The Cincinnati Bengals will travel south this Sunday for an important NFL Week 9 battle against the Tennessee Titans. Both the Bengals and the Titans need to pick up a victory to keep pace in their respective divisions.
The Bengals and Titans appear to be heading in opposite directions.
After a three-game winning streak, Tennessee is looking to rebound after losing two of their last three games, including an embarrassing 41-7 shellacking at the hands of the AFC South-leading Houston Texans in Week 7.
Conversely, the Bengals went a perfect 4-0 in the month of October. The Cincinnati offense is starting to gel consistently and the defense is holding the opposition to under 18 points per game. The young team plays as if they are one spirit, and their 5-2 record would be good enough for first place in most divisions.
The Titans are desperate, but the Bengals are confident. If Cincinnati wins five key match-ups, they will win this pivotal Week 9 showdown.
In a game between two evenly-matched teams, a field goal may decide the game. For the Titans, kicker Rob Bironas has been phenomenally consistent over his career. This year, however, Bironas has made nine field goals in eleven attempts for 81.8 percent, just 21st in the league.
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent is having a stellar year. The Ohio State product has made fifteen of his sixteen field goal attempts. That 93.8 percent ranks eighth in the league, and Nugent must maintain his remarkable consistency to give the Bengals an edge in Sunday’s game.
The Tennessee offense is not known for big plays in the passing game. They don't knock out opposing defenses with hay-makers, but they will wear them down with body shots.
The Titans were forced into this adjustment after their best wide receiver, Kenny Britt, went on injured reserve, leaving the team without a legitimate big-play receiver.
If the Titans are to dink and dunk all over the field with short passes, it will be up to the Bengals' linebackers to prevent short passes from becoming long gains.
This task will be made more difficult by of the absence of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Maualuga is the fastest, most athletic player in the defensive secondary and closes on receivers faster than any other Cincinnati linebacker.
Dan Skuta has played admirably in place of Maualuga, but if the Bengals are to win on Sunday, Skuta must not be a liability in short-to-medium pass defense.
Quarterback pressure will be of the utmost importance against veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. If Hasselbeck is allowed to stand in the pocket and read the Bengals' defense, he will shred them one short pass at a time.
The Titans' offensive line has done a remarkable job keeping Hasselbeck from being hit in 2011. The Tennessee front has allowed only 26 hits on the quarterback, which is second-best in the NFL, and they have also allowed the fourth-fewest sacks. However, the Titans will face a different kind of animal against the Bengals on Sunday.
Cincinnati has a solid rotation of eight defensive linemen who can make an impact on every down. Combined, their defensive front has a total of 14 sacks this season and is responsible for 85 tackles. The Bengals' defensive line must be a presence in the game if the Bengals are to win, and this may be a tall order.
The Titans' offensive line is an experienced group, with no starter having less than five years of NFL experience.
Every week, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is covered by the opposing team’s best cover corner, and Green usually beats his man on account of his locomotive speed.
Green is in the top 20 in receptions with 33, and his five touchdowns are tied for ninth-best in the NFL. In Week 9 against the Titans, Green will face a different kind of test against Cortland Finnegan.
Have you ever stood on your front porch and been harassed by a mosquito? You may move and swat at the mini-menace, but no matter what you do, the pest persists. This is what it is like to be covered by Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
Finnegan is a physical defensive back who is no stranger to the cheap shot. He is also one of the fastest men in the NFL. However, it is not Finnegan’s physicality or quickness that will most likely derail the rookie standout; it will be his cerebral attack on opposing wide receivers.
Although Finnegan is athletic enough to cover almost any receiver in the league, he has a notorious reputation for trash-talking opposing receivers into frustration.
Last year, when it was evident he could not keep up with Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, Finnegan pestered Johnson until he was angry enough to engage in a physical altercation that resulted in both players being ejected from the game.
Green has played far better than was expected of him so far in 2011. He must exercise the mental discipline of a veteran to outduel Finnegan and make big plays for the Bengals' offense.
If he gets caught up in emotions and wastes time swatting at the mosquito, he will take himself out of the offense.
The Tennessee Titans score touchdowns on over seventy percent of their red-zone possessions. This crucial efficiency is tops in the NFL and nearly three percent higher than the Buffalo Bills, the team with the second-highest red-zone touchdown percentage.
To let the Titans into the red zone is tantamount to conceding six points.
The Bengals’ fourth-best defense is the team’s greatest strength, but the D falters once opposing offenses are in the red zone. Cincinnati gives up a touchdown to opposing offenses 50 percent of the time they are defending the end zone.
This statistic places them in the middle of the pack in the NFL, but if they allow the Titans within twenty yards of scoring, the Bengals will be pitting one of their most glaring weaknesses against one of Tennessee’s most vital strengths.
To keep the Titans out of the red zone is to keep them out of the end zone. The Bengals must force punts and field goals if they are to leave Tennessee with a win.
1) Is Chris Johnson finally going to have a big game?
After holding out to be paid as one of the game's “top playmakers,” Chris Johnson has done everything but make plays. The NFL’s leading rusher in the 2009 season is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry in 2011, down a yard-and-a-half from his average last season.
His production ranks behind the likes of Kansas City’s Thomas Jones and Cleveland’s Montario Hardesty, who are hardly the NFL’s top playmakers. If Tennessee wants to contend for the AFC South crown, Johnson must find his game.
2) Will Cedric Benson be rusty or rested after two weeks off?
After a bye week and a one-game suspension, Bengals running back Cedric Benson returns to the Cincinnati lineup in Week 9. The offense has run through Benson, who is averaging nearly four yards per carry.
If he does need to knock some rust off, there aren’t many better teams to do it against than the Titans. Tennessee has a suspect run defense that gives up 129.3 yards per game, which is sixth-worst in the NFL.
3) How will Donald Lee play for the Bengals?
Veteran tight end Donald Lee has play serviceably while starter Jermaine Gresham nurses a hamstring injury. Gresham has been out of practice this week and is unlikely to play on Sunday.
Lee provided a solid failsafe for Andy Dalton in Week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks when he hauled in three passes for 44 yards. Lee’s real value is converting on third downs. He has a nose for the sticks and his second efforts usually result in first downs. The Bengals will need him to continue his solid play to beat the Titans.
This Week 9 contest against Tennessee has all the makings of a trap game for the Bengals. Cincinnati is on the uptick and the young team may be looking past the Titans to their match-ups against AFC North bullies Pittsburgh and Baltimore in Weeks 10 and 11.
The Titans will control the ball with short passes to keep the Bengals' offense on the sideline, but will fail to score touchdowns early. The Bengals offense will start slow but catch fire in the second half on the back of Cedric Benson.
This game will be ugly offensively, but the Bengals will pull away late to win 27-16.