NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ The theme all week has been how this one is that seventh AFC North game.
It's how Titans coach Mike Vrabel has molded his team. Run-first on offense to big and rugged on defense to a heavy dose of special teams.
"They're going to play really good defense. They're stout against the run. They don't give you a lot," said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan last week of a unit that is ranked their vintage fourth in the league against the run. "You have to go earn it. And they hold people to not a lot of points generally. You know, it's just sort of like playing against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It's a very similar style. I'm sure they would probably take that as a compliment."
It's certainly the way the rivalry has played out when Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has gone against Vrabel's Titans. The AFC North Bengals have won all three going against the familiarity, the last two by the old-fashioned AFC Central 19-16, 20-16 scores. Even the first one in 2020 had an AFC North whiff in the Bengals' 31-20 win at Paycor Stadium.
Running back Derrick Henry, the centerpiece of Vrabel's offense, was on his way to the NFL rushing title and led Tennessee's 218-yard effort on the ground with 112 of his on 18 carries. But the Bengals jumped out to a 24-7 lead on rookie Joe Burrow's early fourth-quarter touchdown pass and never allowed Henry to put them in the clock grinder.
And you've got to believe the Titans are going to come out pounding Henry after last Sunday in Cleveland when he had his fewest rush yards in six years with 20 on just 11 carries in 17 snaps. He may have that in the first quarter if they get the ball. The Bengals defense built its rep for stopping the run not so much in division games, but in this rivalry. They've held Henry to a combined 100 yards in the last two games.
FOOTNOTE: Bengals running back Joe Mixon has played in only one of those games, but he was a big factor here in the 2021 AFC Divisional when his 16-yard bounce was their only touchdown in the 19-16 win he had 54 yards on 14 bloody carries.
TIME OF POSSESSION: Callahan and Taylor were unhappy with the three false starts in the first half on Monday night, especially the back-to-backs on third-and-one. With the Bengals holding the ball for 36 minutes in the win over the Rams, they knew how close they were to keeping it for 40.
Slot receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the culprits, said last week they're such a veteran group, nothing had to be said.
"We don't really talk about it. It's something that we know," Boyd said. "We pride ourselves on offense knowing if we shoot ourselves in the foot, then we're not going to be able to stay on the field and move the ball … There's nothing we need to do that's different than what we've already been doing. Never should have (false starts) for a home game. At away games we have to do a better job seeing the ball, listening to the cadence. Go when the ball is going."
INACTIVES: The Bengals must think quarterback Joe Burrow is better than last week since neither Reid Sinnett or AJ McCarron were elevated from the practice squad, leaving Burrow and Jake Browning the backups. But their moves were also dictated by injury on special teams, where they lost one of their core players, linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither (knee) to the inactive list. Plus their punt returner. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. had been ruled out Friday.
After they claimed Cowboys backer Devin Harper on waivers Friday, they put punt returner Charlie Jones (thumb) on injured reserve but they had no time to activate Harper for the Titans. So all four running backs were up. With Jones out, wide receiver Trenton Irwin was back in the lineup after being the casualty for the third quarterback Monday night and he figures to return punts. He last did it in 2021 with three and the only other guy on the roster who has done it with the Bengals is Boyd and that doesn't appear to be happening.
Joining Davis-Gaither, Smith, and Harper on the inactive list were offensive linemen Jackson Carman and Trey Hill and cornerback DJ Ivey.