The Tennessee Titans take on the Cincinnati Bengals on the road on Sunday at 1pm EST. The boys in blue will come face to face with a fiercely balanced team with play-makers on both sides of the ball. Can they deliver on pre-season promises and put the Bengals away? We break down the match-ups below;
Jake Locker had what is undoubtedly his worst half as a pro last week in Dallas. We have discussed ad nauseum the tribulations of the Cowboys game, so we'll avoid rehashing it again here. That said, he will need a resurgent performance to keep Tennessee in business. Finding consistent targets on the short and intermediate levels will be a tough task against a very talented and balanced Cincinnati defense, but Locker will need to get in rhythm early like he did in Kansas City, in order for the Titans to keep pace.
Locker will need to avoid the pressure from a talented Bengals front seven, and ensure he avoids turning the ball over like he did last week. Underrated safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka will look to take advantage of that pressure.
Taking about the Bengals secondary, they have an extremely deep group of corners that should make life difficult on the Titans wideouts. Leon Hall and Terrence Newman will line up on Kendall Wright and Nate Washington often, with Justin Hunter matched up with a guy Titans fans should be familiar with in Adam Jones. Behind him, they have the young and talented former first rounder Dre Kirkpatrick. Nate Washington had a rougher day than usual last week, so he'll be looking to rebound, and Justin Hunter hasn't been a consistent deep threat so far.
These coverage guys will make the Titans work for their yardage through the air, and from the season's first three weeks, represent the unit most well equipped to deal with the Titans when they are in 11 personnel. Look for Ken Whisenhunt to try to get Locker comfortable off the bat with some quick throws to Kendall Wright, and last week's standout, tight end Delanie Walker.
Walker will be covered by nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lemur, who had issues in week one defending the Ravens in a similar capacity. Walker should be able to make a big impact in this one, and despite Lemur's athletic abilities, produce again for the Titans offense.
Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Carlos Dunlap comprise one of the best front three's in football, and worse news still, they have decent depth there too, with guys like Margus Hunt and Devon Still rotating in. That will be a handful even for the Titans talented offensive line. Despite the end result last week, the line performed well across the board, and I expect them to continue to grow.
Geno Atkins is a dangerous weapon, and will certainly cause issues for Andy Levitre. I would expect the Titans to slide help there when they can, and when running, look to the other side of the line. Peko is a big body to displace, and his battle with Chance Warmack and Brian Schwenke could well decide if Tennessee can move the ball on the ground or not.
Vontaze Burfict (who is PFF's top 4-3 OLB by a wide margin) is out with a concussion this week, which should open up things considerable on the second level. He'll be replaced in the lineup by Vincent Rey, who, while a talented coverage guy, is mostly unproven vs the run. I expect Tennessee to lean on the running game more in this one, especially if they can avoid going down early on. Shonn Greene could present problems for the Bengals weakened interior backer group.
That said, let's not cash the checks yet. The Bengals also have Ray Maualuga and Wallace Gilberry, the latter of whom has been a play-maker for them since early 2013. Jason Michaels and Ken Whisenhunt will have to get creative with Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey to keep the Cincinnati defense off guard.
While the Bengals have a strong offensive line group and a productive running game, there may be chinks in the armor. The talented RG Kevin Zeitler went down last week, leaving Mike Pollack to step in as his replacement. He'll be facing Ropati Pitoitua often, who ranks in the Top 5 PFF 3-4 ends versus the run. While that may sound hard to believe as the unit gave up 220 yards last week to the Cowboys runners, DeMarco Murray actually had negative yardage when running against Pitoitua last week. Another guy on that top 5 PFF list? Jurrell Casey, who continues to be a stud in both phases of the defensive game.
While these numbers have to be taken for what they are, at face value, and not as gospel, they do illuminate a concern that was revealed about the team last week. It was not necessarily the poor play of any one man on the Titans defensive front that caused the Cowboys to run rampant, but a matter of numbers. This was best illustrated by my co-writer SuperHorn here. As the Cowboys shifted away from Romo and the passing game towards Murray and co, the Titans failed to adapt. Without bringing in additional personnel, like Pollard, more often into the box to support the run defense, they were victimized by a numbers game that was constantly stacked against them. They can't make the same error in Cincinatti.
The Titans have generated a wealth of pass rushing pressure through two weeks, and gaining an early lead would allow them to pin their ears back and lean on that aspect more and more. The sooner the Bengals are forced to put the ball in the air, the better.
Another weak link in the Cincinatti line is Center Russell Bodine, who has thus far struggled to open interior running lanes for Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill. If the Titans can force the Bengals to run outside, athletic linebackers like Wesley Woodyard and Zaviar Gooden will be waiting.
Titans ESPN writer Paul Kuharsky says Wesley Woodard and Zaviar Gooden are too light to be effective. I disagree. They were enough to stymie the Chiefs rushing attack, and (as previously mentioned) were outmanned more often than not against Dallas. While they need to shed blockers better, more of the focus has to be on filling the correct gaps and anticipating the cut back lanes. This caused consistent problems last season, and last week those issues returned with vengeance.
Andy Dalton threw only 23 times last week, as the Bengals leaned on Bernard and Hill, running the ball 42 times. They will look to do the same on the back of the Titans failings in Dallas, and it will be up to both the group to execute better as a whole, and to Horton to be braver with bringing safety help into the box.
The Titans will catch a break, however small, when it comes to covering the Bengals Tight Ends. Following injuries to both Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith, Tennessee will match up their backers on a combination of Jermaine Gresham and former 4th-string TE, Hewitt. I would expect a whole lot of Gresham on the field, and the Bengals to bring in Hewitt on obvious running downs. Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley will have plenty of work in their laps, but's I think it's a good match-up for them.
Mohammed Sanu and AJ Green, who is "a full go for Sunday", will be yet another big task for the Titans this weekend. With Jason McCourty coming back from last week's groin injury, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh need to be able to take a bigger share of the load. Sanu is not to be underrated even next to Green. He's a big play threat (scored a 73 yarder last week) and has been excellent running a variety of sideline comebacks and other timing routes with Andy Dalton.
Michael Griffin will likely need to play a lot of single high, with Bernard Pollard playing plenty of his snaps inside the box. Griffin will need to be aware of Green at all times, and keep the deep secondary under wraps. The Titans cannot afford to go down early.
The Titans have been lackluster in their kick returning thus far, despite having a lot of talent at the position. The Titans have been on the back foot as far as field position in both their games so far this year. I am expecting the combination of Dexter McCluster on punts, and Leon Washington on kicks, can give the team a boost more frequently as we get deeper into the season.
In the kicking game, Ryan Succop has been excellent. I think that was a small coup by this Front Office to get him under contract. Against a strong Cincinnati defense, every point will count, even if the Titans are forced to settle for field goals over touchdowns.
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