Red (Zone) Yawn

Posted: 8:15 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO - Trying to pick through the rubble of Saturday night's 20-13 loss to the 49ers that guaranteed the first losing season in the Marvin Lewis era turned out to be a lost cause.

What was worse?

Allowing the NFL's worst offense with a quarterback making his first NFL start to keep the ball for 36 minutes?

Or a once proud offense enduring another 60-minute grind job of scoring just one touchdown in a season it has scored either one or none in six of the 14 games.

"I keep saying, 'executing,' but that's what this game is all about," said a freshly-shaved but weary Carson Palmer. "Who is more disciplined and who can execute better. And we're not very disciplined and we don't execute very well."

Lewis couldn't pick out either side of the ball.

"We don't defend the run well enough tonight," he said. "We've had one football game in the last seven where we scored more than a touchdown and that's big. We have to do a better job of that."

It's actually three in the last seven and it was the offense that offered the stark symbol of the season and the game with 2:14 left Saturday when the referees ruled that wide receiver Chad Johnson didn't hold on to what would have been a tying fourth-down touchdown pass from 24 yards out as he hit the ground out of bounds after getting both feet down in the side of the end zone.

"The story of (this season)," said left tackle Levi Jones, "is we fell short."

johnson_chad.jpg

Johnson

As Johnson wondered why the rule states a receiver has to secure the ball after he goes to the ground but the ground can't cause a fumble, the Bengals were left to ponder their dreadful performance in the red zone. In the past three games, they have scored just two touchdowns in nine trips after coming up empty on both forays Saturday, and dating back to Shayne Graham's game of seven field goals Nov. 11 in Baltimore they have scored just nine red-zone touchdowns.

The numbers are hard to believe for an offense used to scoring.

"Especially not with this offense," Jones said. "There's a lot of weapons on this offense not utilized, not making the plays that are out there for us to make."

Peppered with red-zone questions, Lewis said, "We've got to look at what we're doing and make sure we continue to work on the things we do rather than try to reinvent it every week. We have too much error down there. We have to make sure we're not overdoing what we're doing and consistently do what we do."

But the running game isn't consistent anywhere. Just six days after rolling up a three-year high of 192 rushing yards, the Bengals could eke out just 61 on 3.2 yards per carry. A Niners front that leads the NFL in plays for loss held the Bengals to six runs of two yards or less.

"The great Bengals offense," said running back Rudi Johnson, shaking his head after five of his seven runs went for two or less. "Should have, could have, would have."

The Bengals go-to guy in the zone has been wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. In the season's first 10 games, he scored 11 touchdowns and seven came in the red zone. He hasn't scored in the last four weeks and when the Bengals had a chance to tie the game at seven Saturday midway through the second quarter on third-and goal from the Niners 6, Palmer couldn't zing a pass into him bracketed by two defenders. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain got a hand on it and Graham had to kick a 24-yard field goal.

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Houshmandzadeh

"There comes a point in time coaches look to other guys because of the fact everybody assumes it's going to be me," Houshmandzadeh said. "The one he did throw me in the red zone, when we practiced it, it never came to me. I still ran the route I was supposed to run. I ran it a little deeper than I should have because I was trying to get into the end zone. It's a five-yard route, I ran it about seven but you can't always go to the same guy in certain situations, and I think we should try to get other people involved."

A running back, for one, since the Bengals have trouble getting running yards in the red area. On the Bengals' two red-zone trips Saturday, they ran it twice for two yards and threw four passes, completing one of them and it was only a one-yard flip to running back Kenny Watson.

"I don't think we took the opportunity to try it," said Lewis of the running game down tight.

But the passing game hasn't been sweet, either. Palmer's bid to Chad Johnson on third-and-nine from the Frisco 17 with 11:18 left in the game was overthrown at the goal line with Johnson blanketed and a chance to cut the lead to 20-17 only became 20-13.

Those two guys just haven't seemed in sync all year. Palmer went to Johnson five times on third down and only completed one, the first one back in the first series. He also went to him with the game on the line on fourth-and-three from the Niners 24 with 2:14.

Johnson, as he did all night, ran by cornerback Nate Clements. This one was down the left side in the end zone and Palmer laid it up there but Johnson couldn't hold on to the ball after he got both feet in.

"I just couldn't hold on when it hit the ground," Johnson said. "I had control until I hit the ground."

Lewis challenged the call but it was upheld.

"I was told (the coaches) thought he had the football and then when he went to the ground after he had both feet in that the ball came out, but obviously they ruled differently," Lewis said.

Palmer needed time to get his long ball going before he hit wide receiver Chris Henry on a 52-yard touchdown pass, his longest scoring pass of the season and the 100th touchdown pass of his career with 4:38 left in the first half that gave the Bengals a 10-7 short-lived lead.

Chad Johnson, who finished with six catches for 78 yards, had Clements beat in the first series on a bomb at the Niners 20, but Palmer overthrew him and Henry had cornerback Walt Harris beat at the Niners 20 but Harris knocked it away when Palmer underthrew it.

Still, the Bengals had a shot. Facing a fourth-and-five from the Niners 49 with three minutes left, Lewis sent out the punt team but after mulling it over during an injury timeout and watching the Niners, he sent the offense back out.

Palmer then hooked up on an 18-yard play with Houshmandzadeh. It was a vintage Houshmandzadeh catch in the slot, pivoting and muscling on a when-the-chips-are-down play that gave him a Bengals-record 101 catches on the season.

"It's just frustrating for the whole game feeling like I wasn't part of the game," said Houshmandzadeh, who had five catches for 62 yards. "The nickel guy was playing me softly, but he came up aggressively and he could because he had a safety over the top.

"It didn't matter about the record. I just want to win. Ever since you guys were telling me about it I knew I was going to get it."

Palmer also hit the record books, becoming the fifth-fastest man to throw 100 TDs. He did it in 59 games, quicker than Brett Favre, but not as fast as Dan Marino (44), Kurt Warner (50), Johnny Unitas (53) and Peyton Manning (56).

"It's obviously an honor to be mentioned with Marino, he's one of the best to play the game. I'm not sure of some of the guys," Palmer said of the list. "I assume Peyton. (Ahead of Favre) that's obviously an honor. Those are some of my heroes, guys I grew up watching and rooting for."

But it was far from a record night.

"No, we lost," said Houshmandzadeh, admitting there is no satisfaction in numbers.

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