It should not have been a surprise that the Broncos’ offense struggled to gain yards and points against the Titans’ defense. After all, as everyone had pointed out all week, the Tennessee defense had allowed an average of only 15.2 points per game through the first five weeks, sixth in the NFL.
That defense also ranked in the top 10 of almost every calculated defensive stat — including third in percentage of drives ending in points plus owning seven takeaways and 17 sacks.
But that defense would end up with just one sack and one interception at Mile High on Sunday even while just giving up 16 points.
And it was 16 points too many for a team that couldn’t find points anywhere.
The X-factor was the Broncos’ defense - particularly its run defense - completely hamstringing Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Titans’ offense.
On the day, the Broncos’ defense notched seven sacks and three interceptions, plus 10 hits on the quarterback and nine tackles for a loss.
The Broncos’ defense got two sacks, an interception, a tackle for loss and a red-zone pass-breakup on Titans third downs. pic.twitter.com/ltUpN2VHDg— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 14, 2019
Although this Titans offense was above-average at best coming into Sunday’s game, running back Derrick Henry and tight end Delanie Walker are the kind of players that earlier in the season could have easily gashed this Broncos defense for huge chunks of yards.
But after time in the scheme and changes to personnel, the defense has looked far more in sync the past two weeks.
Of course, Vic Fangio has another reason for the turnaround - embarrassment.
“That last quarter and a half against Jacksonville, that obviously was embarrassing to everybody involved,” Fangio said, recalling the game in which Broncos allowed Leonard Fournette to run ramshod over the defense with 225 yards on the ground. “We seemed to have done a better job against it of late.”
Given where the Broncos’ run defense was coming from, that was an understatement. Henry managed only 28 rushing yards, and the next two best rushers for the Titans were the two quarterbacks - Mariota and his relief in the second half, Ryan Tannehill. In total the Broncos kept the Titans to 39 yards on the ground.
Although “stopping the run” is an emphasis every week for the defense, Fangio again highlighted the effect of the Jacksonville game when the defense let a lead run away from it - literally.
“In that last quarter and a half when we were last home here, when our run defense left the stadium too early, I think it embarrassed everybody, me included,” Fangio said, adding that since then the defense has just played better. “We haven’t really put anything in new, one or two things which I’ve called once or twice in the last few weeks. Guys have just played better. Run defense, a good bit of it, is the mindset and technique. We’ve had a good mindset and played with better technique the last two weeks.”
Although the head coach didn’t say it outright, part of that has undoubtedly been some personnel changes. Putting in big guy Mike Purcell at nose tackle in favor of Adam Gotsis and moving Shelby Harris to defensive end has no doubt made the interior line tougher as Purcell has looked like a one-man wrecking crew at times.
And Alexander Johnson taking over for an injured Josey Jewell last week - but getting the nod in favor of a healthy Jewell at inside linebacker Sunday - has also proved an immediate impact.
Johnson led the team in tackles with six solo and three combined, logged 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and one tackle for a loss - allowing fans to see the famed “dino roar” multiple times.
“Coaches are getting good calls, I’ve been communicating with Todd [Davis] really well, and we’re out there playing hard, physical and fast,” Johnson said of the success. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Last week Fangio hinted that he knew Johnson had talent but was waiting to play the young linebacker when he proved up to NFL speed.
“To be honest with you, I’m not surprised. I think I’ve said all along that he’s got talent. He can be a good inside linebacker in this league,” Fangio said after the game. “He’s a big, physical inside linebacker that plays hard and likes football. Hopefully he will get better and better.”
Along with a stifling run defense, the Broncos’ defense feasted on the sort of game-changing plays that eluded it the first four contests. With seven sacks and three interceptions yesterday, the secondary was no weakness.
The Broncos' defense allowed an average of 149 rushing yards and 2.25 total TDs in the first four games.— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 13, 2019
They gave up only 35 rushing yards to the Chargers in Week 5 and only 39 to the Titans today. Not a single TD from either opponent.
In fact, its strength on the defense allowed for most of those sacks as neither Mariota nor Tannehill could find an open receiver often enough.
“I think most sacks are that way, to be honest with you. If the quarterback can throw in time and in rhythm, it’s hard to get there.,” Fangio noted. “You need to make the quarterback look to option two or three, and that gives the rush time to get there. We got there enough today.”
That likely won’t be the case on Thursday when the Broncos face Patrick Mahomes, a quarterback who can extend a play for what seems like minutes - as the Broncos’ defense learned the hard way last season.
And with a secondary being filled with backups, due to injury to Bryce Callahan and De’Vante Bausby, Fangio seems to understand the fragility of the situation. Still, that doesn’t take away from Sunday’s accomplishment.
When asked how he thought the secondary held up, Fangio’s response was gold.
“Did they score?” he said, laughing. “They held up pretty well, but as you all are very well aware of, we have a different test coming here in a few days.”
For the moment, though, the defense should use the game as a confidence boost. Because despite injuries and a rough start with a lot of hand-wringing, players and coaches have pulled together and put out an incredible performance.
Chris Harris Jr. certainly is.
“Fangio had a hell of a game plan. It was very strong from start to finish and he prepared us well,” said the cornerback who got his 20th interception - on the day former Broncos’ cornerback Champ Bailey was inducted into the Ring of Fame and honored for his HOF induction. “I had in my mind to put on a show for those guys, especially Champ. I told him I’d give him my football. ...Hopefully if I ever get to 50 or 40, that would be amazing too.”
Harris Jr. believes the defense - particularly the secondary that has had a lot of moving pieces - is ready to take another step.
“The No. 1 thing is that we’re not giving up big plays. We’re not giving those huge, big plays up last year like we did on a weekly basis,” he said. “We’ve been able to eliminate that, and I think it’s really helping us.”
The corner is also ready to move past this game and look ahead on a very short week to a very good team.
“I’m hyped up. I can’t wait.,” he said. “You all don’t have to ask me about the Titans anymore, I’m ready for the Chiefs. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to every year.”
Von Miller, whose sack count went up another 0.5 sack but whose presence was definitely known with three QB hits, is also ready for the matchup.
“We’re good. We’re confident. We’ve always been confident when we play the Chiefs at home,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate this one tonight though for about two hours and then get started on the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ve lost two straight, so they’ll come in here ready to fight. We’ve got to be able to play our style of football and come out tough.”
And after a seven-sack day for the team, Miller is looking forward to once again saying that “style” is a tough pass rush.
“We’ve been rushing all season long. We’ve just been chipping away. You hit the rock 100 times and on the 101st blow, it cracks for us,” he said. “It’s good to have so many guys have so much success today. We had three picks. Turnovers have been evading us all season long. To have an OK week last week and a big week this week feels good.”
DeMarcus Walker— T. Kothe (@tkothe_nfl) October 14, 2019
In 32 games under Vance Joseph/Joe Woods: 2 sacks, 11 comb tackles (9 solo), 2 TFL.
In 6 games under Vic Fangio/Ed Donatell: 3 sacks, 12 comb tackles (8 solo), 1 TFL.
The player who tied for the most sacks on the team with two - DeMarcus Walker (along with Derek Wolfe) - seemed relieved to finally be used in a way that makes sense for his ability - and then be able to deliver.
“To be honest with you, it was very humbling and I’m just blessed and very happy in how far I’ve come,” the third-year player said. “I think the opportunity presented itself. It was really up to me ... I was picked two (second round) for a reason, and I just had to seize my opportunities.”
Shelby Harris, who has also come up big recently, especially since moving outside, said the defense “really stepped up to the plate” on Sunday.
“We didn’t start the season off as well as we wanted to, but it’s all about what you do next. We are just going to keep pounding along and keep surprising people,” he said. “I feel the confidence in everyone, but the real test is this Thursday. There’s a quick turnaround with not much rest. We are going to have to go in there and play like we did today.”
Harris also noted what a team effort the defensive performance was against the Titans.
“Wolfe had two sacks, Walker had two sacks, you know it’s a collective effort. That’s what you have to realize, is that none of us are going to say it’s us, it’s us, it’s us. It’s everyone,” said Harris, who had one sack, one QB hit and one batted-down ball. “Everyone is over here killing it. We killed it on the run, and when you kill it on the run, you set up the pass. It’s a collective effort.”
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