While the Bengals offensive line has looked better in recent weeks, the Titans still feature a lot of the same key players on a defensive front that disrupted Cincinnati’s offense in that playoff matchup in January.
Tennessee will be without outside linebacker Denico Autry, who leads the team with seven sacks, but Jeffrey Simmons (ankle) is expected to play despite being limited all week in practice. Simmons recorded three sacks in that playoff game and has 6.5 sacks this season.
Burrow still managed 348 yards passing against the Titans, but Cincinnati has to provide better protection this time.
“It’s one of the best fronts in football, so we’ve got our work cut out for us again,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “We’ll try to avoid it, maybe get less than nine sacks this time if we can (laughs).”
2. Mixon out, Chase out
The Bengals could have a hard time against the second-best run defense in the league even with Joe Mixon, but they’ll have to figure out how to move the ball on the ground without their leading rusher. Mixon was declared out after still being in concussion protocols Friday.
Cincinnati gets running back Chris Evans back from a knee injury, and Samaje Perine will see more snaps on first and second downs, but this might not be the game to lean on a ground attack.
“Those guys will step in and do a great job,” Callahan said. “It’ll be a little bit of a rotation probably, as we find out how the game flow goes and where Samaje fits in, and how those guys do in the third down portion of the game plan practicing, so to be determined how that would be divided up, but certainly confident all those guys being able to pick up the slack.”
The Bengals also will be without wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for another game, according to reports Saturday. Chase returned to practice this week from a hip injury, but reportedly will be held out another week. He’s missed the last three games.
3. Stopping the run
Tennessee running back Derrick Henry leads the league in rushing, and unlike the playoff game last year when he was just coming back from injury, he’s fully healthy this time. The Bengals limited him to 62 yards on 20 carries in the playoffs, but he has 1,010 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on 230 carries this season.
“Obviously he’s the best rusher in the NFL right now,” linebacker Germaine Pratt said. “He’s the leading rusher. He gets the ball on the perimeter fast. He tries to get to the edge of the defense, that’s what he tries to do, tries to bounce it and we don’t really see that many big running backs like him with that speed too. But he’s a great running back, but we got to do our job and try to hold him under 60 yards again.”
Linebacker Logan Wilson said the key to stopping Henry is gang tackling and just making sure everyone is playing their role. The game last year doesn’t matter anymore but just like the Bengals did then, they have to “stick to the game plan” and stopping the run will be a focus.
Nose guard DJ Reader can play a big role in that. He made his return last week after missing six games because of a knee injury and Wilson and Pratt both said his presence is “huge” for the defense, especially when it comes to stopping the run.
4. Other injuries of note
The Bengals listed safety Dax Hill (shoulder) as questionable but Taylor said he is expected to play Sunday. Defensive tackle Josh Tupou (calf) was a full participant Friday for the first time in a month but is listed as questionable along with linebacker Joe Bachie (knee), who was still limited Friday.
Tennessee has four other players listed as questionable besides Simmons, including kicker Randy Bullock (calf), cornerback Kristian Fulton (hamstring), center Ben Jones (concussion) and running back Hassan Haskins (hop). Quarterback Ryan Tannehill (ankle) was a full participant Thursday and Friday and is good to go.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel told reporters in Nashville that he was hopeful Jones would clear concussion protocols in time to be available. Rookie kicker Caleb Shudak was considered neck and neck with Bullock before a leg injury at the end of the offseason program, so Tennessee has a backup ready if Bullock is unavailable.
5. No concerns over “revenge game”
The Titans might be out for “revenge” after the Bengals upset them in the playoffs last year after Tennessee had earned the top seed in the AFC; however, players and coaches from both sides said this week they aren’t looking at this game in that context.
It’s a big game for the Bengals especially as they still face five of the six teams ahead of them in the AFC standings – the Titans among those. Cincinnati trails Baltimore by a game in the AFC North, and after a slow start to start the season, stacking wins in the second half of the season will be important for its playoff push. Tennessee leads the AFC South.
“We can’t change what happened the first few weeks,” left tackle Jonah Williams said. “All we did was get ourselves in a position to finish really strong. We play all the best teams in the AFC so if we want to climb the rankings of the AFC, it’s right in front of us. We just have to win these games with some really good teams. But that’s where we’re putting ourselves in position to do.”
Bengals at Titans, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7