NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ After his head coach had just declared, "Nothing was good enough for us today," Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie had an idea where this week is headed as they begin the climb back from the 1-3 start.
The 27-3 loss to the Titans was still so fresh and so total that when Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard caught up with Awuzie, the locker room was still hush with hurt. But there was a glimmer. Awuzie recalled the Titans got beat by the same 27-3 in Cleveland seven days ago.
"They came in here more hungry," Awuzie said. "They came off a big loss last week. I talked to some of them and they were on their butt all week and they responded. Now it's our turn to respond. We have to get on each other and get on the details and just feed off each other's energy. It was also an early start versus a Monday night when it's home with all that energy. We have to bring our own energy and juice. Now that we've identified it, we have to nip it in the bud and use it to our strength."
Lesson for the week.
Seven days ago the Titans were where the Bengals are. Titans running back Derrick Henry, coming off his worst day in six years, celebrated a 122-yard day. The 28th-ranked pass defense that had been carved to the tune of a 123 passer rating by Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson held Bengals Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow to 165 yards, the third-fewest of his career. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, barely completing 50 percent of his passes in Cleveland, blazed into Sunday without top receiver Treylon Burks and dismantled the Bengals secondary on 72 percent passing that averaged 9.6 yards per throw.
With two-time 1,000-yard wide receiver Tee Higgins leaving the game with a reported fractured rib some time in the first half, the Bengals look like the Titans did seven days ago.
"We've got to go," said running back Joe Mixon, their offensive MVP of this most surprising of first quarters to a season. "We've yet to put together a whole football game, complementary football with the offense, defense and special teams. Everybody plays a part in it, man. We just got to go watch the film come tomorrow and get ready for Arizona next week."
It's playoff veterans like Awuzie and Mixon whom Taylor is banking on to pull the Bengals out of this.
"You know who our quarterback is?" Mixon asked. "You know who our receivers are? In the backfield? Like, why would I be concerned?"
Burrow shrugged off the concern for his strained right calf. But nobody else did after he could average just 5.5 yards per throw and not generate a touchdown for the second time in four unJoe-like games without the swashbuckling step-up-in-the-pocket magic. Burrow refuses to use the calf as an excuse. He also says there was no way he was coming out in a game they felt was they were in until the game leaked into the fourth quarter.
"He's doing everything he can. He's playing through it, but there's still limitations he's got certainly and that's probably very difficult for him," Taylor said. "But again, he's getting hit. He's having to move and he's doing a great job getting up on the next play and responding. Sometimes quarterbacks will get rattled by that stuff. But you don't feel that from him at all. You feel that the next play is going to be successful even if he does take a hit. Again, he's fighting through it and I'm proud of him for that."
Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, their leader with seven catches for 73 yards, is in his fifth season with Burrow and this is a first.
"It's probably my first time seeing him (play) through an injury like this," Chase said. "He's just going through a little adversity and he's going to be back and better in no time."
The offense goes into the week "trying to find a spark,"
Chase said. They're also trying to figure out the blitz. The Titans sacked Burrow three times, caused a lost fumble on one, and hit him six other times. With Burrow's mobility limited, the Titans just teed off, particularly on third down, which the Bengals didn't convert until 8:46 left in the game. But slot receiver Tyler Boyd warns foes, it's not always going to be like this. It was just last year Burrow was at the top of the league making defenses pay for blitzing.
"He's a little less mobile than he was. He's still trying to extend plays," Boyd said. "They're all out blitzing us, so it's not too much movement you can do … I don't blame teams (for blitzing). If I was a D-coordinator, I would do the same thing … It's been successful this year … I hope teams don't get too comfortable doing that. They know what we're capable of. They know what kind of players we've got on this side. We've got Burrow. They're just taking their chances right now. They're successful at the moment, but as time goes that's going to change."
Boyd says it's the way defenses are playing and not Burrow's limitations that have taken away the deep stuff.
"They're not giving us the big play," Boyd said. "We have to take what they give us. Throw slants all day, throw quick games, run for ten. Until they open up and we get what we want. Sometimes they'll rotate the safeties and go one high and we get what we want, but that's post snap. It's happening fast. Once we get in a rhythm and Joe starts seeing things like he always he does, we'll be back to who we are."
That's what the week is going to be like on offense. On defense veterans like nose tackle DJ Reader are going to be talking about missed tackles. The proud run defense that has been the spine of the last two AFC North titles has now allowed two 100-yard backs in Henry and Cleveland's Nick Chubb in the first month of the season after not allowing any in the final 11 games of last season.
And you know defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is going to get after them on the explosive plays after eight of the Titans snaps would qualify as either a 20-yard pass or 15-yard run. They had seven of them in the decisive second quarter.
"We just missed tackles. We didn't fit the gaps right and we missed tackles," Reader said. "We have to do better. We have to fit. We can't miss tackles. If we don't miss tackles no matter what else goes on that game we feel better about ourself.
"It's a will thing. You have to want to do it. Sometimes guys don't want to do it. You have bad technique and that's a product of you not wanting to do it that play. That's OK, but you've got to realize against these types of teams that they're going to run the ball and that's what we've got to do. We all have to tackle. We all have to buy in and we all have to do it. It's a will thing. It has to be a team effort, all 11 guys have to get to the ball and all of us have to want to tackle … … It's a mindset thing. We just have to get it done."
Like Mixon, Reader has been playing next to guys who have won a lot of big games together.
"It's the individual as a person. I'm confident in everybody around here, because they're a man and I've played with them and I know how they rock as a person," Reader said. "How they get down in the weight room. I've never walked in on any Sunday, like, 'We're going to lose.' That would be crazy. That would be insane. To ever think that and to ever feel like you didn't prepare, we shouldn't even show up. If you're not confident in the players with you there is no reason to even show up. That would be sickening if that was the case."
Chase packed up his locker grimly, but he knew he was taking back his teammates.
"I mean, we know who we have on our team," Chase said. "We've got special guys, prolific guys at that. And we all know what we're capable of. We've just got to find that spark, like I keep saying. And when we find it, we'll get that run hopefully and keep it going."
All they have to do is imagine talking to the media next week after the game in Arizona like Henry did Sunday.
"Y'all talked junk about us all week," Henry said. "I think it was time to put one together and play the style of play we need to. I think guys really honed in on that and locked in on that. Last week, nobody was happy. It really woke us up and we knew we needed to come out and put up a performance. It was time for it."