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Bengals at Titans Week 4 Game Preview: Sinking Ships

Two teams with disappointing records to start 2023 face-off on Sunday afternoon. A win gets the respective squad back on track; a loss may torpedo the others’ season.

The thing with high overall expectations is that there is heightened pressure with each step along the way. Such is the case with the Cincinnati Bengals this year, who have Super Bowl aspirations but have stumbled out of the gate with a 1-2 record.

With those expectations and the subsequent beginning of their season comes “must-win” territory, even if very early on the schedule. Last week’s Monday night clash against the Rams had that feel, with this week in Tennessee giving off a similar vibe—for both teams.

I know in “football speak,” we are supposed to “take it one week at a time,” but when looking at the schedule as a whole, this is where Cincinnati needs to gain some ground.

Winnable games litter the pre-bye, with contests against the 49ers, Bills, Ravens, Steelers (twice), Chiefs, and those pesky Browns lingering after October 22nd.

Still, no time like the present.

Cincinnati heads to Nashville to take on a familiar foe and one they’ve had success against lately. Gone are the days of Eddie George, Steve McNair, and Jeff Fisher torturing the Bengals in a variety of different uniforms and venues, with the Joe Burrow era giving Cincinnati a 3-0 edge in recent matchups, including the wild 2021 Divisional Round win.

Oddly enough, that first of those three aforementioned wins was a benchmark in Bengals football back in 2020, wherein most pointed to a bright future with Burrow at the helm. Unfortunately, that season ended in heartbreak, with No. 9 blowing out his knee a few short weeks later.

Regardless, that proclamation of a corner being turned on November 1st, 2020, ended up being true. And, after two subsequent seasons with deep playoff runs, those expectations have been raised, as we stated earlier.

When these two last faced in a midyear regular season clash with AFC playoff implications last year, Cincinnati handled business in a bruiser. It ended with an iconic video clip of Bengals center Ted Karras taking jabs at, really, the entire state of Tennessee in his victory walk into the tunnel.

A major key in this 3-0 run against Tennessee has been in Cincinnati’s ability to contain Derrick Henry. “The King” has mustered just an average of 70.7 rushing yards, 0.7 touchdowns, and 26.3 receiving yards against Lou Anarumo’s crew in the past three. It’s not a horrible stat line, but that’s a solid management job of one of the best backs in the league.

And, if Tennessee wants things to change this week, this absolutely needs to flip in their favor. Ryan Tannehill has undergone multiple career renaissances, with a couple in his Titans tenure alone, but he and the offense have struggled this year.

Tannehill has thrown for an average of just 182.6 yards per game, with one touchdown against three interceptions. The Tennessee offensive line hasn’t helped matters, giving up 13 sacks this year—good (or bad) for the second-most in the league.

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On the flip side, the Bengals’ continual revamp of the offensive line is finally paying dividends this year. The move for Orlando Brown, Jr. has proven to be a solid one, as has the associated move of Jonah Williams to the ever-problematic right side of the Bengals line.

But, after struggling with Aaron Donald again last week, Cincinnati’s o-line goes up against its biggest test they’ve faced this year, from a wholistic standpoint, in the vaunted Titans line. Jeffery Simmons is a beast inside, while Denico Autry (questionable), Harold Landry, and the freshly acquired Arden Key provide pass-rush matchup problems.

They’ve combined for 10 quarterback sacks this year, which bests Cincinnati’s defensive output. It’s mostly the same group that accounted for a ridiculous nine-sack performance against the Bengals in that 2021 Divisional game.

And, as disappointing as Tennessee’s passing offense has been with Treylon Burks (out this week), DeAndre Hopkins, and Co., one could argue Cincinnati’s aerial attack has provided a larger letdown. Joe Burrow had his worst career game in Week 1 but has picked it up a little in the past two contests.

Still, Ja’Marr Chase has just one 100-yard contest to his name and without many big plays, while Tee Higgins has just 10 receptions on 28 targets—a paltry 37% conversion rate. Now, Charlie Jones is on I.R., so this group really needs to start picking it up.

For as important as Henry is for the Titans this week, Joe Mixon is up there on the important list for Cincinnati as well. Sure, this offense, even when struggling, goes through Burrow and the passing attack, but we’ve seen some of the best work in No. 28’s career this year.

The numbers don’t necessarily show it, but Mixon has been exhibiting a leveled-up chip-on-the-shoulder style of running, busting through first contact regularly and becoming one of the few consistent threats on the Cincinnati offense.

The keys to the game, you ask? For an old-school guy like myself, it’s about the trenches this week. If D.J. Reader can continue his dominance of Henry and the Cincinnati offensive line can keep the Titans front at bay, then it should make for a clear path to a Bengals win.

If they can’t, then watch out for early icebergs in October. But a 2-2 mark with the Cardinals and Seahawks before the bye and things are looking pretty promising heading into the bye.

It’s early, but this again seems like a critical point in both teams’ trajectory. It’s easy to point at this one with a blowout loss for the Titans just last week and proclaim an easy victory for the Bengals.

However, with Mike Vrabel attending the Bill Belichick School for Winning After Losses and Bye Weeks, this won’t be an easy stroll down Broadway listening to the tunes waft out of the Nashville bars. And this Titans team won’t soon forget that crushing playoff loss or Karras’ comments as the teams face off this week.

Still, Burrow and the offense have seemed to be finding some form of a stride in the past six quarters of football. Turnovers have been kept to a minimum, and rhythm through the air has been noticeable.

Chase called his shots last week in wanting more opportunities, and he responded with 12 catches for 141 yards. This week he noted how teams are clamping down on the big plays downfield. We’ll see what kind of a soothsayer he truly is this week, as it has been made overly known that the Titans have problems at cornerback.

Last week was a “get right game” for the Bengals against a pretty decent opponent. This one feels like an “okay, now let’s REALLY get it going” game for Cincinnati.

I think they’re close to finding themselves out, they’ll show it this week but won’t be fully there yet.

Bengals 26, Titans 20