Two of the NFL's more disappointing teams will meet on Sunday afternoon when the Tennessee Titans (2-3) travel to the Mile High City to take on the Denver Broncos (1-4).
The Titans are a team that is lacking an identity. Outside of a mostly stout defensive unit, there is a lot to be desired in Nashville. After five seasons, the evidence is clear that Marcus Mariota is just okay. Mike Vrabel seems to be a bit out of his depth as a head coach, and the offense doesn’t have any game-breakers outside the occasional big game from Derrick Henry — who is either chronically underused or deployed improperly. Despite their uninspiring play, the Titans are still just a game back in a very winnable AFC South. With the Texans facing the Chiefs and the Colts on a bye, a win in Denver would do the Titans a load of good in the standings.
The Broncos were on the brink of disaster, starting the season 0-4 before knocking off the division rival Chargers last week in Los Angeles. Denver isn’t out of the woods after just one divisional win, but not all hope is lost just yet. If running back Phillip Lindsay can continue his upward trajectory and the defense continues to look like the Orange Crush, the Broncos aren’t completely out of the playoff picture just yet.
Tennessee at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 11 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Broncos -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Protecting Mariota
Let’s get straight to the point: The Titans offense is bad. Don’t believe me? The Titans rank 28th in passing, 27th in yards per game, 25th in third-down conversions, and 24th in points per game. That is the opposite of good.
While much of the finger-pointing for the Titans’ toothless offense is aimed at Marcus Mariota, and often rightfully so, a quarterback can only be as good as his offensive line allows him to be. And so far this season, the Titans’ offensive line has been nothing short of awful, allowing Mariota to get sacked 22 times in the first five games, second-most in the league. Last week’s return of All-Pro left tackle Taylor Lewan was supposed to help solidify the O-line, but the Bills dominated the line of scrimmage, sacking Mariota five times and limiting the Titans to just seven measly points. Sure, Mariota holds on to the ball too long and reads defenses far too slowly at times, but the bottom line is that the big fellas up front have to do their part to keep their quarterback upright.
With an improving Broncos defense looming, how do the Titans keep Mariota off the Mile High grass?
2. Denver D bouncing back?
The Denver defense got off to one of the worst starts in NFL history this season. In the first three weeks, the once-dominant force didn’t record a single sack or force a single turnover. Since then, the Broncos’ D has shown signs of resurgence — kind of. Against Jacksonville, the front seven was able to bring down Gardner Minshew five times — including two sacks from Von Miller — but still allowed 269 yards rushing in the loss. Last week, the defense pulled together its best performance of the season against the Chargers, limiting Melvin Gordon to just 31 yards rushing, forcing three turnovers and holding the Bolts without an offensive touchdown for the first time in 56 games. Denver’s defense was especially stout in the red zone, where they went a perfect four-for-four in stops and forced two turnovers.
Sunday could allow for a similar performance from Denver’s D. Last week, the Titans scored just seven points in three red zone trips against the Bills.
3. What are the Titans doing with Derrick Henry?
Derrick Henry is the Titans’ best offensive weapon. His season stats (77.6 yards per game, one run over 20 yards, one 100-yard game) might not blow you away, but his importance to this offense cannot be overstated — which makes his usage by offensive coordinator Arthur Smith so baffling.
Of Henry’s 98 carries this season, 59 of them have come on first down, and 70 percent have come with at least ten yards to go. Henry has just four carries on third down this season. Four. The Titans converted just four of their 14 third-down attempts last week against the Bills and rank 25th in third-down conversions this season. Coincidence? Probably not.
The Titans have made just 13 trips to the red zone this season (27th), and in those trips, Henry has only 14 carries. For those of you who are as bad at math as I am, that means Henry is getting about one touch per red zone trip. Also, not coincidentally, Henry has just 13 carries with one to three yards to go — mostly red zone touches. So why isn’t Smith giving the ball to Henry in obvious rushing situations? Is Henry not 6’3, 250? Heck, just by falling down the guy picks up three yards.
Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense not to give it to your best offensive player, especially in short-yardage situations that he is physically tailor-made for. Perhaps things will change this week against a Broncos defense that gives up 126 yards on the ground per game — but don’t be shocked to see Henry on the sideline when he is needed most.
The line on this game shows just how close this matchup is. The Broncos lost a few nail-biters during their 0-4 start, while the Titans beat two bad teams in the Browns and Falcons. How either will respond against a similar team talent-wise is a coin toss, it seems. To me, it comes down to which team turns the ball over less, and the Titans have been pretty good at preventing turnovers, while the Broncos have been poor at creating them. Titans by a... wait for it... field goal.
Prediction: Titans 20, Broncos 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.