The Broncos open their regular season with a contest against the Titans on “Monday Night Football.” Tennessee is a tough draw to begin the season, based on the success they had in 2019 when they made a deep postseason run that almost took them to the Super Bowl.
One of their key players last season, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, was traded to the Broncos earlier this year. The Titans defense is going to look different without Casey, and the Broncos defense should be improved with the former Titans defender.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio admits the team has talked to Casey about his former team.
“We’ve talked to him a little bit. Again, from a defensive lineman standpoint, he’s probably not capable of giving you the ins and outs of coverages that they may be playing on the back end. He can help with what they do up front, what they’re being taught to do, what they look for. I know he’s talked to our offensive coaches about that. He’s talked to the defensive linemen outside of practice about the offensive linemen that he knows from being there and from going against them,” Fangio said.
Besides talking to Casey, the team has to do a few things first and foremost to insure a victory in Week 1. Here are three things the Broncos must do to beat the Titans.
Slow Down a Freight Train
There is no doubt that Titans running back Derrick Henry is one of the best in the game. He is a big power back who can grind down opponents as the game goes on. Without any preseason games, the Broncos have not been able to practice live tackling to the ground. Now, they’ll have to open the season against a player who is incredibly difficult to tackle because of his power and size. Good luck with that.
A big part of stopping (or at least slowing down) Henry will rest on the shoulders of inside linebacker Alexander Johnson. Fangio likes the strides Johnson has made in his system over the last year.
“He was slow to pick it up, the new system and stuff that we put on him last year. But by the fifth game last year, we thought it was time to put him in there. He’s just gotten better and better every week last year. He was slowed by the injury that he played with last year towards the end. He’s picked it up in this camp and has really progressed and improved in his understanding of his jobs and playing them faster which for a guy with his ability, just makes him even a better player,” Fangio said.
The Broncos did hold Henry to his lowest single-game total last year when he had just 28 yards on 15 carries. That experience against Henry is good, but it’s going to be a different ballgame this time around.
Just because the Broncos were able to stop Henry last year does not mean they can just rinse/repeat and get a similar performance. The Titans are playing with much more confidence than they were at the time these two teams played last season. They have Ryan Tannehill in at quarterback, whereas last year for some of that game against Denver, the Titans were still starting Marcus Mariota. The offense responds differently with Tannehill under center, and Denver has to be prepared for a much more confident and motivated team on Monday night.
Protect the Franchise
We don’t yet know if Drew Lock can be the franchise quarterback the team has been searching for, but we should get plenty of clues either way as the course of the 2020 season rolls on. Lock has a big arm, he’s athletic and he is certainly confident in his abilities as a starter. All of these features to his game cannot come through on the field if he’s not well protected by his offensive line.
The Broncos have three quality players on the interior of their offensive line. It’s clearly the strength of the team with Dalton Risner at left guard, Lloyd Cushenberry at center and Graham Glasgow at right guard. These three can help keep interior pressure – something that makes every quarterback look mortal – away from Lock with great frequency.
However, it’s on the outside of the offensive line where problems may arise. They have Garett Bolles at left tackle and Elijah Wilkinson at right tackle. Bolles struggles with penalties and that may not change this season. He’s athletic, but he finds himself out of position often which makes him hold a defender so his quarterback doesn’t get sacked. Bolles is arguably their worst starter on offense, and that’s a huge weak spot as left tackle is one of the most important positions on a football team. Can Bolles play better? His teammates seem to think so.
Wilkinson has seen improvement from Bolles on the other side. “I think I’ve definitely seen a change in him. Just a different guy this year, really trying to hone in on the techniques that Mike Munchak is trying to teach us. Trying to work on things such as holding and those types of things to be better for not only for himself, but for his team and his city. He’s put on weight and he’s really honed in on his technique. He’s really trying to be at his best for this team and this city,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson himself is a good player who was supposed to compete for the starting left tackle position in 2020. Instead, Wilkinson is back at right tackle – where he started most of the 2019 season – since Ja’Wuan James opted out of the 2020 season. Wilkinson is good, although he did allow 8.0 sacks last year. This training camp, Wilkinson has not looked like himself as he is still not 100 percent healthy coming back from ankle surgery he had earlier this year.
The tackles will be under a ton of pressure in the season opener. The Titans have a decent pass rush, which got stronger when they signed former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. He has only been with the team for about a week but most expect him to play against the Broncos. Clowney played under Titans head coach Mike Vrabel before when they were both with the Texans, so he should at least be up to speed enough to play as a part-time pass-rusher against the Broncos. If Denver wants to win, they must protect Lock from Clowney and the rest of the Titans defense.
Lean on Lindsay
The Broncos are going to use a running-back-by-committee this year, featuring both Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay. While the passing game is exciting yet unproven, the Broncos should lean on their rushing attack early and often in the 2020 season.
Gordon is the new addition as the Broncos brought him in this offseason and made him the sixth-highest paid running back. He’s a larger back and I don’t think the Chargers ever used him the right way. Gordon could be better than ever this year, but he was not able to show he was clearly better as a starter than Lindsay in training camp.
Lindsay was undrafted in 2018 and has made NFL history by being the first undrafted player in NFL history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons upon entering the league. He was never the Broncos plan at starter as Royce Freeman was supposed to be the lead back. Lindsay has changed the plans for the Broncos each season by simply being the best player in the backfield. He’s done that again this year by not relenting his job to Gordon.
Entering this offseason, there were questions about Lindsay’s ability as a receiver. In 2019, Lindsay had the second-highest drop rate in the NFL, behind only Raiders wide receiver Tyrell Williams. His lack of size also made some question whether or not he could hold up in pass protection. During training camp, Lindsay has dropped only a couple of passes and looks much more polished catching the ball.
Without preseason games, nobody has been used to tackling or breaking tackles yet this year. This is something Lindsay highlighted as a key to winning this game.
“It affects the offense because if you haven’t been hit and you haven’t been as physical, it’s a shocker. That’s when you have your fumbles and you’re not as focused when you’re catching the ball. For defense, I feel like it’s a lot harder because you haven’t really tackled that much. In this game, and Coach Fangio always stresses it, it’s about breaking tackles and making tackles. In this first game, whoever can make tackles and break tackles is going to win this game,” Lindsay said.
The Broncos should lean on Lindsay in this game against the Titans. His heart and energy is something the team can rely on. Gordon is going to get perhaps 50 percent of the touches in the backfield this week, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Lindsay is more productive with his touches. If the Broncos want to win, then Lindsay needs to lead the way.
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