Bengals Preview, Week Three: Tennessee
The Bengals host the Tennessee Titans on Sunday in a game that looked dubious at best to be televised in the Cincinnati area earlier this week, but will in fact air. How arguably the best team in the NFL can nearly not rally enough hometown support to sell out its stadium remains unanswerable, but is the reality nonetheless.
The players, of course, can't worry about attendance numbers on Sunday; they don't need a ticket or a TV to see the game. What the Bengals will see is a Titans team that is young and struggling to find an identity.
After watching both Tennessee games this year, the one impressive element that does jump out to the casual observer is their team speed. They are fast, especially on defense. Out of the bunch, linebacker/defensive end hybrid, Derrick Morgan looks to be most fearsome as he rushes from the edge. Sometimes the Titans have him along the line with his hand on the ground, other times he simply stands upright before he goes after the opposing quarterback, but either way he is consistently a problem for right tackles. Cincinnati's Andre Smith will primarily shoulder the responsibility of blocking Morgan on Sunday and Big Andre's footwork must be efficient and quick to limit Morgan's impact.
The rest of the defense moves around well too, but they appear to often get caught on counter and misdirection plays. This is the age-old trick when facing a fast and inexperienced team: use their speed against them.
The Bengals have all the tools on offense to do what they want against most defenses. Against Baltimore, they lined up in exotic formations and confused the Ravens. Against Atlanta, they pounded the run until the Falcons defense prioritized stopping the ground game, then gashed them with a long touchdown catch and run on an inside slant pattern to Mohamed Sanu in the face of a blitz.
In this game, they would be wise to do the same, only I would look for more handoffs on draws and misdirections out of the shotgun formations. This technique allows the speedy Titan defense to move too far upfield before they realize that Bengals ball carriers had already slipped past their initial surge to the backfield. Screens and shovel passes are also along the lines of this kind of thinking. Last week, Dallas gouged the Titans defense on the run with DeMarco Murray racking up healthy chunks of yardage on every carry. As the game wore on, Tennessee crept up into the box afraid of more rushing yards against them which allowed Tony Romo to find a ton of one-on-one matchups to the outside. Romo surgically dissected the Titans plan of defensive attack and won easily.
So far, Cincinnati has put Andy Dalton in comfortable situations that keeps him from freaking out and turning the ball over. Having not given up any turnovers—or even a sack—speaks to the care Dalton has demonstrated with the ball and of how quickly he has been able to make his reads after the snap. The small but dynamic Gio Bernard has continued to dazzle with acrobatics, speed and toughness, and now he is complimented with another exciting power back in rookie Jeremy Hill. These two have allowed coordinator Hue Jackson to lean hard on the run and sprinkle in high-percentage passing plays with the occasional big shot downfield.
On defense, the Bengals must account for the Tennessee speed on that side of the ball as well. Quarterback Jake Locker is extremely mobile and is generally and amazing athlete for the position, but his drawback appears to be his ability to read defenses on the fly. His go-to receiver has been tight-end Delanie Walker, typically on seam routes up the middle, but last week the Cowboys were fine with Walker getting open space in the middle of the field, preferring to take away the burners on the outside.
A heavily-used Mike Zimmer defensive strategy when facing a slippery quarterback in the pocket, along with laterally quick tailbacks like the Titans have, was to have his pass rush move up the field to create a wide pocket that the quarterback is unable to escape easily from. Knowing if Paul Guenther will follow suit with his predecessor is still not fully known, but for the most part, the philosophy often worked like a charm and seems worth emulating. Locker could hurt the Bengals by leaving the pocket and finding open room to run downfield, so it's important they make him a pocket passer instead of his more natural scrambling prototype. To do this, the ends must set the edge wide and not worry about closing in on him as much. The interior pass rushers like Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry then would be looked upon to either flush Locker into the awaiting ends or take him down themselves. This scenario becomes even more hopeful for the Bengals after watching film of the interior Titans offensive linemen getting pushed backward on a consistent basis so far in the season's first two games.
Discounting one big play to Walker for a touchdown after a broken tackle, Tennessee has yet to discover any big-play potential. Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright are certainly capable of getting behind the Bengals secondary if ignored enough, but sacrificing many small gains in the face of one big one has proven to be a successful strategy against their opposition's game plan.
For those that are able to see the game on Sunday, look for the Bengals to go heavy with the run early, then make the Titans pay deep once they are forced to commit to stopping the run. Knowing the limitations of the Tennessee offensive firepower might also go into this type of approach for Hue Jackson. On defense, look for the Bengals to allow plays in front of them for first downs, but not allow plays behind them for touchdowns. If this does transpire, there is an excellent chance that Tennessee kills their chances for a win with self-inflicted wounds. Jake Locker has moments of brilliance, but by and large, he has been a waste of tremendous athletic potential and the Bengals should force him to continue that trend on Sunday.
Bengals 25, Titans 16
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo via Cincinnati Bengals Facebook page