After finally breaking the longest active playoff win drought, the Cincinnati Bengals now seek their first-ever playoff win on the road. They travel to Nashville this week to face the number one seeded Tennessee Titans in their first Divisional Round playoff game since 1991. Many pundits have made the argument that the Titans are a weak top seed, but this is a team that consistently found ways to win despite a roster ravaged by injuries. If the Bengals hope to pull the upset, there are some key matchups they have to win.
Key Matchups for the Cincinnati Bengals Against the Tennessee Titans
Derrick Henry vs D.J. Reader
The Bengals will be without Larry Ogunjobi and Mike Daniels on the inside Saturday. But the most important member of the defensive line for this game is without a doubt the massive D.J. Reader. The Bengals marquee free-agent signing in 2020 has been a force on the inside all season long, rating among the best at the position at stopping the run. He will be needed to slow down the Titans rushing attack that should get back the services of Derrick Henry, who has been out since breaking his foot in Week 8.
Reader is no stranger to Henry. Drafted into the same division in 2016, the two have faced off seven times. Here are the game logs for Henry in those matchups:
2016: 3 rushes, 9 yards
2016: 15 rushes, 65 yards
2017: 6 rushes, 7 yards
2017: 11 rushes, 109 yards
2018: 18 rushes, 56 yards
2018: 8 rushes, 30 yards
2019: 21 rushes, 86 yards
It would be unfair to include the 2016/2017 numbers since Henry was not the Titans bell-cow running back until his third year. Removing those, Henry has an average of 57 yards/game, a far cry from the 96 yards/game he has averaged since 2018 against all other opponents. Three games is a small sample size, and there are other possible factors at play. But it is also interesting that in the second Texans-Titans matchup in 2019, Henry scorched them for 211 yards – a game that Reader missed.
If Reader is able to clog up the middle of the Titans line and free up the rest of the Bengals defense to bring Henry down, the Bengals chances of winning go way up.
Chidobe Awuzie vs A.J. Brown
While Henry gets most of the press for the Titans offense, one cannot forget their dangerous outside threat in A.J. Brown. The team is 11-2 this year in games he plays. He is a big-bodied receiver who can moss defenders on the jump ball, while still having the speed to blow by cornerbacks as well.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, Chidobe Awuzie has already proven to be worth his $22 million contract. The fifth-year cornerback posted the third-best grade among all cornerbacks in his first year as a Bengal. Additionally, he is yet to allow 100 yards receiving in any game this season. The Titans love to use play-action to set up the big play downfield to Brown, so it will be key for Awuzie to prevent those backbreaking big plays.
Jeffery Simmons vs Bengals Interior Offensive Line
Jeffery Simmons may just be the best interior pass rusher in the league not named Aaron Donald. Tied for second at the position in pressures with 58, Simmons has had a phenomenal year. Meanwhile, the interior offensive line for Cincinnati has struggled for most of the season. Center Trey Hopkins, coming back from an ACL tear Week 17 of the 2020 season, has been a liability up front. However, he has improved as the season has gone on. Last week against the Las Vegas Raiders he had his best game of the year. He gave up no pressures and graded out with an 84.2 pass-blocking grade via PFF.
At the guard position, Quinton Spain has been an anchor on the left side. The right side, however, has been a bit of a revolving door all year. Hakeem Adeniji, rookie Jackson Carman, and Fred Johnson have all seen starts at right guard this year. Adeniji seems to have locked it down as of late, and last week performed well, ceding only 2 pressures. If the Bengals interior can keep the pocket from collapsing, then one has to like Joe Burrow’s outlook against the Titans secondary.
The Bengals come into this matchup scorching hot but must be prepared to face a Titans team that beat both the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs on their way to capturing the top seed in the AFC. The Bengals have a real shot at their first AFC Championship game in 32 years. In a season of surprising people and exorcising past demons, this could be one more to fall. But even if they are unable to win, this season should be seen as a massive victory by the fans and a sign of things to come for a long-suffering franchise and fanbase.
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