NASHVILLE – The Titans want to limit the number of times Joe Burrow has the ball in his hands Saturday.
The good news is they may be well positioned to keep Cincinnati’s productive young quarterback sidelined.
Even with running back Derrick Henry sidelined by a foot injury for the last nine games, the Titans finished second in the league in time of possession. They kept the ball for an average of 32:39 per game, which trailed only Green Bay (32:44). That’s a huge difference from entering the playoffs in 2020, when the Titans – in large part because the team’s defense couldn’t get off the field -- ranked just 28th in time of possession at 28:12.
The Titans won the time of possession battle in 13 of 17 games this season, finishing 9-4 in those contests.
But what about the playoffs, and what about the matchup against the Bengals, who finished fifth against the run during the season? Is it reasonable to believe the Titans can control the football for as great a time as they did during the regular season?
Actually, there are a few reasons the Titans might have success in that department:
• Henry’s expected return: Henry, who hasn’t played since Week 8, began his third week of practice on Sunday. In the open portion of last Wednesday’s workout, Henry looked strong, running with much greater pace and making sharper cuts than the previous week.
The Titans have been a good running team even without Henry, as D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard have been surprisingly productive. But Henry is obviously on another level, and so was the Titans’ ability to control the clock when he was playing. In five of the team’s first eight games, the Titans possessed the football for at least 34 minutes – and twice topped the 40-minute mark.
“We’re going to need to run the football,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We’re going to need to do that to be who we are and be at our best, and not be one-dimensional, to be able to run it, to set up things, to run our offense. That’s always been critical.
“So, it will be a big week of practice for us to continue to get Derrick back out there, get him acclimated to running the football, to seeing blocking schemes and seeing where guys are and seeing where the cuts are.”
• Offensive line continuity: The Titans suffered a number of different injuries on the offensive line – especially in the second half of the season. They used a number of different starting combinations up front – seven of them, to be exact. But assuming all the Week 1 starters are again in place this Saturday – Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and David Quessenberry – it will mark the third straight week that group has played together. The last time the Titans had that long a stretch of continuity for the starters was back in September/October when that quintet was intact for four straight weeks.
“It’s good to have everybody together,” Vrabel said. “It’s good to have some continuity. But we’ll have to have guys ready to go because we know how quickly those things can change in the course of a week or during a game. But that’s been great that we’ve had some continuity over the last couple weeks.”
Indeed, the Titans have allowed just one sack in each of the last two games, after allowing four in each of the previous three contests. In addition, the Titans have run for an average of 161 yards the last two weeks – totaling 198 against Miami and 124 against Houston.
• Bengals injuries: The advantage of having the bye in the playoffs – as the Titans did – is not only the rest it provides a team, but the fact that its upcoming opponent has endured another week of wear and tear. Along those lines, Cincinnati took some injury hits in the Bengals’ 26-19 win over Las Vegas on Saturday. The biggest was the loss of high-impact defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who was placed on injured reserve Monday because of a foot injury. Ogunjobi had a career highs of seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss this year, and made 49 tackles overall. That’s going to hurt a Bengals run defense that ranked fifth in the regular season.
In addition, the Saturday status of Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson (14 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 34 tackles) is unclear, as he’s in concussion protocol. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said reserve defensive tackle Mike Daniels (groin) is unlikely to play against the Titans, and reserve defensive tackle Josh Tupou missed last week’s game with a knee injury.
The more the Titans can exploit the Bengals on the ground – and use the clock – the less they’ll have to worry about Burrow and the Bengals’ aerial circus.