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Three Keys: Broncos vs. Titans

Posted Dec 8, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at three keys to Sunday's game.

DENVER -- This week, John Fox returned to work after a four-week convalescence following aortic valve replacement surgery. He got right down to business -- practice, meetings, film study, media obligations -- and, at one memorable moment, channeled his inner news anchorman and uttered two words that today will be repeated countless times at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

"'Arctic blast' has kind of a unique sound to it," Fox deadpanned.

You can't discuss this game without touching upon the weather. The temperature is not expected to break 20ºF (-6.7ºC). If it's 18ºF or below, it is guaranteed to be among the five coldest home games in Broncos history.

But winds will be light, unlike the gale-force gusts that battered the Broncos and Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 24. The impact on the Broncos' play-calling balance cannot be understated.

"No wind makes a big difference to me," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "It can be as cold as you want it but the wind has always been the biggest factor any time there are cold conditions.”

And that helps explain the Broncos' extreme ground emphasis in New England.

"I know if it’s a windy condition game, I might in my head think we should run the ball," Gase said. "But for the most part the cold is not an issue for us in the passing game. It’s anytime you get a condition of wind, that’s when I see that it’s hard for the passing because you don’t know what’s going to happen."

But with winds between five and seven miles per hour Sunday, it's not an issue. If the Broncos go to a ground-intensive attack, it will be a tactical move, not one based on the conditions -- and it's why the weather isn't one of the three keys to the game. The teams will decide this; the "Arctic blast," catchy-sounding as it may be, will not.

1. KEEP PEYTON MANNING UPRIGHT.

We say this most weeks, don't we?

In this case, there's some reason to fret; the Titans have size and speed on the edges, and the pass-rushing defensive tackle combination of Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug is particularly effective in the pass rush. They had their best game as a duo last week in Indianapolis, with one or both directly or indirectly responsible for four of the Titans' five sacks of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

The Titans have three five-sack games this year; only the Kansas City Chiefs have more. Of course, the Chiefs did not sack Manning once in the home-and-home series of recent weeks, and the Broncos have allowed one sack every 33.2 pass plays, the second-best ratio in the league. The offensive line's ability to prevent sacks and Manning's adeptness at avoiding the takedown is why the Broncos have faced few third-and-hopeless situations, and why they eventually move the chains (either via third- or fourth-down conversion) 51.6 percent of the time after they face third down. That's the best in the league, and 10.6 percent above the league average.

2. FORCE MISTAKES.

It's not a coincidence that the Titans are 4-1 when they don't commit a turnover -- and 1-6 when they have at least one. They've averaged 0.4 giveaways per game in their five wins, and 2.29 in their seven losses.

Giveaways are the one aspect of the game that continues to hold back Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick; he averages one via fumble or interception every 7.3 possessions, nearly double the rate of season-opening starter Jake Locker. The Broncos had five takeaways against Washington in Week 8 -- the same number they've amassed in the four games since.

3. SPREAD IT AROUND.

This is something the Broncos do better than almost anyone else, especially among their receiving targets. Assuming that tight end Julius Thomas returns after missing the last two games with a knee injury -- he's listed as probable -- Manning has yet another weapon to keep the Titans guessing.

The Broncos would like to apply that spread-the-workload philosophy to the running game as well, and last week was the best example of what they hope to achieve there; Knowshon Moreno touched the football 19 times, while Montee Ball had 14 touches on 13 carries and a reception. But until that game, Moreno had accounted for 62.0 percent of all touches by Broncos running backs; no other back had more than 22.9 percent. This wasn't by design, but inconsistent play from the young reserves had led to the Broncos riding their most reliable horse.

"We can’t have Knowshon burn out on us here at the end," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "We need to make sure he plays the rest of the way out and if Montee can cut those reps in half for Knowshon that would be big for our offense."

Ball's breakout game last week was the step the Broncos needed to see from their second-round pick, who appeared as assertive and authoritative as he did during his stellar years at the University of Wisconsin.

Nevertheless if Moreno plays the next four weeks and averages just 7.75 touches per game, he will surpass his previous career high, set as a rookie.

"We’ve done our best to wear (Moreno) out," Fox said, jokingly, on Friday. "I think Montee Ball is starting to take that step. That helps take some of the reps off. We’ve been pleased with both of them and we’ll continue to try to grow some of those young guys, as well."