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Red zone zenith


While the Bengals offense is red hot in the red zone, Baltimore's red zone defense has cooled and it's one of those matchups to watch Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.) when the two meet to help finalize the AFC playoff picture. Plus, on offense Baltimore has the third-worst offense when it comes to scoring touchdowns inside the 20.

The Bengals have been virtually perfect in December, punching in 13 of 14 red-zone trips. The only one they didn't convert is the kneeldown on the San Diego 4 back on Dec. 1 while rising to second in the NFL behind Denver in touchdown percentage inside the 20. A few weeks ago the Ravens were second in red zone defense, but have fallen to seventh giving up scores on their last six red-zone stands.

"I just don't think we've played as well down there. We haven't gotten the stops we've needed to get," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told the Baltimore media earlier in the week. "Running the ball, (teams) have gotten a few too many yards running the ball at times on us, as you saw in this game. You don't expect someone to be able to run the ball in on us down there like that, especially the defense we were playing. It should never have happened. And they made some plays in the passing game."

The Bengals have lived on the passing game in thr red zone with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing seven touchdown passes to five different receivers with no picks, keeping his ratio of TDs-interceptions in the red zone third among active quarterbacks. But maybe the biggest stat is the Bengals haven't suffered a red-zone sack since the Nov. 10 game in Baltimore, when Dalton didn't unload the ball in time to running back Giovani Bernard open in the flat.

Since then Dalton has been decisive and deadly and drew the praise of head coach Marvin Lewis for throwing three red-zone touchdowns last Sunday against Minnesota.

"The quarterback did a phenomenal job on Sunday of getting us in the right spot and delivering the ball where it needed to be; that was huge," Lewis said. "Andy took all of the guesswork out of things Sunday. That's big. Throughout his three seasons here, he's done such a great job in the red zone, and he continues to."

Reasons? For the most part, the Bengals have had favorable down and distance down there and from that has come with balance with seven passing TDs and six rushes. Except for the Pittsburgh game, when the 24-0 deficit forced Dalton to convert two fourth-down touchdown passes and a fourth-and-one on a sneak to get a fresh set of downs. And against the Colts, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis converted that now-infamous fourth-and-one that got flipped on review after a two-yard third-down pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones.

Other than that, the Bengals have faced three red-zone third downs in December. Dalton ran in a third-and-two for an eight-yard touchdown against the Colts and Green-Ellis converted a third-and-four on that last drive in San Diego. The other, last Sunday's third-and-10 against the Vikings, displays how effective the varied Bengals weapons can be. Against a Cover 2 that overplayed the outside wide receivers, tight end Jermaine Gresham sailed down the seam wide open for a 16-yard touchdown catch.

But that's not the norm. Often teams are locked down in man-to-man inside the 20 because of the tight spaces. If anyone is going to get double covered it is wide receiver A.J. Green, another reason Dalton has found four other red-zone targets.

"Down in the red zone a lot of the time you are going to get more man coverage stuff," left guard Andrew Whitworth said. "Our guys are tough to do that to. Marv and Mo (Sanu) and A.J. and Jermaine and those guys have done a great job this year of going up and winning those types of matchups."

And maybe Whitworth moving inside to guard has helped the movement in the running game in the red zone with Green-Ellis scoring four touchdowns and Bernard one. The month began with Whitworth making the move from tackle and the Ravens game marks his return against what may be the beefiest and most agile defensive middle in football.

"They are big, powerful guys. (I) haven't really seen many people move them around much all year," Whitworth said. "Those guys are tough guys to move. Very explosive and big. That will be a heck of challenge against these guys, to be able to run the ball effectively then also to protect.

"I think it's a great challenge. Handling that front seven, if you can block those guys you can block anybody."

Nose tackle Haloti Ngata, the man that makes the tough run defense go for the Ravens, said this week the Ravens are looking at firming it up inside the 20.

"I think it's mostly communication," Ngata said. "Some of the things are where we're getting the play but then we're not communicating adjustments – when they motion and things like that. It's just more communication errors, and we've got to do a better job of doing that."

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