The Bengals vowed to use the bye week to self-scout and the one place it has really shown up is in the red zone. The Bengals have gone from a touchdown percentage inside the 20 of 47.8 to 60 percent and in the three-game winning streak they have converted 11 of 13 trips to land in a tie for sixth in the NFL.
The first place to look for the reasons is the third round. Four of those touchdowns belong to rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for the first four of his NFL career. In the two games slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (knee) has missed, Sanu has three touchdowns. Meanwhile, quarterback Andy Dalton has turned it into the red-head zone with eight red-zone touchdown passes, six on third down.
"We have some great red zone targets. Andy's making good decisions, crisp decisions and some guys are making great plays for him," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "A.J. (Green) made a great catch against Kansas City, Mo made one last week, Hawk made a one-handed catch against the Giants. That's what it's all about. The windows are going to be smaller. The throws have got to be damn near perfect and guys have got to make some outstanding catches for them. That's what's happened. Then you throw in a couple of the red-zone runs that we've had and we've had some success."
Three of Sanu's TDs have come on Houshmandzadeh-like third downs. Even though he'll be making just his fourth NFL start Sunday in San Diego (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and only on Tuesday was placed in the starting spot opposite A.J. Green on the depth chart, Sanu has quietly grabbed eight third-down catches that put him third on the team behind tight end Jermaine Gresham's 13 and Hawkins's 11.
"He's awesome in the red zone," Gruden said. "In zones he has a great feel for finding the holes and man-to-man he's got a big body (6-2, 210) where he can create separation for himself. He's everything we hoped he would be. It just took us too long a time to figure it out I guess."
Sanu becomes the third receiver to line up opposite Green on the depth chart as he bolts ahead of Brandon Tate and Armon Binns in what has turned out to be a fierce competition.
"In preseason, training camp, every practice leading up to the opening game," Gruden said. "Binns had a big touchdown against the Redskins. Tate's done some good things. It's hard to get him in there. Of course, Hawk was our slot. It was hard to get him in there. Now that (Sanu) is in there it's going to be hard to get him out."
Gruden says he's not sure what he'll do when Hawkins comes back, but he thinks Sanu can be a solid outside guy and his spectacular one-handed lefty grab for a two-yard touchdown last Sunday came when he was lined up outside.
The Bengals do know they want to get fleet rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones some shots on the outside downfield now that he's played a game since missing basically four with a knee injury.
"We've got a good group. I wouldn't lose sleep if Armon was our starting X," Gruden said. "Ryan Whalen has done some good things all throughout this season. It's just a matter of somebody separating themselves to get more reps. So far Mo has done that the last few weeks."
Dalton threw at Jones twice but they couldn't hook up. They almost connected on a third-down slant from the 2, but cornerback Ron Bartell was able to knock it away even though Jones ran a good route and had good leverage.
"It was an all-out blitz, Andy made a good, quick decision and throw to the right guy," Gruden said. "Marvin had a good, little route, he had inside leverage and the ball would have to be right on his number. Andy got his arm hit a little bit, which made the ball fall behind and the DB broke it up. But he had a chance."
FIRST TO THIRD: Remember the third-down woes at the halfway point of eight games? The Bengals were next-to-last at 29 percent (30-102), but in the last three they've been at 43 percent on 19 of 44. Gruden chalks it up to the work on first down.
That's usually the best down to throw, but reflecting how well the Bengals have run the ball in the past three games they've thrown it 26 times on first down compared to running it 48 times. Dalton is 18 of 26 for 117 yards on first down and the offense has 167 yards on 48 carries for a 3.5 average.
"When the game's over it should be 50-50 as far as I'm concerned," Gruden said. "If we have 20 first downs, we should have 10 runs, 10 passes. A couple of naked (bootlegs) and a couple of (deep passes), and a bunch of runs.
"People make a big deal about third-down conversions but I try to make a big deal myself about first-down conversions and making a positive play so that it can open up the playbook on second down. Now we have nakeds, boots, runs off tackle, everything. First downs are very, very important. You saw that lull in the third quarter (Sunday) where we had four drives with negative plays. We just have to continue to make positive plays."
For the record, the first down plays on those four three-and-out drives: A run for a yard by running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a hurried Dalton incompletion, a one-yard end-around by Green, and another one-yard run by BJGE.
RUN REDUX: You've got to love Gruden because he's not afraid to call himself out. The Bengals are riding their first back-to-back 100-yard games by a back in three years, the best the run game has looked this year and Gruden admitted he may have been a bit too quick with the hook earlier in the season as the offense coped with a new interior of the line, the season-ending ACL injury to running back Bernard Scott after eight carries, and the arrival of a new back in BJGE that played only two series in the preseason before he hurt his foot.
"We did have some question marks, no doubt about it. That was a concern where I kind of aborted the run idea a little bit early in some games when I probably shouldn't have," Gruden said. "Now I'm glad it's going well. A lot more things will open up because of it.
"It's just a matter of sticking with it in practice and (offensive line) Coach (Paul) Alexander has done a nice job of working them in their techniques and angles and all that's very, very important. And, of course, Andy getting us into the right play and all of it combined. The more you practice, the more you work at it, the better they've gotten and the more confidence they have doing it."
Gruden also admitted that Cedric Peerman has taken the team by surprise as he moves from seldom-used backup to change-of-pace back. Peerman has had to fight the stigma of being a sixth-rounder who excels on special teams, but with bursts of 31 yards last week and 14 the week before, he is showing he can provide some of the quickness Scott was supposed to show.
"(Peerman) is another guy in training camp and preseason every time he gets the ball he has great vision and does good things. When we had Bernard and Cedric (Benson), he didn't get the reps. Then on third down Brian Leonard would come in so he was never in the mix," Gruden said. "More of a special teams guy. He didn't have enough handoffs in our game plan to get all four touches. But now that we have (Peerman) as the number two, he's been able to take advantage of his reps. We had a feeling he would be pretty good but you don't know until you give him those reps.
"I'd say a bit of a pleasant surprise. We needed him to step up in that role. It was a tough loss when Bernard went down, we had high hopes for him. When he went down we thought we would lose that change-of-pace guy. I didn't think he'd be known for breaking a long one like he's done but we are surprised about that. Just keep getting him more touches."
With 240 yards, Peerman is just 140 behind Scott's total last season of 380 spelling Benson. Scott did that on 3.4 yards per carry while Peerman is at 8.3 per, but he has runs of 48 and 32 on fake punts. Yet take those two away and he's still averaging 5.9 yards per carry with 160 yards on 27 carries.
CHARGER IR: The Chargers took some big-time hits after they lost to the Ravens in overtime Sunday. Safety Atari Bigby went on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday with a groin injury and the team is hoping safety Eric Weddle can be cleared for the Bengals after he suffered a concussion on Baltimore running back Ray Rice's fourth-and-29 conversion.