The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.
All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:
Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?
Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.
Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.
Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?
Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.
The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.
They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.
Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?
Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.
As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.
Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?
Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.
The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.
What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?
Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.
Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.
How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?
Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.