NASHVILLE – It’s hard to imagine a worse feeling on the football field than that of a toasted defensive back, resigned to watching a football sail over his head -- hoping the attempted pass is off target.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow delivered that kind of downfield depression in droves to opposing secondaries during the 2021 season. He threw an NFL-best 15 touchdown passes of 30 yards or more in 17 games, a total far greater than his closest competitors – Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady (eight), Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes (seven) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (seven).
Burrow did deep damage even when his passes didn’t result in touchdowns, as he finished tied for second in completions of 40-plus yards (15) and tied for second in completions of 20-plus yards (60).
Those kinds of deep-ball numbers should be enough to stir the butterflies in the bellies of Tennessee Titans defensive backs, who will face Burrow – along with a Bengals pass-catching corps of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah -- in Saturday afternoon’s divisional-round playoff game at Nissan Stadium.
“Statistically, you can see it – they’re going to take their shots,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “When you’ve got a chemistry between guys where you can throw it deep or you can underthrow it, and those guys understand how to come back for the ball … They’re going to use it to their advantage.”
Is the Titans secondary ready for Burrow and the Bengals’ aerial assault?
The simple eye test says the Titans are a much better pass defense overall than they were in 2020, when they gave up a whopping 36 touchdown passes during the regular season, an average of more than two per contest. That number shrunk to 24 touchdown passes surrendered in 2021, the seventh-best figure in the league and a 72-point improvement in one year.
But what about big-chunk passes overall, the kind that – even when they’re not scores -- can bail teams out of third-down situations or jump-start opposing touchdown drives?
That answer isn’t as clear. Surprisingly enough, the Titans actually allowed more completions of 20-plus yards in 2021 (60) than they did in 2020 (55), and more completions of 40-plus yards in 2021 (11) than in 2020 (eight).
Those big gains surrendered in the passing game aren’t always strictly through the air, of course. As Bowen pointed out, many of the Bengals’ big passing plays are short- or medium-range passes that get turned into long gains.
“They’ve got a ton of explosive (players), and there’s a lot of catch and runs,” Bowen said. “With all those receivers, we’ve got to do a good job tackling. The tight end, we’ve got to do a good job tackling.
“That’s a big part of it. When they do catch it shorter and it’s not necessarily a shot (downfield), we’ve got to be able to get these guys on the ground.”
One way to help the secondary, of course, is with superior play from the defensive front. Burrow was sacked an NFL-high 51 times this season, and the Titans’ primary pass rushers – Harold Landry, Bud Dupree, Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry – should be salivating at that number.
It’s hard for a quarterback to make deep downfield connections, after all, when he’s looking up at the sky.
“That’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Bowen said. “Guys are going to have to be relentless rushing. They can’t assume the play is going to be over because it never really is.
“We saw that last week against the Raiders. The play is never going to be over with (Burrows because he’s elusive). We’ve got to continue to rush and continue to cover.”