After achieving their first playoff win in 31 years, the Bengals now hit the road to play the No. 1 seeded Titans. Tennessee has been a fixture in the playoffs since Ryan Tannehill took over as the quarterback in 2019 when they made an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
This season it's their defense that's made a difference. They have the 6th-best scoring defense in the NFL. Even though they are somewhat susceptible through the air (24th), they are stout against the run (2nd fewest rushing yards allowed).
Let’s take a deep dive to see what makes this defense work and what the Bengals could do to exploit it.
A Dynamic Duo Up Front
Everything about the Titans’ defense starts up front with their dynamic duo on the interior of their defensive line. These two guys are Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry. The two have 17.5 sacks and are both strong against the run.
Autry is a 31 year old veteran who stands at 6’5” and weighs in at 285 pounds. He moves well for his size and is a nasty penetrator on stunts. He's played a big part in Harold Landry’s career high 12 sacks this season. Autry has another nine sacks on his own. He's going to give the Bengals guards and center a handful in this game.
His partner, Jeffery Simmons, is the younger, better player between the two. The former first round pick is also a little bit thicker than Autry at 6-4, 305 pounds. He was rightfully named a second team All-Pro this season and, like Autry, is fantastic against the run while being a very good pass rusher. It’s interesting to see two guys who play somewhat similarly next to each other on the defensive line. He moves well for his size and utilizes all of his size when he tries to bully offensive linemen with his bullrush.
Autry and Simmons' versatility makes things tough on opposing offensive lines. The Titans’ usage of them on stunts makes it difficult on offensive linemen who are focused on just stopping the opposing player. When it comes to stopping each player one on one, the formula is going to be pretty similar. Both are strong players who also move really well. Simmons looks a little bit more athletically gifted and strong, while Autry is a little bit more refined in his ability to rush the passer.
Against each player, the first thing the offensive lineman needs to do is be able to drop the anchor. What I mean by this is dropping your hips so you create better leverage against the defender trying to bully you. The lower man wins more often than not, so as an offensive lineman, you need to get lower than the defender.
Also, you need to use your hands to try to lift the defender from underneath. Anchoring is only useful against those types of rushes, however, and the Titans interior duo uses more than just bull rushes. While they need to be quick to drop their anchor and try to survive the bullrush, they also need to move well and not reach or lean too much to get abused by the violent hands of Autry and Simmons. It’s a tough task for the offensive line in this matchup, but one of those two guys will be singled up on every snap so they need to step up to give Burrow enough time to find the open man.
Stunts And How To Protect Against Them
The Titans do not blitz all that often, but they still do a good job of generating pressure. Some of that is just the one on one ability of their duo on the interior (see above), but they also do a lot to free up pass rushes for other players.
The main way they try to generate pass rush opportunities is through stunts.
A basic two-man stunt is a play where one player will penetrate at an angle to occupy the offensive lineman over them, while the adjacent defender will hesitate to hold their offensive lineman before looping around the penetrator. Because of the angle of the penetrator, the offensive lineman that is over the looper cannot keep up with him as he goes around.
The two offensive linemen need to work together to stop these stunts. The guy going up against the penetrator needs to not lose ground and to punch the penetrator out towards his teammate. The guy against the looper needs to keep a good level with his teammate and be prepared to take the penetrator. This will allow the guy who punched out the penetrator to be in a good position to then take the looper.
The issue with the Titans is that they not only have two fantastic players to penetrate and cause damage, but they also are very disciplined in their stunts. This allows them to not only attack offensive lines with more simple two man games, but also with some very creative 3-man games.
These are even more strenuous on offensive line communication and now require at least three players on the offensive line to effectively communicate with each other. Everything that was stated about keeping level and how to handle stunts applies here to 3-man stunts as well, but now you add in another guy. There will now be someone in between the two guys who needs to pass one penetrator and pick up the other one. Just the addition of another piece in here makes it very difficult to pick these up. The Bengals offensive line will need to be keyed in against these plays if they want to keep Burrow clean.
There is still one more play in which the offensive line needs to be prepped against. These plays are creepers. I talked about creepers a bit in my article about how Mike White beat the Bengals defense, but for a quick refresher, I will give a definition here. A creeper is a 4-man rush where at least one second and/or third level player (LB/DB) will rush the passer while one of the first level defenders (DL) will drop into coverage.
These can be difficult on offenses because they once again require everyone to effectively communicate. The quarterback or center needs to identify where the rush is coming from and communicate that with the rest of the line. The rest of the offensive line needs to do their job and pick up these players and if necessary, the back needs to do his job to pick up his rusher. If they don’t all effectively do their job, it’s a free runner who may have some serious speed. There are two other reasons that these plays are very nice.
The first is that it allows for defenses to keep seven players in coverage. This means that defenses can continue to play their base coverages. It gives the feeling of a blitz on the quarterback while still playing a typical version of coverage on the back end. This sometimes causes quarterbacks to throw interceptions when they are treating it as a blitz.
The other area that this is nice is in run defense. Against the run, these creepers essentially work as run blitzes. They get one guy who may be a free runner on the play and the guy that would normally drop will still be in the run fit. It’s one of the reasons the Titans have done such an admirable job against the run.
The issue with these plays is that if the blitzer gets picked up, then they have now put a guy covering in space that is not used to doing that. This is why it’s imperative for the offensive line and quarterback to effectively work together to pick up these plays. If given time against a creeper, Joe Burrow and his talented group of skill players should be able to tear them apart.
All of this is to essentially say that if the Bengals’ offensive line can hold up against these designs and players, then Cincinnati's offense should have a very nice day. It will stress them both mentally and physically, but with the high level of talent from their skill group and quarterback, the ball should be out quickly.
This side of the football comes down to two strength on weakness matchups. The Bengals’ wide receivers against the Titans cornerbacks and the interior of the Bengals’ offensive line against the interior of the Titans’ defensive line. The offensive line is central to Cincinnati putting up fireworks against Tennessee.
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