Tennessee’s lone win was an overtime game against the L.A. Chargers in Week 2, and the Titans are coming off a 27-3 loss to Cleveland. The Bengals bounced back from an 0-2 start with a 19-16 victory over the L.A. Rams and are looking to continue the momentum to get back to .500.
Here are five things to know going into the game Sunday at Nissan Stadium:
1. Burrow’s calf improving
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seemed more confident after getting the team’s first win Monday night and not experiencing any setbacks with his calf.
His teammates called his performance “gritty” but Burrow feels like the offense should be capable of more. Now while “feeling better every day,” he’s taking on a larger workload with full participation in practice Thursday and Friday and hoping that helps the offense get into a better rhythm sooner in games.
“When you don’t have those reps, you lose that time thinking about it because you don’t have the physical reps doing it to go back after and say ‘if I would’ve done this, maybe the ball would’ve come out a little different,’” Burrow said. “You can’t get those reps back, so that’s why going forward, practice is going to be big for me to take advantage of those reps.”
2. Stopping the run
Cincinnati struggled against the run in the first two games, but showed improvement against a much less potent running game from the Rams. Now the Titans, with the league’s fourth best running game, bring a test to see what the Bengals corrected from the first two games against top 5 rushing offenses from Cleveland and Baltimore.
Nick Chubb had more than 100 yards of Cleveland’s 206 yards rushing in the opener, and Baltimore managed 178 yards rushing in Week 2.
The Bengals have found success slowing Derrick Henry the past two times they faced him, holding him to 100 yards combined between a divisional round playoff game in 2021 and a regular-season matchup last year.
“It’s a tall task,” Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader said. “He’s one of the best backs in the league so we’ve always got to make sure we are extra focused when you go out there to play him. He’s huge so you’ve got to try to hit him before he gets going, which is easier said than done, and when you’ve got to go against him you’ve just got to try to get it done.”
The Titans also bring “a good change of pace” threat with Tyjae Spears, according to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, so Cincinnati will have to be prepared for him as well. Spears has been helpful to quarterback Ryan Tannehill in third-down pass protection as well.
3. Offense seeking “next level”
The offense made strides in the second half of Monday’s win over Los Angeles, but the effort to get off to a fast start by electing to receive the opening kickoff didn’t result in points in part because of penalties.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who had an uncharacteristic false start, said with Tennessee’s ability to control the clock with a strong running game, the offense has to take advantage of possessions in case they are limited. The Bengals had just three first-half drives in Week 2 against Baltimore.
Ja’Marr Chase is still looking for his first “go ball” and Tee Higgins seeks more consistency after struggling with drops and a crucial offensive pass interference call near the goal line last week. Higgins had 114 yards receiving in the game against Tennessee last year.
“We’re not at our peak of what we know we can be, and once we do that, the sky is the limit,” Boyd said. “We just got to find more rhythm in games, especially early on, just start putting up points because we know we can score 30-40 points a game.”
4. Keeping up protection
The offensive line held Aaron Donald to one sack last week, and Burrow has been sacked just five times through three games – a marked improvement over the 15 allowed through the first three games last year.
Cincinnati will look to keep up that protection against Tennessee, which has another capable pass rush that can come from all angles. The Titans sacked Burrow nine times two years ago with a much different offensive line in the playoffs, and many of those same rushers are back, most notably defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons, who accounted for three of those.
“It starts with Simmons but it’s not just him,” center Ted Karras said. “They can come at you from all directions, so it’s going to be a big challenge, but it’s one we’ll be ready for.”
Simmons has two sacks through three games, defensive end Denico Autry has a team-leading 3.5 sacks and outside linebacker Arden Key adds 1.5 sacks, while linebackers Harold Landry and Azzez Al-Shaair and cornerback Roger McCreary each add one sack.
5. Injuries of note
The Bengals will be hurting on punt returns with Charlie Jones out because of a thumb injury. He was placed on injured reserve Friday, meaning he will miss at least four weeks. Jones recorded the team’s first touchdown on a punt return since 2012 in the game against Baltimore and was looking like someone who could provide a big boost on special teams.
Tight end Irv Smith is the only other player listed as “out” on the injury report, as he will miss a second straight game because of a hamstring injury. Tanner Hudson stepped up in his place last week and likely will get another elevation from the practice squad. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither is questionable with a knee injury.
For Tennessee, Autry (groin) and defensive lineman Teair Tart (knee) are questionable, while wide receiver Treylon Banks (knee), linebacker Luke Gifford (hamstring), defensive back Elijah Molden (hamstring) and offensive lineman Peter Skoronski (abdomen) are out.
Bengals at Titans, 1 p.m., Fox, 1530, 102.7, 104.7