CJ still less than stellar: It’s no secret that running back Chris Johnson has been ineffective and useless this year, but Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer got more out of Johnson than he has all year. We’re going to hear all week long how Johnson played better than he has this year, but I don’t buy it. He displayed the same level of skill he has all year, but Palmer called smarter plays to get Johnson open in space. At the end of the day, Johnson is still far too hesitant at attacking the hole to be considered even an average NFL running back right now. However, the Bengals’ linebacking unit is extremely slow and vulnerable to runs to the outside. Palmer knew this and had Johnson run several pitches to the outside. Additionally, he used Johnson in the passing game, allowing Johnson to get open near the sidelines where the linebackers couldn’t catch up to him. The best example of this came on 3rd-and-1 on the 50-yard line on the Titans’ second drive of the game. Matt Hasselbeck faked the handoff before throwing to Johnson in the flat, and Johnson picked up 21 yards on the play.
Coaching was key: This game was all about coaching. As mentioned above, Chris Palmer’s first-half play calling allowed the Titans to take their halftime lead. After the half, the Titans went back to the same runs up the middle that have been ineffective all season. Meanwhile, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden did a great job of playing to his rookie quarterback’s strengths throughout the game. Cincinnati’s offense exploited linebacker-on-receiver matchups all game long, including on the third-down conversion right before the game-winning touchdown. Additionally, Dalton is at his best when throwing to the inside, and Gruden did a good job of drawing up plays that got receivers open on inside-breaking routes.
Titans will live by the pass and die by the pass: Hasselbeck moved around well in the pocket, but he didn’t step into all his throws and it affected his accuracy, especially early in the game. Once he got a little bit more comfortable, the Titans’ offense picked up the pace and played better. The receivers have some major timing issues, but their issues pale in comparison to the struggles of the running game. Their first touchdown drive probably best exemplified the Titans’ shift in offensive philosophy. On 3rd-and-3 on the Bengals’ 10-yard line, the Titans gave the ball to Chris Johnson, who ran up the middle for no gain. On the resulting fourth down, the Hasselbeck hit Lavelle Hawkins for 5 yards. Johnson ran for a loss of three yards on the next play, and on second down Hasselbeck threw the ball to Damian Williams for a touchdown. For better or for worse, the Titans are a passing team now.
Defense had bright spots, but couldn’t seal the deal: The Titans’ defense showed flashes of the ability to dominate the Bengals, but didn’t make the adjustments it needed to in order to win. If you leave Andy Dalton unpressured in the pocket, he’ll pick you apart all day long. When pressured, he keeps his eyes on the pass rush instead of upfield, and his performance significantly suffers. The Titans got through to Dalton through the left side of the line at times, but didn’t contain him from the right side and often allowed him to escape to the right with time to pass the ball. Their line needed to pressure from the left and contain from the right, but they couldn’t get to Dalton as much as they needed to.
Another issue the Titans’ defense had was how it handled Bengals’ receiver A.J. Green. When the defensive backs played man coverage on Green, they played deep so he didn’t burn them, and he was open on short passes that hurt the Titans. When the Titans played zone coverage, Green easily got open in between zones and Dalton could thread the ball to him. Cortland Finnegan handled his assignments solidly today and should have been put in man coverage against Green a lot more than he was.