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11 things I’m watching for in the Broncos’ season opener with the Titans

Can the Denver Broncos get the W against a strong Tennessee Titans team? Here are 11 things I’ll be watching for in this game.

The 2020 Denver Broncos will open their season against a team who was one Patrick Mahomes away from a Super Bowl appearance last year. After the Titans ran their way through the playoffs with a brutally efficient ground game and savvy defense, it became an easy decision to try to keep the core together.

The way covid-19 slashed a ton of the ramp up time every NFL team gets prior to opening day could give the Titans a distinct advantage over a young Broncos team with a new offensive coordinator. Back when the schedule was revealed, it looked as though the Broncos would need to lean on their defense in the early part of the season while the offense found its way. With Von Miller out, it will be crucial for the coaching staff to maximize their opportunities.

Here are the things I’m looking for:

Can Jurrell Casey get revenge on his former team?

Special teams

1. Will they be “special” or $#!+ again?

Tom McMahon was hired after a 2017 season where the Broncos’ special teams ranked 30th in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat. Since McMahon was hired, the Broncos have allowed three punt return touchdowns and have since been a sub par punting unit despite the advantage of eight games at high altitude. His first season is best remembered for the decisions to sign and subsequently cut Marquette King despite the guarantees in his contract, but they actually declined in 2018 before rising all the way to 24th last season.

The decision to retain McMahon was a puzzling one.
The decision to retain McMahon was a puzzling one.

Looking forward, it’s impossible to ignore the Broncos’ decision to replace Casey Kreiter with an unproven long-snapper without concern. Perhaps Jacob Bobenmoyer turns into a perennial Pro Bowler, but McMahon himself talked about how big an adjustment young snappers have to make in the NFL:

“If you look at the snappers in college football, college football rules are 1,000 percent different in the punt game than the NFL. Everybody can release when the ball is snapped, so 95 percent of all the snappers in college football have never ever one time in their life protected. They’ve never had to protect the gap. That’s the biggest adjustment for those guys from a snapper’s perspective.

Let’s hope we aren’t heading towards a season of blocked kicks and punts.

Defense

2. Can the Broncos force Tennessee to play their “B” game?

3. How will the pass rush look without Von Miller?

4. First look at the Strap-less secondary.

5. Is Josey Jewell a hammer, a nail, or just a placeholder?

6. What will Denver do about the play action?

This isn’t the same Tennessee offense the Broncos shut out in week six of last year. Once Ryan Tannehill was inserted into the lineup, the Titans were a top five offense on first and second downs, as well as one of the two best teams in football in third and short situations. They aren’t unstoppable, however. When teams could force the Titans into third and medium+, they remained a below average unit.

There were a number of reasons for this, perhaps none more important than the fact teams don’t need to worry about Derrick Henry on true passing downs. While he’s a competent pass catcher, his need to build up speed hurts what he can do as a route runner. Look no further than the AFC Championship game where Henry played all of two snaps in the last 5 minutes. With a Super Bowl appearance on the line, Arthur Smith had Deion Lewis storming the field.

Look for Tennessee to play out of heavy personnel to try to dictate the tempo. They have four tight ends and a fullback on their roster. Their desire to bludgeon the opposing run defense is going to put stress on Mike Purcell to be a stud right out the gate. If they manage to do it, the Titans could run outside zone on almost every play. That didn’t work last year in part because Purcell was too quick to penetrate and muck things up. He’ll be instrumental in stymieing Henry.

Purcell’s quickness made him very good against zone runs last year.

Both Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell are going to have an early opportunity to prove Elway right in cutting Todd Davis this week. Between Henry and the Titans’ play action game, they’ll be in the crosshairs: Ryan Tannehill was absurdly good on throws between the 10 and 19 yard range last year in part because the run fakes would draw up backers. Smith also isn’t afraid to dial up shot plays, keeping as many as eight players in to block and give receivers time to get deep.

The Titans aren’t afraid to chuck it deep out of run heavy sets.

These shot plays have a dramatic impact on how teams play defense against the Titans. The need to respect the play action game keeps defenders from committing to their run game responsibilities, which opens up creases for Henry to rip through.

The Titans play action game creates an impossible guessing game for opponents.

Leading up to this week, I had the right side of the Titans’ line circled as a match-up that favored the Broncos. Nate Davis was an obvious weak link as a rookie and would have Dennis Kelly lining up beside him. I expected Von Miller to go ham but 2020 had other plans.

There’s no question the Broncos’ pass rush will suffer from the loss of Miller. With Bradley Chubb still on his way back to 100% after suffering a torn ACL in 2019, the bulk of Monday’s responsibilities looks like it will fall on Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu. Fangio’s hinted that 7th round rookie Derrek Tuszka could also be called up from the practice squad to provide depth.

A weaker pass rush is going to really put a spotlight on the remade secondary. The good news is that the Broncos’ schedule may do them a small favor this week because Tennessee isn’t going to put the same stress on the corner depth as teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers will. All reports out of camp suggest both A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan have looked great.

The Titans are closer to solid than spectacular at receiver. A.J. Brown was a sensation as a rookie and will be a test for the corners. After that? Maybe Corey Davis breaks out in year four. He’s never had 900 yards receiving in a season yet, but he is a good blocker and will be used in some nasty splits to create mismatches for the running game. Adam Humphries chose Tennessee over New England last year and gives Tannehill another weapon who can find holes in zones on third down.

The Titans will look to abuse the Broncos’ linebackers.

Offense

7. First look at the Shurmur offense

8. Will pass protection hold up?

9. What does the passing attack look like?

10. What will the backfield workload look like?

11. Is Drew Lock “the guy?”

One of the most underrated losses any NFL team suffered this year is when Dean Pees retired from his post as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Without him, it looks like the Titans D will lean on Mike Vrabel to call plays. He has all of one year of experience doing so.

Limited practice time and no preseason may warrant some tempered expectations for the Broncos’ offense to start the year. It could also be an opportunity for Pat Shurmur to prove he’s the right guy after Elway and the Broncos fired Rich Scangarello after one year.

In my last two years, our roster was just as young as this one. Young players are drafted for a reason. You have to get them in there and you have to get them going. A lot of these guys have played at a very high level, so you just have get them going. That’s just the reality of it. There’s really not a tolerance for mistakes. Guys can’t play anxious. They have to go out and play fast, and I think that’s the challenge—to get out there and let them do it. Not only do it but compete at a high level and put a winning performance on tape.”

It’s apples to oranges because there’s no comparison to this covid quarantine season, but it is worth remembering how Shurmur helped Daniel Jones find a ton of success in his first start last year against a talented Buccaneers’ defense. He mixed in RPOs, screens, and staple concepts like slant-flats to help the rookie score four touchdowns in the 32-31 victory.

I’m anxious to see how Shurmur approaches this game, in part because of the way Tennessee will dial up pressure when looking to confuse blocking schemes. With players like Jadeveon Clowney, Harold Landry, and Jeffrey Simmons, the Titans have the talent along their front to create a ton of issues. My hope is Denver follows the “K.I.S.S.” method with window dressing to avoid becoming predictable.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how the offense adjusts to the injuries to Courtland Sutton and K.J. Hamler. If both can’t go, the receiving corps is painfully low on proven talent. While I’m as high on Jerry Jeudy as anyone, he’s seeing his first real NFL action against opponents. There’s a decent chance Noah Fant is the de facto number one receiver, as the Titans had some issues defending tight ends last year.

The questions surrounding the pass catchers and protection as well as the ramp up to the regular season could mean a run-heavy approach for the Broncos. After all the lip service given to this idea that Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon are both starters, it’ll be very interesting to see how the reps are split up.

When the former Charger signed, I looked back through Shurmur’s history and found he’s never had a committee approach by choice. Maybe the Broncos will be the first, but Lindsay will need to convince the coaching staff to believe in him on passing downs for that to come to fruition.

If the Broncos look to play ball control and run the passing game through Fant, they could find some success going after Rashaan Evans in the second level. He pairs with Jayon Brown to give Tennessee stout run defending backers, but has issues in space. However, it’ll be crucial for Lock to be wary of the Titans’ safeties. Kevin Byard is among the best in the league, and while Kenny Vacarro isn’t an All Pro, he’s a nasty blitzer and underrated in coverage.

Noah Fant could have an early chance to prove 2020 will be his breakout.
Noah Fant could have an early chance to prove 2020 will be his breakout.

Final Thoughts

As I watched the game between the Chiefs and Texans to open the 2020 season, I couldn’t help but feel like Kansas City was toying with their opponent. They’re clearly the class of the league barring a significant injury or three. Having the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC West puts a bit of a glass ceiling on the Broncos’ own season. That could be a blessing in disguise.

Even before Von Miller’s injury, the Broncos probably weren’t bringing home a Lombardi this year. That’s okay so long as the biggest question hanging over the franchise is answered: is Drew Lock “the guy?”

It’s a question we’ll ask until we have a real answer. I’ve watched his five starts last year a half dozen times. I’m cautiously optimistic and yet I still have questions.

The Tennessee Titans represent a real test to start because the way they play defense will highlight how much Lock has grown over the off-season. Can he make the correct reads pre-snap? Can his mechanics hold up under duress? Will he find the right receivers to keep the ball moving if Courtland Sutton isn’t at 100%?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions yet, but I look forward to learning them even more than a Broncos’ victory. I suspect Elway is in a similar boat. The Broncos’ decision to cut Todd Davis after training camp reeked of a cash-cutting measure. Since Miller’s injury, financial terms have been the reason no other Edge rusher was brought in.

Rather than cheap, these moves look savvy. If the Broncos aren’t going to win it all this year, it makes more sense to maximize how much cap space they can roll over into 2021. The way covid-19 has impacted fan attendance will cause a dramatic cap crunch for the majority of teams in the league. Free agency could turn into a buyer’s market unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Back when he was first hired, Elway mentioned a clear goal to “win from now on.” There is no better way to do that than finding a franchise quarterback to build around. If the Broncos enter Lock’s year 3 with confidence he can take them to the promised land, showing restraint this season could give them the ammunition to surround him with elite talent across the roster in 2021.

Here’s hoping Lock proves he’s up the challenge.