The Broncos went into the day looking to start a winning streak. They wound up with just that along with defensive dominance in the first shutout of Vic Fangio’s career.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Ja’Wuann James didn’t play.
Technically we learned this today, but in reality Vic Fangio made it pretty clear last Wednesday.
Vic Fangio said Ju'Wuan James is "coming along okay, just okay"— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2019
Reading between the lines, may be another week of Elijah Wilkinson #Broncos Country
The hope has to be the Broncos are easing James back in just in time for a huge divisional matchup with the Chiefs this Thursday.
2. Duke Dawson was inactive
Late in the week Dawson showed up on the injury report with a foot injury. Prior to the game the Broncos worked him out to see how it’d fair and he wound up missing the contest. It was an interesting matchup because the Titans’ best receiver A.J. Brown is primarily a slot receiver in three receiver sets, but they run about half of their offense out of heavier sets.
Vic Fangio primarily used Will Parks and Chris Harris in the slot with Dawson out. It was an adjustment I liked a lot because it kept Jackson at safety where he’s a far more effective player against the run, and it maximized what Parks does well: one on one coverage and run support close to the line of scrimmage.
3. The Broncos ground game started hot.
After the Titans opening drive stalled out, the Broncos offense opened creeping up on the redzone because of a great return by Diontae Spencer. Three plays to Phillip Lindsay and Andy Janovich later and points were all but a certainty.
Once again, the offense bogged down in the high red zone after a missed block by Dalton Risner and incomplete pass by Joe Flacco. Brandon McManus gave them points. The bigger implication may have been the injuries suffered by both Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans on the drive. Both left the game and only Evans returned.
On the Broncos second drive they went back to the well in a weird spot. On 3rd and 9 the ball wound up in Royce Freeman’s hands (by audible or design is an open question) and while it didn’t work, the blocking was there.
4. The run defense looked stout early
On the Titans second drive they moved away from three receiver sets back to their heavier packages. It didn’t help and they wound up with two consecutive three and outs.
Things weren’t much better for the third drive and Tennessee ended the first quarter with just 15 rushing yards.
5. Marcus Mariota struggles against the Broncos’ pass rush
This was a predictable development going into the game. While the Titans’ quarterback hasn’t thrown an interception this year, he’s also been sacked more than any QB in the league. It was an issue in the first quarter and really started to snowball in the second.
Fun fact: Marcus Mariota hasn't thrown an interception this year.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 13, 2019
He's also the most sacked QB in the league. pic.twitter.com/gTh8JYGaBb
Von Miller didn’t get home on the very next play, but his rush kept Mariota from converting third down.
On the next drive, Derek Wolfe got home to keep the Titans from crossing midfield after he destroyed rookie Nate Davis on third down.
Derek Wolfe just stole a man's soul. pic.twitter.com/3UuKqagzjq— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 13, 2019
In the second half the Broncos pass rush continued to hammer Marcus Mariota and on third and nine he threw an ugly interception to Justin Simmons.
6. The Courtland Sutton breakout tour continues.
Last week Rich Scangarello said the Titans would be the best secondary the Broncos would face to this point in 2019. I was a bit dubious, but did consider them very good.
Kevin Byard is legit. One of the best safeties in all of football.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 10, 2019
As far as corners, Packers and Bears were better. https://t.co/6cmWN0FLWY
The secondary did present a really tough matchup for Courtland Sutton because both Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler were two of the best big receiver coverage artists in the league.
Turns out, it didn’t matter.
7. Chris Harris shows out for Champ.
Today’s game was a big event because Champ Bailey officially became a member of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame. Chris Harris played like he had every intention of joining him someday and gave his former teammate quite the show.
A.J. Brown’s quietly been one of the leagues best rookie receivers this season on a per play basis, so it made sense for Mariota to try and get him involved. It went awry when Harris ripped the ball out, and the Broncos would have gotten a turnover if the ball hadn’t been ruled out of bounds on the fumble recovery.
Later in the second quarter, the Broncos offense bogged down in their own red zone the Titans got the ball with favorable field position. Marcus Mariota made the least of it by immediately throwing a pick to Harris on first down.
8. Another week where the zebras robbed Denver left and right.
Generally speaking, I try not to be the guy who whines about bad refs. It happens to every team to some extent or another (except New England) and it’s best to just hope it goes your way next time.
So keep that in mind as you scroll through some of these calls.
Now, theoretically the fact that the NFL made pass interferance reviewable should solve some of this.
In reality, the league office isn’t overturning any of the horrific calls around the league. So teams just have to grin and bear this over and over. What’s really frustrating is when questionable calls cost teams points, such as the dubious offensive pass interference on Courtland Sutton above that killed a drive at the end the first half.
9. Emmanuel Sanders suffers a knee injury.
The third quarter opened with news that the veteran receiver was ruled out with a knee injury. By the time you read this the best place to find out more will be another post, so go here to keep up with things as we’ll update it as we find out more.
10. The Broncos’ third quarter struggles continue.
One of the big complaints about Rich Scangarello the last couple of weeks has been how the Broncos’ offense looks in the third quarter. Last Friday I pored over the All-22 and found a lot of the blame fell on players rather than the first year offensive coordinator.
Today was more of the same.
11. Rich Scangarello leans on Spencer as a decoy.
Diontae Spencer had a huge punt return to open the game, but it was his use on offense that really caught my eye. Depending on what happens with Emmanuel Sanders this could be huge going forward.
Last week Spencer was given the ball in motion for one carry. Today the Broncos dialed up a similar look to help the running game.
Diontae Spencer on offense alert! After last week Scangarello used him as a decoy here. pic.twitter.com/3iCxWcfVpz— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 13, 2019
In the second half motion by Spencer caught the Titans’ safety to clear space for Royce Freeman after a catch.
Love how Scangarello used Spencers' speed to open this up for Freeman. pic.twitter.com/cji7EjbvgX— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 13, 2019
12. Phillip Lindsay is the Broncos’ goal line back
If I remember the announcers correctly, Big Phil has 10 touchdowns in his last 12 games. Maybe it’s time teams and draft analysts stop counting out backs because of their size.
13. Marcus Mariota benched, Broncos sack party continues.
Following the Justin Simmons’ interception Mike Vrabel pulled the plug on his struggling quarterback for Ryan Tannehill. The move came after the Titans’ head coach said he wanted his QB to play every game so it will be interesting to see how things play out next week.
In the meantime, Tannehill looked a lot like Mariota.
Even with a new quarterback, the Titans couldn’t stop the Broncos’ rush. Alexander Johnson finished the day with the first sacks of his NFL career, Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris, and DeMarcus Walker also got shots on passers.
14. The Broncos’ D emphatically puts the game away.
After Joe Flacco and the offense failed to get out of the shadow of their own goal post, Tannehill’s completion to Corey Davis had Tennessee threatening in the red zone. The Denver defense made sure that’s all they ever did.
The Titans came out in a two tight end shotgun set that Fangio matched with the Broncos’ base 3-4. Mike Purcell blew up his blocker and tackled Derrick Henry for a loss.
On third down Tannehill took a shot at the end zone, but Harris suffocated his assignment and knocked the ball out to force a fourth down. Denver saved their best play for last though.
15. Phillip Lindsay’s extraordinary play is almost ordinary.
Last week I got a little grief for pointing out 11 Broncos who had a great game in Los Angeles because I failed to list Lindsay. Part of that’s because he’s like Von Miller; so good you expect it. This week he showed that off with an awesome second effort 30-yard scamper to help ice the game.
It wasn’t always pretty. The offense in particular had its fair share of struggles against Dean Pees’ exotic pressures. Combine that with Sanders’ injury and things could look bleak with the Kansas City Chiefs looming on a very short week.
But that’s a worry for tomorrow. The Broncos’ are 2-0 through the second quarter of the season and Fangio’s defense is looking every bit as good as most of us hoped.
These are the 11 players who most impressed me. As always, the following list is just based off of live action and with additional film study I’ll probably amend who I liked the most:
1. Phillip Lindsay
2. Alexander Johnson
3. Shelby Harris
4. Chris Harris Jr.
5. Justin Simmons
6. Kareem Jackson
7. Courtland Sutton
8. Derek Wolfe
9. Todd Davis
10. Diontae Spencer
11. DeMarcus Walker