Kevin Byard ate his vegetables, so to speak, even though he knew they’d taste awful.
"Enough to make you puke," was Mike Vrabel's review.
No need to dig deep into the memory banks for a suitably foreboding introduction of last season's blustery, cold loss to the Cincinnati Bengals for the Tennessee Titans. Vrabel accomplished it in five words. Well done, coach.
Nonetheless, on Monday night, Byard braced himself and went back and studied the 31-20 defeat. He couldn’t say he enjoyed the experience, either.
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"It didn’t look like us," Byard said. "We’re a totally different team."
Extra motivation shouldn’t be needed for anyone at this stage in the playoffs, but the Bengals (11-7) make an intriguing visitor for the AFC divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) because of this previous meeting.
Whether or not they’ll admit it this week, the Titans who were on last season's team have to feel as if they owe the Bengals. They were embarrassed in Cincinnati, and they haven’t been embarrassed much under Vrabel.
Even this season, as we know, the Titans (12-5) have been prone to the odd inexplicable result.
But this was different.
There are games in which you’ll come out flat and fight and fall short. Then there are defeats in which you can’t stomach what you see in the mirror.
That 2020 loss to the Bengals (a four-win team last season, and the game really wasn’t a close as the final score) was a rough experience for everyone on the Titans’ sideline. For the defense, however, it was humiliating, the low point of a dismal season.
It encapsulated a season’s worth of defensive shortcomings – inability to rush the passer, cover in the secondary and get off the field on third down – into one afternoon. The Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow took full advantage, going 10-of-15 on third down. The rookie Burrow seemed unstoppable. He extended plays. He did what he wanted, generally making the Titans look silly.
If you go watch and can keep down your breakfast, you'll clearly see how far the Titans’ defense has come from those dumpster-fire days of 2020.
"The communication is so much better," Byard said. "The coordination with the rush and coverage, it’s just so much better. That’s why I didn’t really enjoy watching the game."
Players got fired over that game. It all but ended two careers. Afterward, the Titans released cornerback Johnathan Joseph and edge rusher Vic Beasley – each having proven to be a bad free-agent signing. Joseph went to the Cardinals and Beasley to the Raiders. But neither played in 2021, with Joseph having retired after 15 seasons.
Joseph was picked on by the Bengals throughout this game. And inexplicably, Burrow wasn’t sacked – he was barely even touched – despite playing behind an offensive line that was down at least four starters at the time.
The Bengals struggled with pass protection then. They struggle with protecting Burrow now, having allowed 55 sacks this regular season, third-most in the NFL. (For comparison’s sake, the Titans haven’t protected well, either, and they allowed 47.)
The Bengals have allowed an average of 4.4 sacks in their losses and 2.4 in their victories.
That’s perhaps the best reason to like Titans’ chances heading into Saturday. Their pass rush, which was such a weakness last season, has become a strength in 2021 with free-agent additions – good ones, these – Denico Autry and Bud Dupree.
They’ve meshed nicely with Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry, creating one of the more productive defensive lines in the NFL this season. The Titans have been one of the league’s best run-stopping defenses, and they’ve also been able to consistently pressure quarterbacks with only four players.
"It’s going to come down to … how our front four play this week," Simmons said. "We know it, especially in the playoffs. Stopping the run, but also how can we affect the quarterback?"
For that, it’d be better late than never.
Follow Gentry Estes on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans remember embarrassing 2020 loss to Cincinnati Bengals