There are a lot of hot spots for the Bengals as they head into Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium against Tampa Bay and one of them is a rising wave that washed over the phones Wednesday in their growing confidence to sell out the game before it gets blacked out on Cincinnati's Channel 19:
» With a bye week looming, not to mention the remaining slate of games that have teams with a combined record of 25-19, the players realize they've got to get out of Sunday at 3-2 against one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
"It's very important, but not because of who we play when," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It's important because we just didn't play flat out as good as we thought we should play. It's important for us to go out and have a turnaround week. It's important for us to play at a new level this week."
The red zone, otherwise known as The Twilight Zone since the moment the late Chris Henry suffered a season-ending broken arm in the eighth game of last season. At that point the Bengals led the NFL, scoring 18 touchdowns on 26 red-zone chances for a nearly 70 TD percent. But since then, they've got just 12 TDs in their last 37 trips since the Nov. 15 win in Pittsburgh for a 32 touchdown percent.
"I think our red zone performance needs to improve. Considering as players we can control that," said running back Cedric Benson. " It's important that everybody recognize that and take pride in it and come out and have a good week of practice and be ready for it."
» With a mere three, the Bengals are last in sacks per pass in the NFL.
"We may set a record," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who wouldn't rule out making some personnel moves.
» Browns defensive cornerback T.J. Ward reportedly got fined $15,000 for his hit the Bengals labeled "a cheap shot" and gave wide receiver Jordan Shipley a concussion last Sunday. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe didn't get fined despite getting flagged for his hit on Cleveland tight end Ben Watson, a hit he says was appealed and judged within the rules. In an interview on The Morning Line Wednesday, Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens ripped Browns head coach Eric Mangini for defending Ward, saying "90 percent of his own players don't like him."
How hot was it down at PBS? Even the opposing coaches went after each other over a rookie on the Bucs practice squad who won't even play Sunday. Dez Briscoe, the Bengals sixth-round pick, opted to sign with Tampa Bay's practice squad when the Bucs gave him the minimum $325,000 roster salary instead of the usual $5,000 per week for the practice squad. Head coach Marvin Lewis questioned Tampa's practices, which irked Bucs coach Raheem Morris.
"When you overpay a guy on the practice squad, you create a problem for teams,'' Lewis said. "I don't know that teams want to set that precedent and they did with Dez.
"That's not a great precedent for teams to set as we try to keep the NFL and doing the things we're trying to do as a league. It's still a league of 32 teams and things are put together a certain way.''
At 2-2, the Bengals look to be at a tipping point in the AFC North race, a game behind Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two clubs that show no sign of letting up. Since quarterback Carson Palmer took over in 2004, the Bengals have never faced a 2-2 break-even game. He gets the sense that it is bigger than big because of the bye and grind job that follows.
"This is a must-win, absolutely. The fact that we are going to get a week's rest and just going into the bye week off a win is a huge deal," Palmer said. "So we are acting like our backs are against the wall, because they are. It is early in the season, but we have a chance to play an out-of-division team at home, an out-of-conference team, you only get so many of those shots a year. You want to fare well against those teams. More importantly, with where we are in the season, this is an important game for us."
The red zone isn't as clear cut and has reached quandary proportions. Despite the addition of a big wide receiver who is one of the most prolific touchdown-makers of all time in Terrell Owens and a gifted rookie tight end who is bigger than Owens in Jermaine Gresham, the struggles continue. This year the Bengals are 22nd in scoring touchdowns in the red (five of 13) and neither of their starting wide receivers has a catch inside the 20. Palmer has gone to Owens five times and Chad Ochocinco three and come up empty every time.
"You get down in the red zone, the field is so much shorter to defend, and you have to be perfect. We haven't been perfect," Palmer said. "One thing we need to do is run the ball better when we get down there. And once we do get to passing situations, we have to find a way to get the ball in the end zone. There is no trick to it, there is no luck to it, it is just about being perfect and everybody executing their job. That is what we are going to continue to work at."
He's right about that. Gresham has a holding call in the red, there have been two false starts, poor clock management that cost them a field goal and sack that was either because The Ocho didn't cross the face of his defender or because Palmer waited too long.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the style you play. I just think it's the execution," Whitworth said. "The execution hasn't been good down there. One thing is that the safeties are closer to the line. They're not as deep. It's crucial that the receivers have to do a great job on the safeties in there. What happens in the red zone, it has to be a team effort not just in the passing game but in the running game. Everybody has to get on somebody because it is so hard to score in there."
Palmer is 9-of-19 for 53 yards from the 20 and in. The backs have combined for 13 rushes and Palmer has a scramble. Gresham has been a factor as Palmer's leading red-zone receiver with four for 20 yards and a touchdown. Benson and backup back Brian Leonard each have two catches with one touchdown and Shipley has the other catch for 13 yards.
While Benson has run it nine times for 13 yards, Bernard Scott has carried it four times for 16 yards in the red zone.
"Last year we weren't much of a run team in the red zone," Benson said. "But those are cards you're dealt and you have to play them and make the best of them. We get a lot in the box in the red zone. Teams generally expect run. We get a lot in the box period. It's a look we've been getting quite often."
Palmer noted after Sunday's game that the Browns were dropping as many as nine defenders back into the passing lanes. But that's not an automatic run.
"Not if it's third-and-eight, third-and-nine. It's tough to run the ball for a first down when they are dropping guys, because you don't get all your offensive linemen on blocks yet, so it leaves a free guy here and there," Palmer said. "The goal down there is to get in third-and-short where there is a run/pass option, not in third-and-long where they can drop a bunch of guys, kind of sit and cover the goal line, and then if you decide to run the ball they can get you after five or six yards."
Indeed, on the seven red-zone drives the Bengals have kicked field goals and the one it whiffed on the clock, they had one third down shorter than third-and-four, and that was third-and-three. With 145 touchdown catches, Owens knows his way around an end zone and he's looking to help.
"Each team that I've been on has a different red zone package," Owens said. "Here, we're all about running the ball, pounding the ball in, and the receivers are out in some of those packages when you get down to the red zone. We have a package for running the ball, trying to pound the ball in there. You've just got to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there."
But the Bengals haven't pounded it well enough. Not with five more passes than runs. Palmer knows that Owens possesses the same attributes that made Henry so effective in the red: Height and leverage. Of Henry's 119 catches, 21 went for touchdowns. That's a TD every 5.7 catches. Owens' 145 TDs have come on 1,030 catches or one every 7.1.
"(With Henry) being 6-5, being fast and being able to jump, we put in some jump-ball situations and different significant plays designed specifically for him," Palmer said. "Terrell, we are getting there with him. We are going to figure out more things we can do with him, because he is capable of doing a lot of the same things Chris was. We will keep finding things for him as well as find things for Jermaine and for Chad, too."
On the other side of the ball, Zimmer is looking for a lot more juice from his pass rush, made even more frustrating because he emphasized it during the offseason. Right end Antwan Odom, who was leading the NFL with eight sacks when he ruptured his Achilles in the sixth game last season, has none. So does the other starting end, Robert Geathers. The only starter with a sack is WILL linebacker Keith Rivers.
"We're just not getting them," Zimmer said. "We're not winning one-on-one, I can tell you that. We need some more one and ones. Your sack totals go up on play-action and on first and second down because you're going to get your share of third-down sacks. But to get there you have to get a couple on first and second downs. But we're not even close.
"We'll see (about making some personnel moves). I'm not one to stay with the status quo when things aren't working."