Titans at Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

The Cincinnati Bengals were busy dealing with some off-field drama, more injuries on the offensive line and player movement in and out this week.

Now, it’s time to just play football again.

Cincinnati (1-5-1) hosts the Tennessee Titans (5-1) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, before heading into a bye week that could help the injury situation greatly. Here are five storylines to know going into the game:

1. Solid one-two punch

Tennessee has the league’s top rusher in Derrick Henry, and when he’s not running the ball, quarterback Ryan Tannehill often is moving the ball in play-action, which makes the Titans tough to defend. The Titans rank fourth in the league with 26.9 points per game and are fifth in net offense (401.3 yards).

The Bengals are still among the worst in the league in run defense, and Henry enters with 663 yards rushing in six games. Tannehill is known as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in play action – he led the league with a 140.6 rating while running play action last year, his first season with Tennessee.

Cincinnati struggled against Baker Mayfield and Philip Rivers the past two weeks and continue to try to solve limitations getting pressure on the quarterback. Some of that is inconsistency in personnel. Sam Hubbard has been out with an elbow injury. Geno Atkins continues to work back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him the first three games. Mike Daniels returned from injury last week to help with the interior defensive line rotation, and Margus Hunt played 40 percent of the snaps on defense just a few days after re-joining the team that gave him the start to his career.

“Mike is a great energy guy on the sideline,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said when asked about how Daniels and Hunt help. “Does a great job of disrupting the inside of the offensive line. I thought he did well. And it was good to see Margus out there and get him some snaps and forced a couple of negative yards plays for us, which was great.”

2. Injury bug still biting

The Bengals have been hit hard by injuries on the defensive line and then were forced to trade Dunlap after he became a distraction regarding his decreased playing time. That doesn’t help the pass rush, but it did enable them to add depth on the offensive line, which now also has been impacted by injury.

Xavier Su’a-Filo remains out since his Week 1 ankle injury, and now left tackle Jonah Williams (stinger), right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) and center Trey Hopkins (concussion) are out this week. In the trade that sent Dunlap to Seattle, the Bengals acquired backup interior lineman B.J. Finney. Then, on Friday, they signed former Bills guard Quinton Spain to the practice squad.

Spain will be eligible to play Sunday as one of the two extra players allowed to join the gameday roster, but Taylor said he will not start. Fred Johnson replaced Williams at left tackle for the final drive of the first half in last week’s loss to Cleveland, while Billy Price stepped in for Hopkins at the same time, and rookie Hakeem Adeniji played right tackle when Hart went down in the final two minutes.

3. Titans defensive surprise

The Titans are last in the league in third-down percentage (opponents convert on 61 percent of third downs) and second to last in redzone defense (allowing touchdowns on 81 percent of redzone chances), but Tennessee keeps humming along.

The reason for their success despite those numbers? Turnovers. The Titans are first in turnover margin at plus-9.

“They’re getting the ball out,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They’re taking advantage of the tipped throws, whether it’s d-linemen, linebackers, safeties, corners. When the ball’s tipped up in the air, they go get it. That’s something that we’ve emphasized already, starting today. Again, they’ve done a great job not only on defense but on offense. I think they only have three turnovers on the year. They lead the league in turnover margin. They’ve just done a tremendous job on both phases there.”

Former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph is one of the key pieces to Tennessee’s defense at age 36. He has one interception, a forced fumble and four passes defensed. Joseph began his career with the Bengals in 2006 and was with the team until 2011 when he went to Houston and stayed there until this season.

4. Mixon still out

The Bengals will be without Joe Mixon for a second straight game as he continues to nurse a foot injury. Taylor would not go into detail about what specifically is the problem with his foot, but the hope is that with the bye week, that gives him enough time to heal.

Quarterback Joe Burrow has been up to the challenge of carrying the offense each week anyway, but teammates and coaches of Giovani Bernard praise him as an underrated backup to Mixon. Although his rushing stats won’t look like Mixon’s, Bernard brings value in other ways. He’s especially good in pass protection, a good option on swing passes and effective running the ball when called upon.

“For Gio, he usually doesn’t get a ton of carries because those go to Joe, but the under-appreciated thing about Gio is his pass protection is tremendous,” Taylor said. “His football IQ to know where it’s coming from, to be able to take his responsibilities, block guys that are two or three times his size, be able to help on guys like Myles Garrett, just trying to track those guys and take the edge off to help those linemen. In the screen game, he was outstanding (last week) finding what was there on some of those specials and screens. He’s just a reliable guy. It’s not surprising when he makes the most of the opportunities he gets because he’s always ready.”

5. Where’s John Ross?

The Bengals traded away disgruntled defensive end Carlos Dunlap on Wednesday and now there’s another player who has asked to be moved: John Ross.

The 2017 first-round draft pick is doubtful Sunday because of what Taylor clarified as “stomach issues.” Ross has showed up in the injury report with an “illness” designation on three separate occasions this season, all after being a healthy scratch in Week 3 and Week 4. He was inactive Sunday but a full participant in practice Wednesday before the issue surfaced again Thursday.

“He’s sick,” Taylor said. “His stomach bothers him. It is what it is. He’s listed with [an] illness, and he’s trying to work through it.”

Ross hasn’t spoken to media since the start of the season but expressed his thoughts on Twitter, commenting on a Fox19 reporter’s tweet that coaches aren’t even sure Ross likes football.

“Trade me if this (is) how y’all feel,” Ross posted on Twitter on Friday. "I’m healthy and eager to play. I know I can be productive. It’s hard to love something when your (sic) not actually participating in it.

“Believe me, its (sic) not football that I don’t like.”

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