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Sunday's Hot Spots: PR Jones To IR; Irv Smith Jr. Ruled Out For Titans; Burrow Hopes To Continue As Mr. October; Motion Passes; McCarron Makes Himself At Home

WR Ja'Marr Chase runs the ball during the Rams-Bengals Monday Night Football Game on September 25, 2023 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
WR Ja'Marr Chase runs the ball during the Rams-Bengals Monday Night Football Game on September 25, 2023 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If past is prologue, the Bengals are on schedule for a good outing Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) in Tennessee.

The Oct. 1 game flips the calendar to the month Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has thrown his most touchdown passes with 24 and averages his second most passing yards with 304. He's also thrown 24 touchdown passes in September, but his 89.4 passer rating and 247 yards make it his worst month. Yet in October he's got a 102.1 rating to go with 8.3 yards per attempt, nearly two yards longer than September.

They've also won six straight in what is supposed to be the dreaded short week for a Thursday night game or Sunday after a Monday night. The skein began late in 2020 when they went on the road to beat Houston the Sunday after they beat the Steelers on Monday night at Paycor Stadium.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor isn't sure why.

'We keep our guys fresh. We're mindful of that," Taylor said after Friday's practice. "Our schedule works well. We moved our schedule back on Wednesday, maybe the guys like that. It's just we've got good players and they're good at overcoming."

And Burrow is 6-0-1 in the third and fourth games of the season.

SPECIAL LOSS: Taylor ruled out rookie punt returner Charlie Jones (thumb) and tight end Irv Smith Jr. (hamstring). Expect Tanner Hudson to again be promoted from the practice squad to replace Smith. Then later in the day Jones went to four-week injured reserve when the Bengals claimed Cowboys linebacker Devin Harper off waivers. Harper, a 2022 sixth-round pick, has been a speedy special teams guy who has played three games in each of the last two seasons.

Tough to lose Jones for a game like this one against the Titans premier punter Ryan Stonehouse, trying to become the first player to lead the NFL in punting average in his first two seasons. The Titans are 12th in net punting and Jones is leading the AFC in punt returns with an 18.8 average. Next man up could be wide receiver Trenton Irwin. He's got three career punt returns, all in 2021. Jones has been a big factor. His 81-yard punt return in the second week was their first touchdown of the season On Monday night his 19-yard punt return in the fourth quarter set up Evan McPherson's 54-yard field goal that provided the winning points.

BENCH ROUTES: The Bengals stud wide receivers were asked to compare their bench routes against the Titans. Ja'Marr Chase has the most famous one, a 19-yard bullet from Burrow with 15 seconds left in the 2021 AFC Divisional to set up Evan McPherson's winning 52-yard field goal. Tee Higgins ran a beauty on third-and nine early in a drive last year in the middle of the second quarter for 15 yards on another drive that ended in a McPherson field goal for a 13-10 lead as the Bengals came back from down 10-3 to win 20-16.

"We both got open," Chase said.

"I remember Troy overemphasizing to us on that bench route the whole practice," Chase said of receivers coach Troy Walters, "because we might end up seeing (cover) two. We ended up seeing two a lot that year, especially in the playoffs we kept seeing it."

Higgins thought back to the AFC Divisional snap and said the same thing about the route he ran that play.

"We were both open."

TEE FOR TENNESSEE: Chase (hip) didn't play in Tennessee last year, but Higgins had a monster game with 114 yards on seven catches and the winning touchdown high-pointing Burrow's 27-yard dime.

But that's what he does when he goes back home to Tennessee. He grew up in Oak Ridge, where he was the state's Mr. Football two-and-a-half hours away from Nissan Stadium.

"This one is a little special to me," said Higgins, who figures he's purchased about 20 tickets. "A lot of family and friends coming to the game. It'd be good to put on a good performance for my people."

He definitely likes the building. In his other outing in Nashville, he had another seven catches in that playoff game for 96 yards. And you know he's looking for another big one after he dropped a couple of balls and was called for pushing off on a 38-yard catch Monday night. Despite his 89-yard game against Baltimore, he has just 110 yards, his fewest in the first three games of a season.

"He had the two drops the other day. He knows there's a higher expectation than that," Taylor said. "All of us to a man were not good in week one. That's a whole group effort. I know what Tee's about. I don't have concerns."

JA'MARR JAMMING: Chase has people there, too. He'll be matched up against Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton, a guy he's been playing against since they were freshmen at Archbishop Rummel in Metairie, La., just outside New Orleans, long before they went to LSU.

"He's the reason I went to my high school. We've been battling since ninth grade when I was playing receiver," Chase said. "He's the reason I'm really good, too. He's fast. He's got an all-around game. If I can get him uncomfortable then I can win."

During the offense's slow start, Chase has been urging Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan to move him around and after last week's one-on-one session with Callahan, they put him in motion a little bit more against the Rams and were rewarded with his 2023 break-out game of 12 catches for 141 yards.

They've done it before, but Chase said this motion was a little bit different. He embraces the concept.

"I like it because it gives the defense a moment to think," Chase said. "Instead of just sitting there and looking at my leverage and say, 'Oh, he's going to run this because of this split.' Now they have to think about what I'm about to do since I'm going in motion. It helps the all-round game."

And then there's the running start, but Chase says he doesn't prefer it: "I don't care. I'm not Tyreek Hill fast."

He just wants to be faster than Fulton because there'll be a little juice there.

"I haven't talked to him in a minute," Chase said. "I think when I'm going against friends, the matchup is a little more intense because we know each other."

If Chase comes up with ten catches Sunday, he'll tie another LSU wide receiver, Jarvis Landry, as the third- fastest player in NFL history to reach 200 career receptions in 33 games. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. did it in 30 and Michael Thomas in 32.

BACK TO THE FUTURE: It's all been both very new and very familiar for quarterback AJ McCarron since he signed to the Bengals practice squad last week.

As he watched the Bengals wring out a 19-16 victory over the Rams in the Ring of Honor game Monday night, it brought back memories of another night game at Paycor. There wasn't that surreal mist of the 2015 Wild Card Game, but the atmosphere was similar.

"You could hear and see how much the town is into it. Just like they were that night for us," says McCarron, who had one of the greatest moments in NFL playoff history that night as a backup quarterback who rallied his team from a 15-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to a 16-15 lead before an 18-16 loss at the gun.

The more things stay the same, the more they change. McCarron's got his old locker, but a new number. No. 4. Wide receiver Tee Higgins, who just switched from No. 85, has that No. 5 you can see through the mist on the video. But he has no desire to get it back.

"I'm sure Tee had to pay to get that," McCarron said.

A fifth-round pick in 2014 who last played here in 2017, McCarron is bowled over by the changes to the player space. Not that it wasn't up to speed back then, but the new amenities have him telling guys like Burrow they've got it pretty good.

"It's great to see them win and what winning brings, putting the money in it and making the place nicer. It's special to see," McCarron said.

There are two players left from that 2017 offense: "Mix and TB," said McCarron of Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd. And there are no players left from that Wild Card Game. Suddenly, he's the bridge between the two playoff runs.

"Anytime you get a chance to play in the league is fun and a blessing," said McCarron, 33, coming off a stint in the XFL after not being in the NFL since 2021. "But to come back to this organization, where it all started for me is special. Not only for me, but my family."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Mixon has three straight games with at least 50 rushing yards for the first time since he did it in seven of the last eight weeks of 2021 …

He had 19 carries for 65 yards against the Rams, his most carries since he set the Bengals record with five touchdowns on Nov. 6, 2022 against Carolina at Paycor …

The Bengals face a Titans offense ranked in the bottom five in scoring, total offense, pass offense, third down and red zone. …

The Bengals may get a heavy dose of running back Derrick Henry as Tennessee tries to get the two-time NFL rushing champion on track. Henry had just 20 yards on 11 carries last week in Cleveland, his fewest since 2017 after playing only 17 snaps …