Take yourself back to August 21st. The Bengals had just been dropped to 0-2 in the preseason after taking a 27-7 beating by the Jets, which had been preceded 9 days earlier by a 34-3 beatdown at the hands of the Lions. As those final moments ticked away, looking at a team that had been outscored 61-10 in two games, did you see a team that would take the field in Nashville 77 days later looking to improve to 6-2 on the season?
That day, I sure didn’t. If you did, I applaud your optimism (and I question your sanity).
The Titans are the third AFC South team to face the Bengals this year, with the Bengals having dispatched of the bottom half of that division. The Titans are trying to stay close to the Texans for the division lead, which will be very important for them since it seems doubtful (at least to me) that one of this year’s wild card teams will come from the AFC South.
Like the Seahawks, the Titans are another team that can be very good and can be very bad. At home they have played well against the Ravens, pretty well against the Colts, beat a bad Broncos team by just 3, and got hammered at home by the Texans.
When the Titans have the ball…
The phase of the Titans’ game that is going well for them right now is the passing game. Bringing in Matt Hasslebeck has proven to be a smart move for the team as Jake Locker sits and learns from the veteran.
QB Matt Hasslebeck v. no running game. If you were one who thought that Hasslebeck was done after leaving Seattle, you thought wrong. Matt is having a solid year with almost 1700 yards passing, putting him on pace for just over 3800 for the season. The line is keeping him clean and giving him time, and he is taking advantage of it.
The problem is, in order for the team to move, he has to throw. And opponents know it. Houston, who has a tough pass defense, nearly erased Hasslebeck from the game, limiting him to 104 yards. The Bengals are not as stout as the Texans against the pass, so they ought to play the pass first and force a struggling running game to come up big in order to win.
The Titans’ O-line has done a good job of keeping Matt Hasslebeck clean, allowing only 10 sacks and 26 hits in 7 games (2 better than the Bengals for both stats). But while pass protection has been a strength to this point for the Titans, run blocking has not.
LT Michael Roos v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. Roos makes the third on ESPN’s lift of top 10 lift tackles that Johnson has faced, having already sparred with Joe Thomas and Ryan Clady. If the Titans want to continue to rank well in sacks allowed, this matchup is critical. Johnson and Rucker have 5.5 sacks so far this year, including 3 in the last 2 games. Roos, like Whitworth the week before, held Dwight Freeney without a sack last week.
LG Leroy Harris v. RT Geno Atkins. I am intrigued by this matchup. The numbers indicate that Atkins, Peko, Fanene and Sims should control the line and plug the holes in the running game. But can they do it with minimal support to allow maximum pass protection? And can Atkins create enough of a physical mismatch to add to his 3.5 sacks?
If you snatched up Chris Johnson for your fantasy team, I don’t have to explain to you how disappointing he has been this season. Backup Javon Ringer has not provided much punch either, leaving Tennessee with the worst running game in the NFL right now.
RB Chris Johnson v. LB Rey Maualuga or Dan Skuta. Johnson sat out most of the preseason to leverage a better contract. Like many before him (ie Levi Jones), he has followed getting paid with a lousy season so far. He is averaging 2.8 yards/carry. Ouch! But he is still dangerous, and at some point this year he will bang out an big game. But the #2 run defense as compiled by both NFL.com and FO has already held Peyton Hillis to 75 yds, Frank Gore to 42 yds, Fred Jackson to 66 yds, Maurice Jones-Drew to 85 yds, and Marshawn Lynch to 24 yds. Only Willis McGahee has cracked the century mark this year with rushing 101 yds.
(Who will get booed louder this week, Chris Johnson or Adam Jones?)
The Titans’ passing game lost some of its potency with Kenny Britt going to IR, but it is still good enough that it could give the Bengals’ secondary problems. After getting picked apart by Tarvaris Jackson last week (323 yds passing by TJ alone), we will know a lot more about what this group really is after they face the Titans.
WRs Nate Washington and Damian Williams v. CBs Leon Hall and Nate Clements. Washington is by far the primary target for Hasslebeck. With 433 yds, he has nearly tripled the other two receivers, Williams (159 yds) and Hawkins (151 yds). Washington never had this kind of production in Pittsburgh, or even in Tennessee with VY. He has certainly clicked with Hasslebeck. With Hall inclined to give up a couple of big plays a game, Washington will get his. But if the Bengals can erase the other options, they should be able to slow the Titans’ passing game enough.
TE Jared Cook v. LB Thomas Howard. Cook has 270 yards this year, making him the 2nd leading receiver behind Washington. FO ranks Cook right behind Vernon Davis, who carved up the Bengals for 114 yds on 8 recs. The Bengals cannot lose track of him, as they so often do with tight ends.
When the Bengals have the ball…
Fortunately, the numbers for the Titans’ defense are middle of the pack, too. FO puts them at #24 against the pass and #16 against the run. NFL.com puts them at #17 against the pass and #27 against the run.
QB Andy Dalton v. patience. Andy has done a good job of managing games. He hasn’t made a lot of spectacular plays, but he has not made a lot of mistakes to cost the team wins. With 8 interceptions so far this year (tied with the Seahawks, who got him for 2 INTs), the Titans will try to bait Dalton into mistakes. He must be patient with opportunities and not take the bait.
Going into the season, I viewed the offensive line as a pretty big liability. But I have to give them credit for playing far better than I had expected and for putting together a pretty decent season. We have not banged on Nate Livings in weeks. Andre Smith is justifying the faith that the coaching staff had in him when they drafted him three years ago.
The Bengals have faced some stout front lines this year. Seattle (#3), Denver (#6), SanFran (#8) and Jacksonville (#10) all rank in FO’s top 10 run defenses. Tennessee ranks #20, far better than the Bengals’ other 3 opponents — all of which rank in the bottom 5 in the league — but nowhere near the level of the rest.
LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith v. DEs Jason Jones and Dave Ball. Whit and Smith have done a solid job of keeping Dalton upright and giving the rookie time. Jones and Ball only have 3 sacks between them. Control in these matchups will benefit every part of the Bengals’ offense.
RG Bobbie Williams, C Kyle Cook and LG Nate Livings v. DTs Jurrell Casey and Shaun Smith. I had forgotten about Shaun. Not exactly the (once) formidable force known as Albert Haynesworth. The middle of the Titans’ line is its weak spot, ranking in the bottom third of the league, which is why opponents run through the middle two-thirds of the time. Some nastiness out of this trio should spell a good day for the running game.
If I know Cedric Benson, he is going to want to mark his territory with an “I’m back, baby!” game after sitting out his one game suspension. As one who has admitted to looking for proof that Cedric can be a home run hitter at times and is not just a bloop singles guy, I would welcome such a performance.
RB Cedric Benson v. LB Barrett Ruud. Cedric was held to just 57 yds on 16 carries against the Colts. I was surprised by both the limited number of carries and the lack of production in those carries against a poor Colts run defense. The Titans will look to mimic the Colts’ scheme that kept him in check. If Cedric wants to do more than just clear 1000 yds rushing for the season and give himself some leverage for the big payday he has been waiting to get, he needs to start with this game.
The Titans’ secondary is ranks right with the Broncos and Seahawks. The Bengals tore up the Broncos for 332 yards, but the Seahawks held them to only 168, nearly half. If Jay Gruden keeps the play-calling creative, the yards will be there. A little help from WRs on underthrown balls will help a lot, too.
WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Cortland Finnegan and Jason McCourty. I am more concerned about the mental part of this game than the physical part. If the Seahawks’ corners were getting to Simpson and Green, they have to be doubly prepared for the mouth of Finnegan. They have to be mentally tough enough to walk away no matter what he says, because he tries to bolster his game by getting WRs to focus on his mouth instead of on the play.
TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Will Witherspoon. Gresham has to find a way to become more of a factor in the passing game again. He netted only 44 yards combined in the games against the Colts and Jaguars. Gresham getting open in the middle is pivotal to keeping the Bengals’ offense on the field, because Dalton is still growing in the passing game.
P Brett Kern v. P Kevin Huber. This is largely an even matchup. Both guys are good.
K Rob Bironas v. K Mike Nugent. Bironas has as good of a range as most in the NFL, but he has missed 2 of 11 attempts this year, while Nugent has missed only 1 of 16.
KR/PR Marc Mariani v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. The pickup of Tate finally paid dividends with a punt return for a TD last week, while Mariani has yet to return one all the way. Mariani’s best kick return is for 42 yards (Tate’s is 45 yards), but his best punt return is for only 26 yards. Tate gets the edge in both areas, but not a huge edge.
One of the keys to this game will be field position, and the Bengals have done a good job of controlling that this year. The Seahawks had 436 yds of total offense last week, but they could only turn that into 12 points due to field position. Hasslebeck, Washington and Cook will get yards through the air, but field position will be a big factor in whether those yards become TDs, FGs or punts.
I am concerned that the inexperience of the Bengals’ receivers could become a factor in this game as Cortland “Mighty Mouth” Finnegan tries to take them out of the game mentally, since he can’t take them out physically. Green and Simpson have to keep their cool, something Andre Johnson couldn’t do. Jay Gruden has to keep them rotating and let them take out any aggression (but only as far as they are allowed to) in run blocking. And Andy Dalton has to demoralize their corners by putting the ball in the spots where only his guys can get them.
Two predictions for the game. 1) Cedric Benson logs his 3rd 100+ rushing game of the season. 2) The Bengals’ defense makes a late-game play that preserves the win.
Final Score: Cincinnati 23. Tennessee 19.