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The 5 big things I’m watching in the Broncos’ Week 6 matchup with the Titans

These five things will mean the difference today.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers
Can Flacco deliver the win against a coach who knows him backwards?
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing what a win can do for your outlook. This time last week two of the popular topics around Broncos Country were firing Elway and trading all of the pieces. This week, some of the optimists looking for a playoff berth have come out of the woodwork.

I’m not quite ready to jump onto the wagon just yet. Two games against the Kansas City Chiefs, half of the NFC North, and the best part of the AFC South remain.

The toughest part of the Broncos schedule remains ahead of them.

Which brings us to the Tennessee Titans today. Before the regular season Mike Vrabel talked about cutting his #!@& off to win a Super Bowl, and they were a Blaine Gabbert game away from the postseason in 2018. They came into this season with a talented defense (if the pass rush came together) and a lot of questions on offense.

Things have not gone as they’d hoped so far, and their chance at the dance is looking a little bleak. At 2-3, Football Outsiders’ Playoff Odds Report gives the Titans an 18.2 percent chance at the postseason. The Broncos are catching up after four missed field goals killed the Titans against the 4-1 Buffalo Bills.

For every fan who believes Denver is just a few bad calls away from 3-2, the Titans have every reason to think they’re closer to a 3-2 or 4-1 team than where they currently reside in the standings. They’re going to be desperate to prove it today.

Which brings us to the big matchups I’m watching:


1. Duke Dawson’s health and what it means for Kareem Jackson.

2. What will the Front 7 do for an encore?

The Broncos’ imported second-round corner may just be the most important health question facing the team this week. Due to the injury to Bryce Callahan, Jackson played slot corner for the first three weeks of the season, even after practicing most of camp and the preseason at safety. This led to Will Parks and Trey Marshall logging snaps on the backend beside Justin Simmons - with more disasters than successes.

Heading into the matchup against the Jaguars, Jackson wasn’t able to play through an injury. Fangio turned to the second year corner from Florida, who has quietly transformed into a solid slot corner the last two weeks. He’s had some mistakes, but has looked far better than I dared hope when he took the job. It seems the Broncos’ coach agrees, because Dawson played 81 percent of the defensive snaps in Los Angeles.

However, this makes his foot injury and questionable injury status concerning. If he can’t suit up, the Broncos will all but certainly have to move Jackson up once more, which would weaken their defense against both the run and pass.

Jackson at safety was instrumental to shutting down the Chargers’ offense.

Should Parks slide back in at safety, it may not be a complete disaster so long as Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, and Alexander Johnson continue their standout play from a week ago. I’ve already written at length about Johnson for this week’s GIF Horse, but he was a revelation against the pass and a real thumper against the run in his first career start. I’m eager to see what he can do as teams start to get film on him.

Johnson had an amazing first game, but teams will try to test his ability to read through trash and move laterally.

Purcell and especially Harris could be the underrated X-factors. 81 percent of Tennessee’s 113 runs have come from the left side B-gap over to the right of the defense and close to half of those runs have come out of two tight end sets. The Titans’ offensive coordinator wants to play bully ball, and how Denver’s rebuilt run defense holds up will be big.

When they do drop back to pass, Marcus Mariota has been the easiest quarterback to sack in football this year. It’s been a combination of risk averse quarterback who holds the ball too long, and a shaky offensive line minus their star left tackle Taylor Lewan. The Buffalo Bills got home five times last week even with Lewan back in the lineup for the first time.


3. Joe Flacco vs Dean Pees.

4. Will Scangarello scheme for the mismatch or continue to feed Sutton?

5. Can Risner and the offensive line pave the way for another big day?

Remember back when Vic Fangio was facing off against the Bears and every single press conference had a variation of, “How will you do against the team you coached for?” It was cliche and tired, yet it carried a lot of weight. The Broncos head coach admitted that the schemes changed enough that he still was going into it new from that perspective, but the time spent with Chicago’s personnel did help him have a good understanding of the players.

One of the underrated “reunions” in today’s matchup will feature a former Ravens defensive coordinator against the quarterback he saw every day. Dean Pees is probably best known for his work with the New England Patriots in the years between their Super Bowl runs, but he actually worked in Baltimore as a linebacker coach and then coordinator for far longer.

Pees’ familiarity with Flacco could be big today because he’ll have an even better feel for how to attack the veteran QB.

On the other side of the coin, close to half of Flacco’s career in Baltimore coincided with Pees, so the scheme he’s seeing today shouldn’t surprise him. That could be big because the Titans’ pressure scheme is closer to the kitchen sink variety with a lot of different blitz looks.

Last year, this helped mask Tennessee’s lack of edge talent, and no team got as many sacks out of their defensive backs as Pees did. This season, the addition of Cameron Wake and development of Harold Landry led them to be one of the better pass rushes in all of football.

Fortunately for the Broncos, Wake won’t be suiting up today. That should help the tackles, but it could lead to even more exotic rush looks from the Titans. Denver has had issues with the blitz this year, as Flacco isn’t always quick to identify where to go with the ball. How he fares against his former DC will have a huge impact on the game.

The Titans’ pass rush is one of the nastiest in football.

This may be a game where DaeSean Hamilton quiets the doubts. As I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter the last couple weeks, Hamilton’s statistical production doesn’t reflect what all he’s contributed to the offense.

He’s been a solid blocker and has been a reliable intermediate option who just hasn’t gotten a lot of looks. Today could change that - one of the bigger holes in the Titans’ defense appears to be the middle of the field and defending tertiary receivers.

The other way Rich Scangarello may try to exploit this will be Jeff Heuerman, Andrew Beck, and Noah Fant against the Titans’ second level. Last week, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator mixed in doses of 13 personnel and could do so again.

Tennessee has had an issue defending tight ends, and the rookie in particular could be an intriguing mismatch in the passing game.

I do suspect this could be a bad matchup for Courtland Sutton. Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are two of the better “big” corners in the league, and if Kevin Byard isn’t the best safety in football, he’s on the very short list.

It’ll be interesting if the game plan finds ways to get Sutton looks regardless of if he’s used to help the supporting cast exploit their matchups. It could also be a big Emmanuel Sanders game, as he got open multiple times in L.A. without seeing the ball.

Sutton could do a lot of work drawing coverage today.

This has the feel of another week where the running game is important to manage the down and distance.

Last week, the offensive line and Phillip Lindsay were instrumental in sealing the game late, but they have a tough task ahead of them. The Titans’ front is one of the best teams in football at stuffing runs for a loss, which would put Flacco and the tackles into obvious passing situations.

Lindsay may have to be spectacular again to keep the Broncos’ rushing attack on track.

Final Thoughts

On paper, today’s game represents one of the closer teams in terms of talent the Broncos have faced so far in 2019. Tennessee has questions at quarterback, receiver, and along the offensive line. They’ll also be missing one of their best pass rushers.

Come kickoff, things may get scary quickly because of Dean Pees’ scheme, and injuries to the Broncos secondary may give life to Derrick Henry and the Titans’ ground game. If Vic Fangio wants to notch the second win of his head coaching career, he’ll need Flacco to play mistake-free football for a full game.

Let’s hope 5 can pull it off.