Carson Palmer is working on getting on the same page as his receivers at training camp. (AP photo)
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - It was the stat of last year.
Before the late wide receiver Chris Henry broke his arm at the midpoint of the season, the Bengals were scoring touchdowns half the time once they drove inside the opposing 20-yard line. After that, it dropped to 25 percent in the red zone.
"It," said wide receiver Terrell Owens, "is only going to get better."
One reason is the Bengals could only get nine rushing touchdowns all season. But they clearly missed the 6-4 target of Henry and even more clearly is that the 6-3, 225-pound Owens with his 144 career touchdowns is the greatest red-zone receiver of the decade just completed.
"I've made a career of playing in the red zone," Owens said. "I know how important the red zone is. That's where games are won."
The Bengals had mixed results in there Sunday with two potential new weapons sidelined in wide receiver Antonio Bryant (knee) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (holdout) and only about three or four plays at their disposal instead of the usual 15 to 20.
But quarterback Carson Palmer found himself going to old friend Chad Ochocinco twice for red-zone scores and when he tried to go to him two more times they ended up in interceptions.
(By the way, The Ocho looked good Sunday. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he cleaned up some technical things from the first five practices and looks "pretty sharp.")
But Bratkowski didn't like the turnovers. Not in the red zone. "Those are deadly. Those are points off the board. We've got to get that fixed," he said.
The period also showed just how aggressively the defense is playing even with its top two cornerbacks out nursing minor injuries. Cornerback David Jones got beat inside by The Ocho down the middle but he was still able to pick the ball off at The Ocho's hip. And when Palmer looked to Ochocinco's side again, he was covered. Palmer would have been sacked in a game, but he kept wheeling to the left and tried to loft it to Owens in the back left corner. Cornerback Adam Jones was able to cut under and make the pick.
Palmer said he shouldn't have thrown it, but he also said, "As good as our defense goes, you're not going to go better than 50-50." He has been extremely impressed with the speed of new safety Gibril Wilson: "That guy can run."
But it won't be the last time you see Palmer trying to hit Owens down there. It wasn't even the last time Sunday. In another drill he took a shot at Owens in the back corner and overthrew him. With Owens, a physical 6-1 Bryant and a graceful 6-5 Gresham, Palmer knows he'll have bigger red zone options than ever.
Bratkowski was happy his guys were able to pick up some first downs between the 20 and 10 that would have kept drives alive, but the problems from the 10 and in are obvious: Compressed area and the inability to "take the top off the defense."
"When you've got a receiver that can run that's 6-4 you can always throw the ball high and late. Obviously Chris was that," Palmer said. "You've got to worry about him running a slant or a fade, so you have to pick your poison on what you want to stop.
"They're not the same player, but (Henry and Owens) have a similar build. Chris was a jump ball guy, fast guy. If it's not there you can throw it high to (Owens) late and he's going to go up like he's getting a rebound in basketball. You can keep the ball eight, nine, 10 feet off the ground and he can go get it. Not many DBs can get up that high."
And Palmer hasn't forgotten about the guy who caught one of the biggest red-zone touchdowns in Bengals history. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell may be only 6-0, but he not only caught the four-yard winner against Pittsburgh last year, he caught the winner against Baltimore on the periphery of the red zone from the 22.
Palmer didn't go to him down there Sunday, but he has had some field days with Caldwell in the middle of the field this camp.
"Bubba's playing great; he does all the right things," Palmer said. "He picks up safeties. He can sit in the backfield and pass protect and run by just about anybody. He's very valuable to us. I'm very comfortable throwing to him. He's caught game-winners, big third downs. He's getting better every couple of weeks."
One way to prevent getting into the red zone is scoring on bombs. Palmer has overthrown a bunch early in camp, missing receivers that are cleanly beating coverage. He looked sharper Sunday but he didn't read much into it since it is just that. Early and he's in the process of learning how his people run and move in pads.
"I missed a couple that I wanted back," he said. "In training camp there's going to be good and bad and today was maybe more good than bad. I've been working with Chad for years. I've been working with Terrell for not even a month. (Jordan) Shipley is in the same boat. I've only been working with him for a handful of weeks. I haven't really worked much with Antonio much at all. We've got a lot of work to do."