I had the enjoyable opportunity to participate in a question-and-answer session with Andrew Strickert, publisher of Total Titans here on the Bloguin Network. If you’re looking for a interesting primer for Sunday’s Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans matchup, you certainly came to the right place.
My questions to Andrew and his answers are posted first. They are followed by my answers to questions posed by Total Titans readers.
1. TWC: What is the general consensus on first-year Titans head coach Mike Munchak so far? Jeff Fisher was one of the most-respected coaches in the NFL. How have Titans fans dealt with the transition? Has this been something that most-everyone was in favor of?
TT: Initially, many Titans fans were disappointed in the selection of Munchak, feeling that it would be more of the same old thing. As the season has progressed, however, more and more fans are starting to believe the change has been for the better. Munch made some visible changes in the way he ran training camp and he hasn’t been as conservative as Fisher was. A good example of this was in the Ravens game - after a long drive stalled with a 4th and 1 on the Ravens’ 10-yard line, Munch went for it and the Titans scored a touchdown. It was the turning point which allowed the Titans to seize control of the game. Fisher would have settled for a disappointing field goal.
I would add that the 3-1 start helped Munch a lot. If the Titans had started off 1-3, there wouldn’t be quite as strong a favorable feeling for Munchak.
2. TWC: What is holding Chris Johnson back in your opinion? He had one of the best seasons in NFL history two years ago.
TT: Two things have held CJ back this year and the first one is CJ himself. He’s not pressing the hole (when there is one) or running with determination. He’s looking to take one all the way instead of settling for what’s there. Worse, he’s being stopped by the first defender in his path and going down. As my co-author Tom Gower, who also writes for Football Outsiders, noted: “CJ is not currently anything close to a good NFL running back.”
The second thing responsible for CJ’s decline is the o-line, particularly the interior line. Center Eugene Amano has, to my untrained eye, been the worst, though guards Jake Scott and Leroy Harris have also had problems. Even tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos, who have both had great seasons before, have not blocked well in the run game. However, it should be noted that the interior line has not run-blocked well for several years, even in CJ’s 2,000-yard season.
It should also be noted that CJ’s backup, Javon Ringer, has outperformed Johnson, though marginally, while running behind the same line. At one point earlier this season, the Titans’ longest run of the year was by their punter, which doesn’t say much for CJ.
3. TWC: What are your thoughts on Matt Hasselbeck as the Titans’ starting quarterback? What is the plan for Jake Locker? Is he going to be the backup for another year, or do you think he’ll take over next season?
TT: Now that I’ve bashed the O-line for its poor run-blocking, I need to say they’ve done very well in pass protection for Hasselbeck, something he didn’t have for his last couple of years in Seattle. Given the time to throw, Hasselbeck has been a lot more accurate than either Vince Young or Kerry Collins and has been most effective in the short to intermediate passing game. As you would expect, he hasn’t done quite as well since Kenny Britt was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Still, he’s performed a lot better than most people expected after his poor seasons for the last couple of years. I imagine he will remain the starter as long as he’s healthy, though Locker might get a start or three at the end of season, especially if the Titans have been eliminated from postseason play.
I believe Locker will challenge Hasselbeck for the starting job next year in training camp and the preseason.
4. TWC: How shocked are you that the Bengals are coming to the Music City with a 5-2 record?
TT: At a first glance, the Bengals’ 5-2 record is surprising, considering their 4-12 finish last year and losing their quarterback and starting receivers. However, that just shows my ignorance since I hadn’t looked at their schedule, which, now that I look at it, has been relatively easy so far. I am impressed with the win over Buffalo and close game against the 49ers.
5. TWC: What is your prediction for this game? What are some keys for both teams?
TT: I’ll be shocked if the Titans are able to run the ball consistently against a tough Bengals rush defense, though there’s always a chance CJ might break a long one. There’s a better chance the Titans will be able to pass for somewhat decent yardage. On the other side, Cedric Benson should have a good game, say 100+ yards and a score. Count on one or both of the Titans safeties to give up a big play, so A.J. Green will probably get another TD this week.
If Hasselbeck has a good day and the Titans can get an early lead, they can win if the Bengals have to throw the ball more than they run it. If neither of those happens, it will be a long afternoon for Tennessee. Home field advantage helps, but not enough. Cincinnati wins in a low-scoring game, 17-14.
THREE-WAY CHILI ANSWERS TOTAL TITANS’ QUESTIONS
1. TT: Reader jimgill28 asked this question: The Titans defense, which doesn’t have a good pass rush, seems like an ideal situation for an opposing young quarterback like Dalton. What do you see that he will/won’t be able to do against the Titans?
TWC: Almost every Bengal fan was happy when Andy Dalton fell in the team’s lap in the second round of the draft, especially right on the heels of Carson Palmer announcing he would never play for Cincinnati again. However, no one expected that Dalton would be this good, this fast. He’s not doing anything extremely special, he’s just very steady and consistent. Doesn’t have a huge arm, but is highly accurate. He’s also a good leader that has already won the locker room over.
As for what he will be able to do against the Titans, expect a lot of short passes as the Bengals run the West Coast offense. They will take a couple deep shots, usually to rookie standout A.J. Green, but most of Dalton’s work comes on three-step drops and quick patterns. I expect Tennessee to cheat its defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage because it’s clear to everyone at this point that the Bengals like to rely on their running attack and short-passing game. Can Dalton connect on a deep ball or two to loosen things up? That will be one of the keys to the game.
2. TT: Reader dedkrikit asks, has the culture of the organization changed with the recent changes (Ochocinco leaving & Palmer’s trade) coupled with the rookie success or is it the same Bengals just performing better?
TWC: Yes, the culture has definitely changed. It was a circus act last year with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens having their own reality show, and Palmer becoming disenfranchised during the latter half of the season. Dalton has been a breath of fresh air and so has Green. This is also a team that has a “no-name” defense that has proven to be one of the best units in the NFL. It’s not a star-driven squad any longer. There are still players with big egos and bad reputations, like running back Cedric Benson and cornerback Pacman Jones, but there’s a hell of a lot less of them on the team than in past years.
3. TT: The Bengals have already won more games this season than they did last year. What do you see as the main reasons for the improvement? How much of a role has Jay Gruden played in this improvement and how much of an upgrade is he over Bob Bratkowski?
TWC: First of all, Gruden has been a huge improvement over Bratkowski. Bengals’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gets a lot of pub, and rightfully so, but Gruden is a rising star in the profession. Bratkowski was far too predictable and not innovative enough. So, Gruden’s impact is certainly one of the reasons that the Bengals are greatly exceeding expectations this season. (I predicted they would be 6-10.) However, it must be pointed out that Cincinnati’s schedule has been one of the easiest in the NFL up to this point. It will get tough down the stretch -- two meetings apiece with Baltimore and Pittsburgh await -- but the Bengals have only beaten one good team this year: the Buffalo Bills. Also, the Bengals have won a lot of close games this season that could have gone either way. I still don’t think the Bengals will reach the playoffs, but just the fact that they are in the running has made this an exciting season for Bengal fans, who by and large were expecting the worst.
4. TT: Who are some of the unsung and underappreciated players on this team? Which of them are worth keeping an eye on this week?
TWC: I mentioned the “no-name” defense earlier and two of the guys that will eventually be well-known across the NFL are second-year defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Dunlap, a DE, was a second-round pick, and Atkins, a DT, was a fourth-rounder. They are effective pass-rushers and are part of an excellent D-line that goes seven deep. The Bengals will rotate a lot up front to keep the linemen fresh. ... Another guy to watch is the player who I call the Bengals’ “secret weapon” in third-down back Brian Leonard. The Bengals love to give him the ball on third down and he has a knack for picking up first downs. Benson is not on the field on third downs unless it’s third-and-very-short.
5. TT: If there’s anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like for Titans fans to know, please say so here. Also, feel free to make a prediction on the game if you want.
TWC: This is going to be a tightly-contested game in my opinion and it will be interesting to see if the Bengals can prevent Chris Johnson from having his breakout performance against them. I’ve also been intrigued with the play of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and would be feeling much better about this game if the Titans were starting their rookie QB, Jake Locker. Home-field advantage won’t be easy to overcome for Cincinnati, but I think the Bengals’ offense will make just enough plays and the defense will show why it’s one of the league’s best. My prediction is 23-20, Bengals.