Following Week 8, many across the NFL believed the Tennessee Titans season was over.
Derrick Henry was ruled out for a minimum of 8 weeks after a foot injury suffered in a win over the Colts. Fast forward to today and the Titans are AFC South Champions, earned a BYE in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, and are set to face the Bengals in the Divisional Round.
Henry’s importance to the Titans is unlike any player in recent history. In just 8 games, he had 937 yards and 10 touchdowns; 290 more yards than the next closest Running Back. This season, Henry made history, becoming one of two players in NFL history with 750+ rushing yards and 10+ rushing touchdowns through the first 6 weeks of the season. He has also surpassed 150+ rushing yards in three playoff games; the second highest total in NFL history.
Despite Henry’s absence over the final 9 weeks of the season, the Titans went 6-3, including 3 straight wins to close out the season.
Offensively, Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has stepped up in Henry’s absence. Finishing off the season with a 4 touchdown performance, Tannehill has done a surprising amount given that his top 3 weapons have each missed multiple weeks.
Defensively, the team has given up the 6th fewest points in the league this season and have three players with more than 8 sacks on the season. In many cases, they have been the reason that Tannehill and the offense still have a chance in the game.
A key statistic, the Titans defense has totaled 43 sacks this season, more than double the total from last season.
With Henry set to return and the team hitting its stride, the Titans are in a very good place. The 1st round BYE is huge for Tennessee; it gives them a chance to rest and recover as well as home field advantage; where they have a record of 7-2 this season. However, the Bengals are not an opponent to overlook.
The Bengals are lead by QB Joe Burrow, one of the best young Quarterbacks in the NFL. Burrow threw for an incredible 1255 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last 3 weeks of the season and is surrounded by playmakers. Slowing down those playmakers, such as receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins is the first key.
1. Control the Bengals playmakers
In 2020, a Rookie Joe Burrow and the Bengals took care of Tennessee handily. Throw in Bengals 5th overall pick and Burrow's favorite target, Ja'marr Chase, and Burrow is playing at an even higher level this season. Chase has a strong case for rookie of the year; recording six 100 yards games and two games with over 200 receiving yards.
Chase's threat to the Titans is highlighted by Burrow's 6.2 Yards After Catch per Completion, the second highest total in the league. Chase strives AFTER he catches the ball and on many occasions, has scored multiple 25+ yard touchdowns in a game. For comparison, Ryan Tannehill ranks 19th with 5.0 YAC per completion, despite having one of the best YAC receivers in the league in A.J. Brown.
At 6'4, Tee Higgins is also a major threat. Higgins has really come on as the season progressed and led the Bengals in yards when the they played the Titans last season. He is a great deep threat who can make huge catches when you least expect it.
Titans top corner, Kristian Fulton, was actually good childhood friends with Chase and they attended LSU at the same time. Fulton said the two frequently keep in touch but he is going to "do his best to make sure [Chase] doesn't have a big game" and added that Chase can "take the top off the defense and take a play for 80 yards."
2. Dominate the Running Game
I am optimistic about the Titans rushing offense and defense. Defensively, the fewer times Joe Burrow has the ball in his hand the better. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Bengals rushed on just 35% of plays, the 4th lowest percentage in the league. However, the Titans have a dominant rush defense led by Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry so when they do run the ball, the Titans can dominate.
Offensively, the importance of getting Derrick Henry back cannot be overstated. Of course I am not in favor of running Henry in to the ground, especially if he is not at 100%, but he should get carries consistently. As long as the Titans do not get themselves into a hole early, Henry should be fed throughout the game and will help to open up the play action as well. D'Onta Foreman, who took over in Henry's absence, played quite well and could be a factor in the passing game.
3. Get the Ball to Julio Jones and The Big Three
Something OC Todd Downing and the Titans offense have not done consistently enough this season is getting the ball to the best players who with targets, will make plays.
When Derrick Henry was healthy, it made the team and the offense look better than it truly was. Without Henry, it became clear that it was not the repetitive run game that kept Julio Jones from getting targeted but rather the playcalls and lack of trust from Ryan Tannehill.
Jones had less than 5 targets on 6 occasions this season, including just 1 target in 2 different games. Sure, he has missed games, but in games such as the Seahawks or Texans, Jones shows what happens when you throw him the ball.
Tannehill has done a great job of targeting A.J. Brown who has consistently turned 10-15 yard completions into huge unexpected gains. With various injuries throughout the season, A.J. Brown was probably the team's best player when he was on the field. With Brown playing alongside Henry and Jones for the first time since October 31st, the Titans offense is in position to succeed heading into the Divisional Round.
My prediction for the game is a narrow 31-28 Titans win. The Titans are a more well rounded team and despite the Bengals' recent offensive success, the defensive injuries and improving Titans offense will be too much to overcome.