ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** The cliche' "it starts up front" is especially apt with the Titans' defense and where it is most likely to disrupt the Broncos' league-leading offense.
"Right now, they have 31 sacks on the year and 25 of them come from those front four," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "Those guys do a great job of getting to the quarterback without really having to (blitz)."
The combination of Peyton Manning's quick release and decisiveness and the offensive line's play has helped the Broncos boast the league's second-lowest sack rate and its lowest hit and hurry rate, the latter of which is tallied by Pro Football Focus. Manning is hurried once every 6.23 pass plays (the league average is once every 3.15) and is hit once every 12.8 pass plays.
When pressure often comes on Manning it's through the blitz. Denver experienced this last week when the Chiefs brought safety Eric Berry up to attack Manning and help compensate for the loss of Justin Houston to a dislocated elbow.
But that's not necessary for the Titans. Seven of their last eight sacks and nine of their last 13 have come with a four-man rush.
"For a team to be able to do that puts a lot of pressure on our five guys up front and then when they do pressure with the linebackers it helps free up those (defensive) linemen," Gase said.
And in the pass rush, the Titans have one of the league's most dangerous tackle pairings when they couple Jurrell Casey with Karl Klug, who is listed as a backup defensive end but often enters as at tackle in pass-rush situations. The duo were third- and fifth-round selections, respectively, in the 2011 NFL Draft, and have proven to be bargains.
No defensive tackle has more sacks than Casey, whose nine is tied with Dallas' Jason Hatcher. But he wouldn't be in that situation without Klug, who was particularly effective last week. Together, they helped the Titans bring down Andrew Luck five times -- two of which ended in fumbles.
An illustrative example of the Titans' pass-rush capability comes from last week's loss at Indianapolis, when the Titans brought down Andrew Luck five times -- two of which ended with fumbles.
Klug's sack of Andrew Luck last week came when Casey drew a double-team, creating a one-on-one duel for Klug that he easily won with an effective swim move.
Casey had two sacks, and Klug was partially responsible for both. On the first, he won his one-on-one battle from right defensive tackle, and cut off an escape lane for Luck, leading him to Casey, who had stunted outside from left defensive tackle and took advantage of the right offensive tackle losing his balance amid the confusion over the stunt. Casey's second sack came after Klug drew a double-team, which did not prevent him from pressuring Luck first, setting up Casey, who had stunted with Klug after lining up at left defensive tackle, with Klug on the right.
This pairing has allowed the Titans to capitalize off Casey's skill set. He has outstanding speed to chase down mobile quarterbacks, which he showed in reeling in San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick for a fourth-quarter sack in Week 7. But against Manning, this use of speed will not come into play; instead, where it could come in handy is if there's a late-developing deep pass, and Casey is able to beat his man outside, and then has enough time to attack Manning from behind.
Casey also reads and reacts effectively. Take his 8-yard sack of Jacksonville's Chad Henne on a third-and-8 in the second quarter of that Week as an example. Tennessee rushed six, and the first one to approach Henne was Kamerion Wimbley, who got around the corner from his right defensive end position. This forced Henne to move to his right and away from Wimbley. Casey read this as it happened, and anticipated Henne's move, easily catching his blocker off-balance to reach Henne and close his only escape lane.
It will be interesting to see where the Titans try and attack the Broncos' offensive line. Louis Vasquez has been everything the Broncos expected him to be; he's technically sound and has not directly accounted for a sack of Manning this year. Most often, Vasquez would line up against Casey, but the Titans' willingness to stunt him could place the onus on Orlando Franklin, Manny Ramirez or Zane Beadles, with the running back asked to help chip in.
But containing the defensive tackles is only the beginning. The Titans do occasionally blitz, and got a sack out of that when Zach Brown beat Colts running back Donald Brown easily in a one-on-one battle last week. And defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley have speed; each has a sack in the last three games.
Still, with six sacks in the last six games, Casey is the straw that stirs the Titans' pass-rushing drink. Expect defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to use any tactic necessary to set Casey up for what he does best: winning a one-on-one duel and finishing off the quarterback.
- In terms of contact with the quarterback, Tennessee is close to average. The Titans rank 13th in sack rate (one every 13.5 pass plays; 1.2 better than the league average) and 15th in quarterback-hit rate (one every 10.5 pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus, which is right at the league average).
But when measuring hurried throws, the Titans are near the top. Pro Football Focus credits them with 157 hurries this season -- one every 2.669 pass plays. Only the Chiefs and Seahawks are better. (The Broncos are just behind the Titans; they average one hurry every 2.670 pass plays).
- Against the run, the Titans have allowed 4.08 yards per carry, just a bit better than the league average of 4.13. But the Titans rank 21st in first-down percentage; 23.3 of the runs against them move the chains. The Titans don't allow many big runs; they allow just one run of 20 or more yards every 52.7 carries (the league average is one every 42.9).