The Tennessee Titans (1-2) are anxious for Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals (1-2) to arrive. That’s been this week’s theme for a Titans franchise coming off a 27-3 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, which qualifies as one of the worst losses of the Mike Vrabel era. Coach Vrabel states that Sunday’s reaction performance versus the Bengals offers the team an opportunity to define their culture.
The challenge will be monumental.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has completely owned the Titans since entering the league. It’s not Andrew Luck-like ownership, but it’s beginning to approach that status. Burrow has a perfect 3-0 career record against the Titans, all of which have occurred during Vrabel’s tenure.
The 2020 Bengals won four games with a rookie Burrow under center. Burrow put forth the best performance of his rookie season in a 31-20 victory over the Titans. Burrow completed 26-of-37 passing attempts (70.3% completion percentage) for 249 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
Later came the most hurtful one. Everyone remembers the AFC Divisional Game with the one-seed Titans being upset by the four-seed Bengals at Nissan Stadium. The Titans, who possessed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, lost that contest 19-16 despite sacking Burrow on a historical nine occasions. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions, the final of which occurred with 20 seconds left in the game to set up Evan McPherson for a 52-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. It was Cincinnati’s first road playoff win in franchise history. Burrow threw for 348 yards.
The Titans received an opportunity to exercise that demon last season. “Revenge” was a theme and topic of discussion heading into that Week 12 showdown. It was a similar outcome. Burrow led the Bengals to a hard-fought 20-16 victory by throwing for 270 yards and a touchdown despite being without the services of No. 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
“Defining the culture” seems to be this year’s theme. Perhaps Sunday’s impending contest offers the Titans their best opportunity to claim victory over Burrow since his rookie season. Burrow, who recently aggravated a calf injury, was clearly playing through a significant amount of pain in Monday’s primetime victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Still, like he’s always done versus the Titans, Burrow found a way.
The Bengals will look to protect a limited Burrow by running quick-developing passing plays. They employed a similar strategy versus the Rams. A Titans secondary that attempts to limit explosive plays may invite Burrow to dink and dunk. It requires patience, but it’s the type of patience Burrow flashed in Monday’s win. At one point in the second quarter, Burrow was averaging just 2.0 air yards per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats.
Tennessee’s defensive line will attempt to impact the pocket and rattle Burrow. There’s certainly hope for the likes of Jeffery Simmons, Arden Key and Harold Landry to win their individual matchups. Simmons versus Cordell Volson, who posted a 0.0 pass-blocking grade (PFF) against Aaron Donald, is certainly a matchup that tips in the Titans’ favor.
The Titans would be wise to rush three-to-four and drop seven-to-eight defenders in coverage. Vrabel and Shane Bowen have one of the league’s most well-disguised defenses in the NFL. Sending pressure pre-snap only to drop defenders post-snap is their M.O. Taking away the flats and dropping into Burrow’s preferred zones could be successful. Tennessee’s cornerbacks may be tempted to step up and press Chase and Tee Higgins at the line of scrimmage to take away the quick passing game, but that’s a dangerous strategy given the difference in talent between the two units.
Will Andre Dillard’s nightmare continue?
Titans left tackle Andre Dillard lived through a nightmare on Sunday when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett embarrassed him on what felt like a snap-by-snap basis. Dillard was at fault for Garrett’s 3.5 sack performance. Dillard has now given up a league-leading 6.0 sacks, per Pro Football Focus.
The few that came to Dillard’s defense via social media pointed out that Garrett is a premier defensive end. Dillard won’t be facing those types on a weekly basis. While somewhat true, I believe some Titans fans were underrating the next pass rusher in line, Cincinnati’s Trey Hendrickson.
That’s no longer the case for Titans fans who tuned into the Bengals’ Monday night win over the Rams.
Hendrickson had a career-best-type-of-performance with 10 pressures and 2.0 sacks. Hendrickson made the Rams’ left tackle a turnstile. Hendrickson posted a team-high 92.1 PFF grade. Assuming the Titans don’t contemplate a lineup change, Dillard could be in for another long afternoon.