Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth watched his offensive line knock the Ravens off the ball Monday night and only get 13 points to show for it. On Thursday he talked about the need for finishing off drives as he looked to his team's "big-time players" in the red zone.
"I think some teams sometimes get down there and get a little relaxed because they've had some success on their drive and then make some mistakes down there," Whitworth said before practice. "And that's the worst thing you can do is relax a little bit. You've really got to have a killer mentality down there in the red zone. When we get down there, it's even more important to execute well."
Two of the biggest numbers in Sunday's home opener for the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) lie in the red zone.
They were 26th in converting touchdowns inside the 20 last season while Cleveland was third in the NFL in preventing them. Although the Browns gave up two red-zone touchdowns against Philadelphia last Sunday, their stinginess in allowing points remains. The Browns allowed just 17 points on 456 yards because they forced five turnovers.
"They do a heck of a job of stopping teams from scoring. That is the name of the game. They are unbelievable in the red zone," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after Thursday's practice. "We watched the whole red zone tape today and there aren't any good plays on there. It's the damndest thing I've ever seen."
And Gruden knows the Bengals have been lacking inside the 20. It happened again Monday night in Baltimore when three drives of nearly 40 plays yielded just 13 points because they had to settle for two field goals.
No game was more telling than the last time the Browns were here. Cincinnati struggled to win, 23-20, in large part because the Bengals scored one touchdown in four red-zone tries.
If it's one thing quarterback Andy Dalton has to do besides improving his long-ball accuracy, it's finding smoother hookups with his best players down there and on Monday he tried when he went to his pair of Pro Bowlers in wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
On Monday, Dalton and Green misfired from the Ravens 7 on the critical first drive of the second half, and earlier in the game Gresham didn't haul one in over the middle in a tough spot as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed converged.
"I think we have plenty of weapons to do that," Whitworth said. "It's just that whoever you're relying on has to realize the execution, the precision down there is of the utmost importance. It's almost more important than anything else that's happened on the drive."
Gruden also talked precision, which is what the Bengals didn't have on the throw to Green and on the next play, third-and-goal from the 7, when Dalton nearly scored on a quarterback draw and needed a final block from his receivers downfield.
"That play is designed to go quicker. A.J. took his time also and the ball was four yards behind him," Gruden said. "I think Andy got a little spooked by the linebacker in nickel underneath. If he puts the ball put in front of him, A.J.'s got a chance to turn up and score. If you miss throws down there you're not going to score. The teams that make those plays are the teams that come out on top and the teams that don't make them are usually 0-1.
"It's a game of inches they say and it's very, very true in the red zone. Ball off the fingertips, or a ball that's just here instead of here. A block by the receiver. If he stays on him for one more count, Andy scores on a quarterback draw. Instead they let him go; the guy makes the tackle at the one. We're close. We were close every game we lost last year and every game we won last year. We have to make sure we find a way to not make it close all the time. Be consistently good and right now we're not. We're good at points to give us hope, but we're not good all the time."
What teams need down there are the kind of plays that running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the Bengals on Monday with that blood-and-guts fourth-and-one touchdown run from six yards out.
"In the red zone, it never fails. The really successful teams, that's when their big-time player makes big-time plays. In any great offense, that's what happens," Whitworth said. "Somebody down there that's your guy that you need to get the football and you trust, he's going to make a play to get himself in the end zone. That's what you have to be able to do."
Sunday's challenge is the Browns simply don't give those touchdowns away in close.
"They do a great of having a guy on a guy in coverage and just not doing anything to put themselves in a vulnerable position. They don't bring a wild blitz this way or that way and do those kinds of things," Whitworth said. "They really just do a great job of timing up what they're doing to the end that they know where you have to get. In the red zone they do a great job of that. It's going to take precise execution. It's going to take making the tough, tough catch where a guy's all over you, or it's going to be getting those couple extra yards to get the first down. Or when you get first-and-goal, being able to move them and punch it in the end zone. They do a good job of not leaving themselves vulnerable in the end zone."
Even when they allowed Sunday's winning touchdown, the Browns forced the Eagles to take three shots once they got to the 3 when middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson forced a one-yard loss on first down.
"They just play good sound defense," Gruden said. "They blanket the receivers and have a good combination of zone and man and different types of zones and a couple blitzes that give you problems. They are just very well coached and in their right spots all the time. Very seldom do you see guys running wide open because they blew coverage. They make the quarterback make great throws and receivers have to run great routes."
FODDER: It's not exactly the Great Pepto Bismol controversy of 2004 when Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson sent the Browns secondary a package the week of the game. But this year's version of the rivalry got a little heated when Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson took exception to Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's observation that Richardson didn't do anything "spectacular" in the opener.
Maualuga didn't appear to be dismissive of Richardson's talents. He seemed to indicate that because Richardson didn't have a big game Sunday (39 yards on 19 carries), he would come into PBS fired up looking to do much better.
"He just didn't do anything spectacular from what I've seen. I'm pretty sure wants to get after it when they play against us," Maualuga said.
But that's not the way Richardson saw it.
"When somebody wants to talk mess, I mean, hey, that's them. I let my game speak for itself, so if they want to see how mad I am, or how upset they got me about the comment, you'll see Sunday," Richardson told The Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
And Richardson said he might try to do what he did to Philadelphia's Kurt Coleman last Sunday on his longest run, a nine-yarder, and knock Maualuga's helmet off.
"He's right," Richardson said. "I haven't done anything yet. Hopefully this weekend I can give him a little flavor of what I'm supposed to come into the NFL with, so I think stuff like that is funny. It's very encouraging."
Here we go.
But Richardson is going to be happy to see his former Alabama teammate and roommate Dre Kirkpatrick. Richardson went No. 3 in the draft and Kirkpatrick stayed in state to go to the Bengals at No. 17. Kirkpatrick, battling the effects of a bone spur near his knee, has barely practiced this season and hasn't been on the field for the last two weeks after suffering a relapse.
"He was pretty much one of the reasons why I chose Alabama," Kirkpatrick said. "We had set a goal that we wanted to play together and we wanted to win two national championships from Day 1 and that's what we did. We've been best of friends.
"I've been knowing him ever since I was in the 10th grade. We became close over the years and I've been talking to him pretty much every other day. We're going to be long-term friends."
Even before Thursday's events mushroomed, Kirkpatrick knew Richardson is coming to town looking to atone for Sunday with a chip on his shoulder when he offered a scouting report.
"Very tough, knows the defense. He's not going to run around. He's going to be up for the challenge and try to run through them," Kirkpatrick said. "But all great competitors want to give their best when it's crunch time. He's going to go out there and play very physical but I feel I've got faith in our guys that they're going to get the job done; they're going to stop him. It's just something you're going to have to wait and see."
Kirkpatrick was upbeat because Thursday marked his first day back on the field for rehab since his knee swelled up the week of the preseason finale and he couldn't go.
"I'm going to meetings, coming in and getting extra treatment, watching plays," Kirkpatrick said. "Right now is the first day I went out to do rehab. I went out there and got a little cardio work in. I'm trying to work back into it. I'm getting ready to get back on the field."
FAINE CHECK: On the other hand, another Browns first-round pick, Bengals center Jeff Faine, has no ties to his old club. He got traded to the Saints in 2006, a few head coaches and GMs and an owner ago.
"Is Phil Dawson still with them? I think he's the only guy left," Faine said.
Yep. On Sunday, Dawson became the fifth Brown to appear in 200 games.