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Matchup Of The Game: Jelling Bengals O-Line Takes On Downhill Titans

Right guard Alex Cappa has been stout.
Right guard Alex Cappa has been stout.


You can call Sunday's Bengals game in Tennessee (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) a rematch, but it's really not. The Bengals made sure of that in the first hours of free agency back in March when they began revamping the offensive line with deals for Cappa and Patriots guard-center Ted Karras.

They were two of the top names on the grease board of director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic even as the statisticians were crunching the numbers of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's postseason sacks.  Right tackle La'el Collins would appear later once he was released by Dallas while North Dakota State offensive lineman Cordell Volson was still emerging in their draft rankings.

But Cappa and Karras were available right away and they were on the board as the free-agent deadline struck and the Bengals could start talking to them. Now with the kickoff looming in Nashville against the rough-and-tumble AFC South leaders still trying to figure out how the Bengals ousted them from last season's playoff despite sacking Burrow nine times, the numbers they're crunching now show how that offseason blueprint has surfaced in this playoff push.

At the biggest pressure points for the offensive line, the Bengals are first in the NFL in converting red zone touchdowns, third in converting third downs and fourth in passing. Burrow, meanwhile, has bounced off the Nissan Stadium ropes in MVP fashion with the NFL's second most touchdown passes, third most yards, and fourth highest completion percentage.

"Going back to a couple of years ago with Joe struggling, it's hard when you've got guys coming up the middle. We needed to get bigger up the middle," Radicevic says. "Really, Volson, Karras and Kappa have done a good job keeping it pretty clean for Joe in pass pro and the run."

The interior chemistry has bubbled under old 49ers guard Frank Pollack, the Bengals offensive line coach who has watched his unit scratch back from allowing 13 sacks in the first two games to currently being ranked in the upper half of the league in pass blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus. The jelling was clear last week in Pittsburgh when a Steelers team that got to Burrow seven times in the opener got him just twice in the 37-30 win and not until the second half.

"These guys are getting better and better every week," Pollack says. "They don't get caught up in the ebb and flows."

That even-handed approach to the game is a major reason the Bengals ranked Karras and Cappa where they did. Both had been through Super Bowl runs and played in plenty of big games with the quintessential the-offense-all-runs-through quarterback in Tom Brady. The they-know-what-it-looks-like scouting report was borne out right after Sunday's game when Karras immediately singled out Kappa's one-on-one blocking. With Karras and Volson double-teaming Cam Heyward, Karras again reminded people Monday how well Cappa played as the Bengals averaged more than six yards per play.

"Ted's the man. Ted's the man. Great teammate. The best I've been around," Cappa says. "We have a good room. We try to take care of each other, help each other out. Ted definitely leads us."

Karras has definitely been solid (PFF has him ranked as the league's sixth best pass-blocking center) while Cappa has been quietly a force. Rated the NFL's 25th best guard, Cappa has turned heads at Paycor Stadium playing what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan says is "lights out."

"He's been a little bit under the radar as far as getting acknowledged publicly," Pollack says. "It's just a matter of time before the outside world finds out. He's a smart player. He's done a great job mentoring the young guard just as much as Ted has. He's won the big ones, he knows what a good culture looks like and he brought that here with him."

The massive 6-6, 310-pound Cappa, the highest draft pick ever out of California's Humboldt State, was the 94th pick in 2018 for Tampa Bay in the year of Pollack's first tenure as the Bengals offensive line coach. He was also the last because that's the year the school dropped football. But Pollack and Radicevic, the native Californian and Bengals man on the west coast as UCLA's former director of football operations, were well aware of him even though he was at a small school. He didn't make a school visit, but he was on the other grease board and Radicevic struck up a relationship with Cappa at the Senior Bowl that would pay off four years later.

"We spent a lot of time with him there," Radicevic says. "We were aware of him. We knew how physical he is. He's a good run player and he's got an anchor to him in pass pro. He's always been a strong guy and he had that kind of strength we were looking for. We liked Karras because he could play guard and center. He played well in New England at guard and he obviously had the center flex and he was smart enough to do it. Both guys had the tough and the grit we wanted to build something."

It will be recalled that the Titans' 6-4, 305-pound Simmons was relentless in last year's AFC Divisional with three sacks through the inside and he's already got 6.5 this season. The Titans were also effective on the outside with linebacker Harold Landry and end Denico Autry each getting 1.5 sacks that day. Landry is on injured reserve, Autry hasn't practiced this week with a knee issue from last week and the Bengals are hoping Simmons finds the middle grimmer.

"Kappa been lights out as far as physical stoutness. His pass protection has been fantastic," Callahan says. "What they don't get enough credit for, all three of those guys inside, is just their mindset and makeup and how well they communicate and tough they are."

Simmons, a first-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2019, has been exactly that. Cappa hasn't watched him much in the game from January because "I like watching more recent stuff because people change." He'll switch sides more than Heyward, whom stayed pretty much on the left) but they'll know where Simmons is.

"Very physical guy. They're all good players up front and they're built on their physicality. That kind of game," Cappa says. "He's strong. Everybody is strong. You have to put yourself in position to be successful."

But Cappa saw enough of the tape to know the Bengals "ran the ball well and did enough to win," and it's not exactly a rematch with four new offensive linemen and a different middle.

"We don't think like that, dude," Cappa says of the sacks. "We just take it play-by-play. That's all you can do. Sacks happen for all kinds of reasons and you move on and go to the next play."

The assignment is the same, though. The Titans downhill defense matches the Bengals fireworks offense with the No. 1 third down defense, the No. 10 red zone defense and the second-best run defense in the league with the third most quarterback pressures and fifth most quarterback hits. Autry has 16 of those hits and Simmons has ten more.

Callahan, realizing that guys like Chiefs tackle Chris Jones and Patriots edge Matt Judon loom next month, knows this is the matchup the rest of the way and what happened in Pittsburgh last week is giving off good vibes.

"This is as good as front as we'll play," Callahan says. "The Steelers are pretty damn close to being one of the best in football and the Titans are in that conversation. They have a dominant defensive lineman, maybe the best in football. If we play well in this game, we'll show we have a really good unit on our end. And our guys have played really well the last six weeks . They've jelled together, communicated well with each other and are playing physical."