atop the division Sunday. Tight. Physical. Contested. Whitworth has seen it all before.

"We know each other so well," Whitworth said. "You look at all the games with us and Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Steelers and Baltimore. It's tough to make hay against those teams some times. All our defenses are good. When you get close enough to score touchdowns, you have to get them. Points are always at a premium."

Even when there could be a lot of them.

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