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14 things we learned in the Broncos 16-14 loss over the Titans

The Broncos lose a sloppy game to start 0-1.

Tennessee Titans v Denver Broncos
Drew Lock was both encouraging and frustrating in his first start of 2020.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Welcome back to the NFL! The Broncos’ 2020 season is officially underway and judging by the meltdown on Twitter it’s already a full blown crisis. Tennessee won the game in the final moments after Vic Fangio’s bizarre clock management allowed them to whittle the clock down before Stephen Gostkowski had his chance at redemption.

Not here to defend Fangio as that was a weird final drive, but there were a ton of moments leading up to it that could be far more important for the rest of the season.

This is what we learned.

1. P.J. Locke was activated. Courtland Sutton wasn’t.

With no preseason to give us any hints on where some of the young players were at, the inactive list really caught my eye tonight. Albert Okwuegbunam has earned a ton of hype from camp because of some highlight catches around the red zone, but the coaches have mentioned expressed a desire to see more from him as a blocker. Tonight we learned they meant it.

There are new rules for the expanded practice squad this year that allow for players to be activated directly off it on game day. This week the Broncos activated Derrek Tuszka and P.J. Locke. I expected Tuszka since Von Miller got hurt because the Edge room only had three healthy bodies this week, but did not expect Locke.

Hours before kickoff we learned Courtland Sutton wouldn’t play. Few receivers were so integral to their team’s passing attack as Sutton was last year, and his absence was certainly felt.

2. Broncos attacked the right side of the Titans line early

With Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly starting on the right side, Tennessee’s offensive line had a clear weakness and the Broncos didn’t hesitate to attack out the gate. On the first series of the game Jeremiah Attaochu got a really nice pressure rushing off off the right edge.

Later in the game Attaochu struck again when he got to Tannehill for a sack. He also forced a critical miss in the second half.

3. Noah Fant looks ready for his breakout.

Few people know better about the highs and lows of a rookies adjustment to life in the NFL at tight end quite like Noah Fant. There were times as a rookie where Broncos Country wanted to gnash their teeth as he found his way in 2019. Both Jeff Essary and I’ve mentioned a few times over the offseason how Pat Shurmur would be huge for him, and it looks like the 2019 first rounder looks like he’s ready to take the league by storm in year two.

Whether it was Kyle Rudolph with the Vikings or Evan Engram with the Giants, Shurmur has shown over his last couple stints that he knows how to maximize the effectiveness of his tight ends. I’m really excited to see what the year holds for Fant.

At halftime, Fant had caught all five of his targets for 81 yards, including a critical third down that helped the Broncos get to the red zone. What’s bizarre is how Fant disappeared in the second half. I’ll have to look back through the All-22 to see what happened, but he finished the game with just 6 targets.

4. Melvin Gordon is RB1 today.

The first time I noticed Gordon tonight was when he took a knee during the national anthem. The former Badger is from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and has been vocal as the NFL looks to try and enact change in the face of police brutality.

Once the game got started, Gordon had an up and down first game. I’m not here to beat up a back for fumbling the ball. Unless you’re Phillip Lindsay, it happens to everyone.

After Lindsay went down with an injury the ground game ran through Gordon and he didn’t disappoint. In the second half he ripped off a really nice run out of 11 personnel and helped the Broncos punch it in from the 1.

5. This Broncos run defense could be good.

While it never looked like the Broncos would hold Derrick Henry to 1.8 yards a carry like they did in 2019, I was surprised to hear he had 50ish yards in the first half. Rarely did it look like he was doing more than falling forward. All told he finished the game with 116 rushing yards, but it took him 31 carries to get it. For a defense minus Von and Todd Davis, that’s really exciting.

6. Shelby Harris is still clutch

If you take a second to dial back the clock to 2017, you’ll remember Shelby Harris locked down a season opening win for the Broncos over the Chargers by blocking a field goal. This time around, he didn’t wait until the fourth quarter to ruin a kicker’s night.

7. Jurrell Casey learning from Shelby?

I’ve been excited to see Casey in orange and blue since Elway gave the Titans a 7th round pick to acquire him. Tonight he reminded me a lot of Shelby Harris, who led all defensive linemen in batted passes last season.

Later in the game Casey had another really critical bat on third down.

8. Jerry Jeudy mixes rookie moments with the sensational

There were a couple of rookie moments mixed into the evening for Broncos’ first round pick. Drew Lock found him for an easy completion over the middle only for Jeudy to drop it. That said, he flashed the freaky lateral mobility and ability to separate that made him my WR1 before the NFL Draft.

Jeudy’s second drop was a killer because it ruined the Broncos’ chances to burn some clock. I’m nowhere near ready to blast a rookie in his first start when the NFL did not have a preseason, but he needs to clean it up.

9. Did the Titans miss Dean Pees?

Perhaps the biggest loss no one talked about this offseason was the Titans losing their defensive coordinator. Pees helped manufacture a really tough blitz scheme for a number of years in Tennessee and without him the rush struggled to get home.

I’ll admit I definitely need to go back over the All-22 to really dig into this because the Broncos’ pass protection, Pat Shurmur’s play calling, and Drew Lock are all variables to consider. Let’s say for now it was encouraging that outside of the Harold Landry wide rush neither tackle looked like huge issues tonight.

10. Vic Fangio still does not hate analytics.

During training camp last year Vic Fangio created a bit of a stir in the analytics community when he talked about how it was a part of the game, but that he concerned everything. Well tonight he showed that when the Broncos offense can get them into the red zone he will not be afraid to give Lock and company a chance to make hay.

11. Youth is served in the Broncos’ secondary?

Heading into camp there was a ton of questions about the Broncos’ secondary and I expected Da’Vante Bausby, Isaac Yiadom, or Davontae Harris to find their way to CB3. When Yiadom’s was traded to the Giants and Bausby sent to the practice squad, it looked like Harris won the job.

“Looked” is the key word because both Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey were seeing snaps even before A.J. Bouye left the game with an injury. If Bouye’s shoulder holds him out going forward, we’ll probably get to see a lot of both rookies next week.

Much like Jerry Jeudy, I’m really grading rookies on a curve this year. Ojemudia had a really nice interception that was ruined by a dumb penalty by Alexander Johnson. After Bouye got hurt he found himself stuck on A.J. Brown a number of times in the fourth quarter. It went about as well as you’d expect. When he drew a Defensive Pass Interference call at the end of the game it all but assured the Titans a chance at points.

12. Play Action could be an issue all year.

What makes the Titans passing game dangerous is how hard they lean into the use of run fakes. It gave the Broncos defense a ton of issues tonight, including the second quarter touchdown to MyCole Pruitt where Ryan Tannehill faked it to Derrick Henry after bringing Jonnu Smith into the backfield.

Fortunately the Pittsburgh Steelers have been a bad play action team for a number of years now. Hopefully that will help next week.

13. The Broncos were both sloppy and lucky

Off the top of my head I can count three fumbles, a should-be interception, a pick that was taken away because of a stupid penalty, and a dumb facemask call. I’m sure I’m missing some.

So while it’s easy to point to Vic Fangio blowing the clock management at the end of the game, the Broncos were lucky to be close to winning it to begin with. Credit obviously goes to Harris for the blocked field goal, but two of the Titans missed opportunities were little more than blown kicks by Stephen Gostkowski.

After the Titans’ second score the former Patriot missed another kick. Maybe Bill Belichick knew something the rest of us didn’t once again?

Locked on Drew

There was good, bad, and a little ugly in the first half of Lock’s 6th start. In the first half he had a couple of really nice throws, especially when he found Noah Fant. He also mixed in two fumbled snaps that did not wind up in the hands of Tennessee. He could have had a second touchdown if only he had seen a wide open Jake Butt.

In the second half Lock got off to a slow start with a big miss on 3rd and 14. His drive to get Melvin Gordon into the endzone was pretty. It’s obvious Pat Shurmur and the Broncos coaching staff believe in him and that should pay dividends down the road, but Lock needs to do a better job finding the open guy.

He could also do a better job managing the play clock as he was a part of the reason why Tennessee had so much time for their final drive. Far too often when the Broncos were clinging to a one point lead there was time on the clock as Lloyd Cushenberry snapped the ball.

I plan to go back over Lock’s reps at length this week. Right now I’d say it was a really encouraging debut with how nervous the Titans’ defense made me, but there’s a lot to iron out. That’s okay. Remember Lock is in just his sixth start and the first with a new coach.

Final Thoughts

You win some, you learn from some. The loss to Tennessee puts the Broncos a game in the hole against the rest of the AFC West. They’ll need to find a way to steal a win in Pittsburgh next week and that could be difficult. The Steelers have the kind of receiving corps to really cause headaches for a secondary that could be without A.J. Bouye.