Now that the euphoria of winning the first playoff game in 31 years begins to wear off, the Cincinnati Bengals get to travel to the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. It sure looks like the Bengals are riding as high as ever, so how can Cincinnati win its first-ever road playoff game? Heading into Nashville, Cincinnati is 0-7 all-time on the road in the playoffs, but none of that matters in 2022. It will likely be up to the Bengals defense deliver a massive victory.
Cincinnati Bengals Defense Key to Advancing to AFC Championship
Must Limit Derrick Henry
While there has been no official word on whether or not Henry will be fully available for this game, Cincinnati will have to be prepared. Despite playing in just eight games, Henry finished the regular season ninth in the NFL in rushing yards. If he is good to go, he will have the freshest of fresh legs to go with his massive 6’4″, 250 pound frame of pure muscle and hate.
During the regular season, the Bengals defense did a great job of bottling up the run. As a unit, Cincinnati allowed just 102.5 yards per game, good for fifth-best in the NFL. In their win over the Raiders, the Bengals defense held up to allow 103 yards on the ground, 83 of which were to Josh Jacobs. The other 20 came on a single Derek Carr scramble on the Raiders only touchdown drive towards the end of the first half. Aside from that run, Las Vegas/Jacobs averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
Las Vegas went away from the run game in the second half. Jacobs ran it five times and didn’t get another chance in the remaining 18:40 in the game. Tennessee will not abandon Henry unless it’s a three-score game late in the fourth quarter. If the Bengals are hoping to win this game, they have to expect that the Titans will run it more than 13 times, as Jacobs did.
Interior Depth Took a Hit
Last week in the Wild Card round, Mike Daniels and Larry Ogunjobi were knocked out. The week prior, Josh Tupou went down with an injury. The defensive line unit was remarkably healthy all year up until Week 17. D.J. Reader is a massive run-stopper at nose tackle, but he can only do so much. B.J. Hill has been much more productive than any fan would have imagined, considering the Bengals stole him away (with a conditional late-round draft pick) from the Giants for just Billy Price.
Fast forward to the days leading up to this matchup, both Daniels and Ogujobi were put on IR and shut down for the year. Thursday came with some good news that said that Tupou is “trending in the right direction.” An interior of Reader and Hill looks significantly better if Tupou is ready to go. Cincinnati also signed some depth in Doug Costin and Zach Kerr. Each Costin and Kerr has had some starting playing time, so they’ll likely rotate with Tupou to give the interior a break. Gap integrity will be the key to slowing down this rushing offense. Reader isn’t an issue, so can the guys who need to step up do their jobs?
Last year, the Bengals won 31-20 and Henry ran for 112 yards and a touchdown. That was against a defense that had 13 different defenders from this year, and three of four on the defensive line: Carl Lawson, Christian Covington, Daniels, and Amani Bledsoe. It’s safe to say that this year’s Bengals defense is stronger upfront.
Pass Rush Has to Punish Tannehill
The Titans have A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. What is a secondary’s best friend when facing a potentially dynamic duo like this? Getting home on the pass rush.
Cincinnatians held their collective breath as Trey Hendrickson left the Wild Card game with a concussion. All signs have pointed to him being ready to go on Saturday. It cannot be understated how much of a lift this gives the defense. His ability to come off the edge and beat whomever offenses put in front of him is a quality that the Bengals haven’t seen in a long time. He has proven time and time again that he is well worth his contract. Hendrickson’s strip-sack last week was massive and helped Cincinnati get out to a 10-0 lead.
On the inside, Hill has shown that he can be the one to step up in Ogunjobi’s place. Ogunjobi was the best pass-rushing defensive tackle on this team. The other edge rusher, Sam Hubbard, has been tasked with kicking inside on some pass plays. Hubbard’s strength is run defense, but allowing the Bengals to have multiple edge rushers on the field has shown to work. If Hubbard kicks in, it’s rookie Cam Sample or Khalid Kareem who will have to step up. Tennessee will do what they can to limit Hendrickson, so the edge on the other side will have their chance to make a difference.
For all of the bemoaning of how bad the Bengals offensive line has been, there hasn’t been nearly as much on this Titans front. Tannehill has been sacked 47 times. He’s been sacked in every game this year outside of the Week 6 win over Buffalo. Since their bye in Week 13, the Titans have allowed four, four, four, one, and one sack(s), respectively. The Cincinnati offensive line fared just as poorly against similar opponents, so which quarterback will be able to overcome?
Defense Wins Championships But Can it Win This Game?
The strategy for the Titans will be to run the ball, eat the clock, and prevent Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense from getting many chances. Plain and simple: the Bengals defense will need to make a number of stops. Forcing the Titans to three-and-outs will flip the game script and force Tannehill to throw it. Keeping the ball out of the human wrecking ball in Henry will be key.
Even if Cincinnati is up two scores with five to go, Henry will get his opportunity. He averages over seven yards per carry when running off tackles and six when running inside. He is going to get his. It’s up to the Bengals defense to limit any back-breaking plays and to give the offense as many chances as possible to put up points. 26 points were enough to down the Raiders. It might not be enough to take down the AFC’s number one seed.
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