The Tennessee Titans sit precariously at 4-3, a half game behind the Houston Texans in the AFC South. But with the Texans favored at home against the struggling Cleveland Browns, their game this week against the Cincinnati Bengals has a "must-win" quality to it if the Titans don't want to fall further behind in the division race.
Tennessee began 2011 with a tough loss at Jacksonville, but then won three straight. Since then, and not coincidentally since the loss of standout wide receiver Kenny Britt, the Titans have lost to Pittsburgh and Houston and have been outscored 79-24. Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has struggled to find a big play replacement for Britt. Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, The Titans took advantage of a blocked punt and an interception that gave them two touchdowns in a 27-10 victory. Their offense still struggled to move the ball effectively against a Colts team that had surrendered 62 points the week before.
The Titans expected that explosiveness to come from running back Chris Johnson. Johnson, who rushed for over 4500 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first three seasons, held out during training camp. He missed all of training camp, but eventually negotiated a deal that pays him $13.4 million per season. He's responded by rushing for only 43.1 yards per game through the first seven and only one touchdown. The Titans rank dead last in the NFL in rushing offense. The Bengals are second in the NFL against the run, so it will be tough for Tennessee to get on track there. Look for the possibility of increased carries from Javon Ringer.
Hasselbeck has been effective, if not explosive as the Titans quarterback. He's thrown an unremarkable 11 touchdowns in seven contests, but has only turned it over six times. The Bengals defense shouldn't count on Hasselbeck making mistakes to cost his team the game. Neither should they fear Hasselbeck beating them with the big play, however. With Britt out for the year, Nate Washington and Damian Williams have not emerged as big play options. Tight end Jared Cook has been a favorite target and passes to Johnson and Ringer out of the backfield are a staple in the Titans' offensive game plan. The Bengals linebackers and safeties will be tested in this game and need to be able to cover and tackle surely to prevent big gains.
The Titans defense is ranked 18th overall, but have struggled defending the run where they rank 27th. They've given up an average of 4.3 yards per carry this season and allowed the Colts to amass 158 yards rushing despite being down and looking to pass in the second half. With Cedric Benson fresh off of a one-game suspension and Bernard Scott game ready, the Bengals could have a huge day running the football.
For Tennessee, they can either keep pace on Sunday or fall a game and a half behind the Texans with a home loss to them already on the books. The Bengals can expect to get the Titans' best effort this weekend in Nashville.
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