Mike Pollak, right guard
Last week, Kevin Zeitler sacrificed his body for a touchdown. He tore his right calf muscle on the play shown below, where Zeitler is literally blocking one defender with each arm.
Zeitler got hurt, but he went out blocking two guys on a TD run. https://t.co/3MRm0Hq92S— JGoods (@JoeGoodberry) September 17, 2014
The drop off from Zeitler to Mike Pollak will be noticed in the running game. Zeitler has the ability to dominate defenders, pushing them several yards off the line of scrimmage or steering them easily away from the point of attack. While Zeitler was in the Atlanta game, the Bengals running backs ran for 88 yards on 19 carries (4.6 average). After the injury, they totaled 76 yards on 23 carries (3.3 average).
Pollak is a good player, and certainly a luxury to have as a backup interior offensive lineman, but he's not the dominant player that Zeitler is.
Pollak's matchup this week will mostly be against starting left end Ropati Pitoitua, who was one of only two Tennessee defenders to receive a positive grade from Pro Football Focus last week. The other one, Karl Klug, is also a left end. Pitoitua, although I've never head of him until today, is apparently a force to be reckoned with in run defense. Pitoitua "affected the point of attack on multiple occasions" against a strong Dallas offensive line last week. He ranks in the top five among three to four defensive ends in PFF's run stop percentage, along with Tennessee's starting right end, Jurell Casey.
To further prove the point, take a look at DeMarco Murray's numbers last week, broken down by which gap he ran through.
|L End||L Tackle||L Guard||Mid Left||Mid Right||R Guard||R Tackle||R End|
With a player who is weak at run blocking (Bodine) to Pollak's left, the Bengals may find running up the middle a little harder this week.
Diving into the Titans run defense a little deeper, the Titans inside linebackers are on the small and light, as ESPN's Titans beat reporter Paul Kuharsky points out. They "were a big part of Tennessee's struggles in run defense last week" and "struggled to shed blocks". Their two starters, Wesley Woodyard and Zavier Gooden, weigh only 233 and 231 pounds respectively.
The success of Pollak and Bodine in getting to the second level will play a big role in the offense's ability to score this week.
Ryan Hewitt, tight end
Bengals offensive skill players are dropping like flies these days. Less than two weeks ago, Hewitt was the fourth string tight end on this team. Now, with Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith out for serious arm injuries, Hewitt is the second tight end on the team, meaning he is in line for serious usage until Eifert comes back. Fortunately, news broke just this morning that Green will practice fully today and is on track to play on Sunday.
Mohamed Sanu, Green, and Jermaine Gresham will likely be on the field for almost every snap and then Hue Jackson is essentially choosing between Ryan Hewitt and Brandon Tate (and to a lesser extent Dane Sanzenbacher) for the fifth eligible receiver spot on the field. That also means tight end Kevin Brock, who was the definition of a bubble player during training camp, might get a few snaps on offense in this game as well.
Hewitt has blocked fairly well in limited snaps so far, as both a fullback and a tight end. His most notable play, is shown below, when he completely stones Falcons outside linebacker Kroy Biermann, allowing Dalton to scramble that way for a five yard gain.
What in the world does Kroy Biermann offer the Flacons if Ryan Hewitt handles him like this? https://t.co/opSkCHqbCP— JGoods (@JoeGoodberry) September 17, 2014
Hewitt hasn't given us any reason to doubt him as a blocker so far. As a receiver, he is a complete unknown. He doesn't have a target in 39 snaps so far.
Hewitt only played on 16 percent of the offense's snaps in week one. That was ramped up to 39 percent last week and it will likely be at least that high again against the Titans.
Mohamed Sanu, wide receiver
I could have picked Andy Dalton for this last offensive spot, but obviously we are all focused on Dalton's play anyways. Dalton only threw 23 passes last week and handed the ball off 42 times. That ratio will likely hold the same again this week, simply because Dalton is missing a few of his top receiving threats and the Titans allowed 220 rushing yards last week.
Note- I wrote this last night anticipating that Green would not play. Sanu won't be the number one outside target now, but his impact will still be important.
When Dalton does throw it, you can bet Dalton is looking first to Mohamed Sanu or Gio Bernard. Sanu's 76-yard touchdown catch was the defining moment in last week's game. It was third down, the score was 10-3, and the Bengals had only gained six yards on the five plays before this big one.
The connection between Sanu and Dalton appears to have improved greatly in just a year. In 2013, Sanu was ranked 86th out of 93 qualifying receivers in yards per route run. Now, Dalton is hitting Sanu on sideline comeback routes with excellent timing for first downs, and Sanu's speed appears to have increased as well.
If the Titans stack the box to stop the run, look for Dalton to throw quickly outside to Green or Sanu.
Sanu wasn't even considered a starter in early August,
now Sanu has to be Dalton's number one outside threat. If they struggle to connect, Dalton's week three statistics aren't going to look pretty.
Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey, linebacker
Heading back over to the defensive side, I've actually chosen both nickel linebackers this week. Vontaze Burfict (concussion) isn't expected to play, so that means both Lamur and Vinny Rey are now every down players.
Vinny Rey, taking Burfict's role, will be the weak side linebacker making all the defensive calls and checks. This is similar to the Zeitler-Pollak situation in that Vinny Rey is a good player, but he's not a dominant one. Burfict, meanwhile, leads all 4-3 outside linebackers with a +5.6 rating in only 53 snaps. Second best, DeAndre Levy has posted a +4.0 rating in 129 snaps.
While both players excel in coverage, they are both a bit unproven in run defense. They have had problems shedding blocks in the past, and both have (slightly) negative run defense grades in two games so far. Fortunately, the Titans give up the running game easily if they are losing (38 carries in a week one victory, and only 13 in a week two loss). If the Bengals get an early lead, Rey and Lamur won't have to deal much with one of the bigger backs in the league, Shonn Greene.
Their coverage abilities will be tested by one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, Delanie Walker, who tore up the Cowboys defense last week with 10 catches for 142 yards and a touchdown (video).
14 of Jake Locker's 34 targets went in Walker's direction. Lamur will be man tasked with defending Walker simply because he might be the only Bengals defender with the size and speed to match up with him. Lamur allowed only four atches for 36 yards last week after allowing six catches for 60 yards to the Baltimore tight ends and recording a pick in week one. Quarterbacks are posting a 61.9 QB rating when throwing in Lamur's direction so far this season.
Shutting down Locker's security blanket and forcing him to try to throw downfield, where Locker has had accuracy issues in the past, will be the key to shutting down the Titans offense.