Look at the three games pitting the Joe Burrow Bengals against the Mike Vrabel Titans and you get a pretty good idea of what is going to transpire Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) in Nashville.
Burrow (calf) was listed as a full participant Wednesday for the first time since he re-aggravated the injury in the Sept. 17 Ravens game. Since it was a walk-through, the injury report is an estimation.
Burrow, who head coach Zac Taylor is still calling day-to-day, has won them all with economy and efficiency and a 96ish passer rating that features just one interception in games they possess the ball at least 31:46. In the last two games, both at Nissan Stadium, the Bengals defense has held the Derrick-Henry-led Tennessee offense to a combined 203 yards rushing while pulling out tractor pulls of 19-16 and 20-16.
Tight. Close to the vest. Points at a premium.
"It feels like playing an AFC North team when you play these guys. I remember first feeling that in the playoffs a couple of years ago against them," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor of the 19-16 AFC Divisional Grinder. "Their defensive line is really impressive across the board and with the depth. They've got guys that impact the quarterback and impact the run game. They're No. 1 in the league against the run - yards per carry - that shows up on tape."
But this also isn't the Burrow who is 3-0 against the Titans. His right calf has made him less mobile and more pocket-inclined, but the Bengals brain trust believes there is still plenty of him left to win as they not only manage the injury but the game. For the fifth time in the last two years in the Monday night win over the Rams, they possessed the ball at least 36 minutes. If Burrow keeps standing in the shotgun moving the chains with intermediate passes, they'll take it.
And, if the Rams had an interior pass-rush behemoth in Aaron Donald, Jeffery Simmons does the same thing for a Titans defense that always seems to be ranked fourth in rushing and tenth in sacks per pass.
(And that's where it is despite an offense that was invisible last week in Clevland with 94 yards.)
(Also remember Simmons sacked Burrow three times in the playoff game.)
"I think, in general, that's what Joe's strength is. That's how he plays," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "He likes to get the ball out, plays on time, he plays fast and not all those plays that we run are always designed to get the ball out quickly. We had plays down the field, trying to hold the ball and take some shots and sometimes Joe feels how the coverage lifts and the ball gets out quickly to a check-down. So I don't think (the injury) really limits us in that regard. I think Joe just does a great job of playing on time and knowing when to get the ball out of his hands at the at the appropriate time."
Callahan says the coaches and Burrow conferred at halftime of Monday night's game and were satisfied with a call sheet that included Burrow bootlegging to the right edge with no blockers after a fake toss the other way set up their longest play of the year, a 43-yarder down the right sideline to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
"He was pretty straightforward with how he felt and what he felt comfortable doing. I don't think it changed much at all," Callahan said. "It was a tough week, just not knowing for a long stretch of it what it was, who was going to be, what it was going to look like.
"And there was a beginning part of the game where it's 'Is this going to look like?' The guy's an absolute warrior to be able to go out there and play the way he played in that state was really impressive."
HUDSON HOVERS: NFL vet Tanner Hudson, activated from the practice squad, made his Bengals debut Monday and flashed with a 26-yard catch down the middle in the first half. He now has catches with three different teams and has shown to be a resourceful route runner. He may get another shot on Sunday. Starter Irv Smith Jr. (hamstring) was a DNP on the report after he missed the game. Also out was rookie wide receiver Charlie Jones (thumb). Taylor says they're day-to-day.
(By the way, Taylor asked the press for the nickname of Hudson's alma mater, Southern Arkansas, and got an immediate "Muleriders," from Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard, the NFL leader in homework.)
"Tanner is a smart guy. We've all got a lot of confidence in him. Joe's got confidence in him, and he's one of those veterans," Taylor said.
TEE BALL: Here's another thing to expect in a Titans game. In those three games, the two-time Mr. Tennessee for football (and finalist for basketball), Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins comes up big. Try 20 catches for 288 yards, and a touchdown. And the touchdown won last year's game with a classic 27-yard-high-point catch with 13:42 left in the 20-16 win.
He's coming off a rough one Monday with a couple of drops and an offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a 38-yard gain to the Rams 1. He got one last year against the Titans and Taylor knows it's not always his fault because the 6-4, 220-pound Higgins is just so massive.
"That's a big guy and a little guy and the flag just comes out," Taylor said. "That's something we've got to help Tee with because sometimes it just looks bad when it's not really as bad, and that's just the nature of being a big receiver. He's always going to have to deal with that."
FLAG DAY: If anything, it was the mental mistakes more than the playbook limitations that had Taylor and Callahan on guard Wednesday. In the first half, back-to-back drives were blown up on three pre-snap penalties. Two of them by the longest-tenured offensive players, slot receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon. Mixon's flinch on third-and-one turned into Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown's false start on third-and-six.
"Putting yourself in a spot where you're an extremely manageable third down into really low odds of converting on third-and-one is frustrating," Callahan said. "It was three different guys and we're at home with the cadence. I don't (attribute it to lack of practice) because Joe and TB have been here for like ten years apiece, so it's not hard for them to know what the cadence is and how to manage it. Those are the things that I think have held us back."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Defensive coordinator Dr. Lou Anarumo fired up another masterpiece as his guys allowed their only third-down conversion with 63 seconds left on the Rams' last play.
"I did not realize it until the last third down that they had. Those are the kinds of things you don't want to see," said the baseball superstitious Anarumo. "It's just like saying you've got a no-hitter. Listen, those are rare opportunities. Probably the only one I remember was in 2017. Maybe Dolphins-Patriots in Miami."
No maybe about it. When Anarumo was the Dolphins secondary coach, Miami blanked Tom Brady on 11 third downs in a 27-20 Monday night win. Hard to forget …
Another gauge of how they think Burrow is progressing is how many quarterbacks they make active on game day. For a very rare time Monday, both Jake Browning and Reid Sinnett were up.
"We'll see. I wouldn't have made that decision, certainly that pertained to last week and just where Joe was at," Taylor said. "Not necessary to make that decision at this point …
One guy who wasn't up was Trevor Siemian. He was cut to make room for Browning and is now with the Jets.
"I didn't expect to answer Jets questions today, but I like Trevor," Taylor said. "I liked being around him. He's smart. He's had experience in this league. Brian had coached him before, he liked him. He impressed us. He was getting better and better every week understanding our offense. I think he'll do a great job wherever he's at." ….