Playoff football has finally arrived for the Tennessee Titans. After their much needed week off, Mike Vrabel and company will hit the practice field this week to prepare for their divisional round opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, C.J. Uzomah, the names and talent that reside within this dangerous Bengals offense is vast. It’s why this particular matchup will be enticing and even somewhat addicting.
Can the Titans’ improved defense — and most importantly, their much improved pass rush — stifle the Bengals’ young, explosive offense and wring them into submission? Can the Titans’ offense — which is expected to get Derrick Henry back after a few months of rehab after a foot injury — keep up with Joe Burrow if the battle turns towards the numbers on the scoreboard?
We’ll dive into that and more, so let’s not waste any more time.
1. Playoff football at Nissan Stadium
Back to back postseasons with home playoff games have been a rarity for this franchise, at least during this modern age of play.
From the days of constant playoff appearances in the early 2000s, to the dark roads of failure this organization has to walk down after the glory days met their end, to this newfound era of success thrusting itself into the spotlight, it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride for these Tennessee Titans.
But now, the ride seems to be entering a climax of sorts. This team has pushed all their chips towards the middle of the table, and are dead set on contending for nothing but a Super Bowl title for the foreseeable future.
The climax starts Saturday against Cincinnati, in front of a raucous Nissan Stadium crowd, and a fan base that’s waited so long for this amount of optimism.
The Titans will have the support at their backs. Will they take advantage of it?
2. It’d be best to get the crowd going early on
Speaking of a a certain rowdy Nissan Stadium crowd, it’d be in the Titans’ best interests to bring some juice to the crowd early on in the game.
Whether that be an early stop, turnover, a quick score to jump the gun on Cincinnati, anything to get the crowd juiced up and ready to roll would be accepted. A scenario like this has tended to elude the Titans though, since they’re so prevalent to slow starts at times.
But the playoffs present everyone with a new slate, and a brand new chance at life. If you taker advantage of it, you’ll set yourself up to survive and advance if you’re a serious contender, or to seemingly do the impossible if you’re a team playing the underdog role.
3. The Titans can do that by doing…
We laid out some basic scenarios that can help the Titans give the crowd some energy. An early stop would be fine and a turnover would be even more luxurious.
But the one avenue the Titans can take — and one that they haven’t done a good job at navigating through this season — is getting into the endzone on their opening drives.
Out of their 18 opening drives this season, the Titans have scored only three total times (two touchdowns and one field goal). To make matters worse, they’ve turned the ball over two times on their opening drives, both of which were interceptions thrown by Ryan Tannehill.
If Tennessee wants to avoid a slow start, let alone a crushing season ending loss, opening drive execution has to be at a high level. Because each time you start to slow down offensively, you’re only giving Burrow and the Bengals’ explosive vertical passing offense more chances to click.
And once that offense starts clicking, you could find yourself in a heap of trouble.
4. The return of Derrick Henry should be electric
However, before the offense even steps on the field, we should be in for a treat regarding the return of star running back Derrick Henry. He’s set to return to the lineup after a long layoff due to a foot injury, and you can tell that the city is amped about it.
Henry has turned into a hero of great size for this evolving metropolitan area, simply by excelling on the field and engaging with the community that’s embraced him with open arms. So you can only imagine what the response will be, once Henry’s name is rung throughout the 72,000 seat stadium that’s been the main destination for the moments that have turned him into a star.
Once the return ends though, Henry will be focused on helping his team any way he can. It’s the least he can do for them after they scratched and clawed to the AFC’s top seed while he was away due to circumstances he couldn’t control.
5. What to expect from Henry after the long layoff
The ceremonial like return of Henry will be something to watch, but what we’ll really be keeping our eye on is how effective he’ll be on the field.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has been adamant on seeing how Henry would adjust to normal football actions after such a long break in action. Running, cutting, contact, simple actions that are extremely necessary for Henry to make a true impact on the game.
For the most part, word has been that Henry has responded well to the extra work on his plate, including the contact work he went through in practice this week. If the situation continues to proceed at a nice pace, Henry should be activated off injured reserve in time for Saturday’s game.
What should we expect from the star back once he’s activated and deemed ready to go? Well, that’s a hard question to answer. For a high volume player like Henry, some form of rust has to be expected. It’s a given due to the layoff being so long. Other than that though, who knows what we can expect to see.
6. An appearance by the pre-injured Henry would go a long way
If we get an appearance by the Henry before the injury occurred, then the chances of the Titans winning their opening playoff game would drastically increase.
Let’s not forget, Henry was on pace to shatter a number of running back records before his injury ruined the party. His 937 yards in eight games were on pace to balloon to 2,000 if his numbers continued to pile up at a decent rate. With an extra game on the schedule, he would’ve had a decent chance to break the all time single season rushing record as well, a record that has remained untouched since 1984.
If that player returns to the field this weekend, not only would Todd Downing’s job get easier when it comes to calling plays, but this offense as a whole would find life easier on early downs, a problem that’s plagued this offense for the most part throughout the absence of Henry.
But as good as that sounds, the discussion surrounding the foot injury and any potential hits to athleticism and physical prowess have to entertained first. So that begs the question, what if the Henry we see on Saturday looks slow and less menacing as before?
7. An appearance by a slowed down Henry wouldn’t be ideal
If Henry doesn’t look like himself against Cincinnati, then the sky wouldn’t fall. Defenses would still have to account for his presence, and his aura alone would open up so many things in the play action passing game, a method that worked just fine before Henry had to be put on the shelf.
But at the same time, the running game could take a bit of a hit in terms of efficiency and overall effectiveness. A healthy Henry is able to stick his foot in the ground, drive forward, and either race past defenders en route to the end zone or lay punishing blows on opposing defenses that take their toll as the game goes on.
Would a slowed down Henry be able to lay the same boom and outrun tackling angles by smaller defensive backs? It’s tough to say, but I’d tend to lean on the side of no.
We won’t know which version of Henry we’ll get until he receives his first carry, maybe even later in the game as he attempts to get his feet wet again. However the point still stands, a slower version of Henry just wouldn’t be ideal in terms of reaching the highest potential this offense has.
Against an offense that can rack up yards and points in a hurry, something like that just wouldn’t be in the best interests of the Titans.
8. How can pressure be taken off Henry?
Which ever version of Henry shows up on Saturday afternoon, the Titans need to be prepared to adopt multiple plans of action that they could use in case the running game can’t take off.
That includes getting the ball into the hands of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, two high quality receiving options that can provide quality offense in a facet quite different from the physical ride of the run game. Before they can receive opportunities to impact the game though, offensive coordinator Todd Downing has to find ways to get them the ball, whether it’s within scheme or isolated snaps in which Brown or Jones can have direct involvement with the plays.
We’ve seen Downing at least attempt to do something like this, like the handful of isolated screen calls in which Jones has been given the ball alone on the boundary and an opportunity to make a defender miss. Aside from those type of calls though, we haven’t seen too many plays where Brown and Jones get the ball in space “out of structure”.
Now you don’t have to run plays out of structure (like screens, jet sweeps, etc.) just to get the ball into the hands of your play makers. You can keep things relegated to scheme and still find success. But too many times this season has staying true to scheme failed, and the Titans have failed to adjust to the ever changing environment, leading to stagnant offensive play and a lack of impact on the scoreboard.
That’s a problem that can’t rear its ugly head on Saturday, especially if the Titans are forced to counter the potential multitude of blows that Cincinnati can throw at any time.
9. Pass protection will be key
While the idea of a potent passing game is fine, pass protection has to coincide with it all in order for the passing attack to have a chance at succeeding.
For the Titans, they’ve struggled to protect the pocket and keep Ryan Tannehill off the ground, as evidenced by their 47 sacks allowed this season. That spells trouble considering how dominant Trey Hendrickson has been this season, and how much he elevates the rest of the pass rush when he’s on his game.
Hendrickson finished the regular season with 16 sacks and 75 total pressures, both figures that were tied for the fourth most in the entire league according to PFF. That type of production should scream red flags for any opposing offensive line, let alone the Titans’.
He’s primarily a right end, meaning he’ll be lined up against Taylor Lewan throughout the game. If Hendrickson can wreck this game, then this Titans offense will be in for a long, long, long day. If he can stay quiet, then the outlook for the Titans’ offensive line won’t be too bleak.
10. Turnovers can’t be a problem
However, even if Hendrickson and the Bengals’ pass rush stays quiet, the effort keeping them off the stat sheet will be in vain if this offense as a whole can’t avoid turnovers.
The Titans turned the ball over 25 times in the regular season, the 10th most in the league during that span. That total was spiked by a few multiple turnover games as well, including five games in which the Titans turned the ball over at least three times.
I can’t overstate this enough, you cannot, I mean you cannot turn the ball over three times in the playoffs and expect to win. That sentiment rings especially true when you have the Bengals’ dangerous offense on the other side of the field.
Turnovers aren’t a given, no matter how many mistakes have been made. But they’re always possible, especially for a team that’s shown a tendency to not be careful with the football.
11. How will Shane Bowen’s defense handle Joe Burrow?
What’ll be interesting is how Shane Bowen handles Burrow and his frightening connection with his skill players.
To start, getting as much pressure on Burrow should be the top priority (more on that later), but the other detail that Bowen has to deal with is which coverages will he throw at Burrow to throw him off his game.
You could bracket Ja’Marr Chase and leave other potential 1v1 matchups for Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Or you can simply stay within scheme and rotate a variety of coverages to help combat the talent Boyd, Chase, and Higgins possess. There’s no simple right answer for this equation, simply because the Bengals have destroyed anything opposing defenses have thrown their way.
Add in the fact that Burrow has killed both man and zone coverage (66% completion percentage and 13 touchdowns against man coverage, 74% completion percentage and 15 touchdowns against zone coverage), and Burrow aggressively attacks both coverage concepts (8.7 yards per attempt against zone coverage, 12 yards per attempt against man coverage), and it becomes difficult to imagine what coverage(s) could confuse Burrow.
Thankfully that’s not my job, since it sounds like an extremely taxing thing to do. But for Bowen and the rest of the Titans’ defensive staff, it’s a task they have to complete so Burrow won’t have an absolute field day by throwing the football.
12. The Titans’ pass rush could play a big part
One straightforward way you can handle Burrow, is by sending a pack of hounding dogs after him snap after snap. Of course not in the literal sense, but the Titans’ pass rush has been so suffocating at times, that comparing it to a pack of rabid dogs doesn’t sound crazy in the slightest.
In all seriousness, Tennessee’s pass rush has to play a big part in this game. Their matchup — being Cincinnati’s underwhelming pass protecting offensive line — should be enticing and inviting for wreaking havoc. Whether it’d be Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, or Harold Landry, someone has to rise to the occasion and make Burrow’s life in the pocket as difficult as possible.
Doing so would put a serious dent into the Bengals’ plans offensively, and would go a long way towards the Titans advancing to their second AFC title game in the last three seasons.
We witnessed how Maxx Crosby and the Raiders defense put a stop to the bleeding last weekend, by rushing the passer effectively and making Burrow uncomfortable in the second half of their roller coaster Wild Card contest. While the Titans don’t have an edge rushing presence like Crosby, the four names mentioned above are high quality pass rushers in their own right
The Titans need their pass rush to be ready for the challenge this weekend, and if we’re basing it off past evidence, odds are they will.
13. Ja’Marr Chase is a star and should be treated as such
An effective pass rush would not only make Burrow not feel at ease, it’d also take Chase out of the game, at least temporarily.
Chase has torched defenses as of late, finishing with at least 116 yards receiving in three of his last four games, with the only outlier being a meaningless week 18 game in which he played limited snaps to avoid injury.
When his connection with Burrow is established, they’re a very difficult duo to slow down.
It isn’t reminiscent of Peyton Manning’s legendary connection with Marvin Harrison — both Chase and Burrow have a long way to go before they’re even mentioned in the same conversation as those two mythical-like players — but it’s a connection that’s showed impressive promise through one lone season.
Not giving those two a chance to develop a rhythm will be key on Saturday afternoon.
14. Aside from Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are scary
A Bengals offense with just Chase along is terrifying. But when you combine Chase’s impact, along with the impacts of Boyd and Higgins, the end result is dangerously volatile.
Boyd and Higgins don’t possess the same game breaking open field talent that Chase does, but they do possess their own personal skill sets that can give the Titans some serious problems.
Regarding Higgins, he’s a contested catch specialist that can go up and grab contested throws at the point of attack. That skill set is a nightmare for any opposing defensive back, since it’s rare to find one that can consistently fight through contact and knock those contested throws away without committing penalty after penalty.
As for Boyd, he’s primarily a slot receiver that can make those grimy, dirty type of catches across the middle, and even on the boundary if he needs to. This matchup is one that I’d worry about if Elijah Molden has to play straight up man coverage, since he doesn’t seem to handle receivers that can create separation with top quality route running.
These are two players you might have to leave alone at times, which would immediately put your defensive backs in delicate 1v1 situations. If Burrow sees those matchups, he’s going to attack them as often as he can. It’ll be up to the Titans’ secondary to be ready, adapt, attack, and finish with as much efficiency as possible.
15. You can’t forget about Joe Mixon
If you somehow find a way to keep a lid on the trio of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd, you’d then have to focus on another offensive weapon that’s made a lot of noise this season.
The quiet and subtle, yet deadly rushing attack led by Joe Mixon has made a lot of headway this season. After a few seasons full of under the radar play, Mixon’s performance is finally being recognized around the league, and for good reason too.
Mixon put together the best statistical season of his career, rushing for over 1,200 yards and adding another 300 yards receiving. He isn’t the most dominant of backs, especially in this offense that relies a lot on the downfield passing attack. But if you don’t put in the effort to slow him down, he can silently rip your defense apart, as both a physical presence in the run game and as a slippery receiver in the open field.
Most teams don’t run on the Titans, since their front is stout inside, and their linebackers possess the ample athleticism and physicality to jump outside to prevent breaches on the perimeter. However, it’d be foolish to assume Mixon will meet the same fate, mostly because a player of his caliber demands respect and the utmost attention.
I personally don’t view this as a mismatch for the Titans, but things can change in hurry, so it’s best to keep this specific matchup in mind throughout the game.
16. Neither can you forget about C.J. Uzomah
Uzomah isn’t the most flashy tight end in the league, but his consistency as both a blocker and a receiver have done wonders for this offense as a whole.
He’s a big body — 6’6, 260 pounds — but has a surprising amount of agility and speed for someone of his size and weight. That type of size and speed could prove to be trouble for the Titans’ defense, especially if Kevin Byard is tied up with other important matters defensively.
Zach Cunningham and David Long Jr. are both very good run stopping linebackers, but they leave a lot to be desired when they’re put in coverage. However, the Titans don’t put their middle linebackers into man coverage too often, so maybe that won’t be too much of an issue on Saturday.
Either way, Uzomah can be forgotten on a team full of sexy options at receiver. The Titans should be smart of enough to keep him in their thoughts, as he can do some damage given the opportunity.
17. This offense isn’t all that perfect though
Despite their high flying tendencies and talent at receiver, this Bengals offense still possesses some flaws. They’re not the best at pass protecting, an imperfection that’s halted the consistency of this unit at times. To add, Zac Taylor has a bad tendency bring this offense to a screeching halt, despite their mass amount of talent. Whether it’s bad play calling, or falling out of tune with the flow of the game. the tendency exists and it can become a massive obstacle for the Bengals at times.
The point is this, Cincinnati’s offense is great. It has so much young talent and their situation is one of the more desirable ones in the entire league. But they make their mistakes, and because they’re so young, inconsistency has plagued them at times.
It’d be unreasonable to expect their offense to fall apart against a defense like the Titans’. But they won’t light the house on fire, the Titans are too talented, proven, and disciplined to allow that to occur.
If the Titans can stay on schedule, limit the big plays, and get off the field on third down, they should be in good shape. That formula has worked for them all year long, and it should work once again if it’s executed with precision this weekend.
18. The Titans will win if…
If they avoid turnovers, control the clock, and avoid letting up the big plays Cincinnati has become so accustomed to achieving this season.
It’s a plan most teams tried to adopt when they played the Kansas City Chiefs, before their early season downfall during the early stages of the 2021 season. It didn’t work for the most part, but there’s some evidence that it can work against a dangerous, but young Bengals offense.
The Titans have the pieces to make this plan come to life, but like a Chess game, the value of pieces drops to zero if you can’t execute the mission at hand.
19. The Titans will lose if…
They can’t find a groove offensively, they let Burrow get comfortable early, and the turnover bug comes back to bite in the worst way and at the worst possible time.
What’s kind of ironic about this is that I can see all three of those things occurring. The Titans have been very slow starters offensively this year, and they’ve needed extended amounts of time to settle down. Burrow has killed this defense before, albeit against an invisible pass rush and Johnathan Joseph playing significant snaps. And although this team hasn’t turned the ball over once in recent weeks, their turnover itch can still come back at any time and cause some trouble.
However, things seem different now, so different that I think the likelihood of these negative circumstances occurring is low.
But the fact remains, if these Titans can’t avoid the three things above, then they’ll find life difficult this weekend.
20. Prediction time
Out of all the games on divisional weekend, this one seems like the hardest one to predict.
You can honestly see both of these teams winning, in a close game or blowout fashion as well. The Titans seem to have the edge defensively, since their pass rush, run defense, and secondary can all play at high levels at the same time. The Bengals on the other hand should have the advantage offensively, due to their elite arsenal of offensive weapons, and a quarterback that’s playing very good football right now.
The Titans feel like the better team, yet the Bengals feel like the team with the momentum right now.
It’ll be a cold one at Nissan Stadium with a hectic crowd to boot. Mike Vrabel has been in these spots before, as a player and as a coach, so the moment shouldn’t be too big for him.
With all that in mind, I think I’ll take the Titans here in a semi-close contest. Derrick Henry’s return should really aid this Titans offense, especially if they have a lead in the fourth quarter. Shane Bowen’s defense has a decent chance to slow down the Bengals’ white hot offense, especially in the trenches.
Both teams will throw their punches, but I think the Titans pull it out and advance to the AFC title game.
Titans 26, Bengals 20
*All stats via PFF, Pro Football Reference, and Sports Info Solutions*