ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** When Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced the injured Jake Locker in Tennessee, the rebuilding process of the Titans took a hit. Without a full season of film, the team is not much closer to knowing what it has in its 2011 first-round pick than it was when the season began.
But the Titans' hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since earning the AFC's top seed in 2008 did not. In some ways, Fitzpatrick is more effective: the Titans average more points per possession , more yards per possession, more yards per pass play (0.6 more) and get first downs more frequently.
Despite Locker's reputation as a scrambler, Fitzpatrick is more likely to take off and run with the football. This year, he's run once every 8.4 plays he's kept the football (attempts plus sacks plus rushes, not including kneeldowns). Locker ran once every 9.65 plays. Fitzpatrick is also better at avoiding the pass rush; he's been sacked once every 19.2 pass plays, while Locker was brought down once every 12.4 pass plays.
But Fitzpatrick's problem remains turnovers. Three interceptions last week gave him nine total giveaways (seven interceptions, two fumbles lost) in approximately six full games of work. Locker, with four interceptions and a lost fumble, averaged one giveaway every 14 possessions; Fitzpatrick's rate is one every 7.3 possessions.
With that kind of giveaway rate, Fitzpatrick's advantage in points per possession (1.83, to Fitzpatrick's 1.74) and first downs per series (1.80, to Locker's 1.51) vanishes. A giveaway rate like Fitzpatrick's is sustainable only with a high points-per-possession figure; for instance, Peyton Manning makes up for his giveaway rate (one every 9.5 possessions) with an average of 2.98 points per possession for every series he leads.
Pressuring Fitzpatrick can force mistakes, but it also creates more potential openings downfield. If the Broncos can successfully collapse Fitzpatrick's pocket, success will be measured perhaps more by forcing a turnover or two than by the sack total.
WHAT HELPS FITZPATRICK is the emergence of a steady corps of receiving targets who have helped compensate for Kenny Britt's failure to recapture the form he displayed prior to tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the last Broncos-Titans game in September 2011.
"They run a lot of spread -- more spread than I anticipated," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, Jr.
The Titans' attack might look different without Delanie Walker at tight end. He has not practiced this week after suffering a concussion, and as of Friday, had not yet been cleared through the post-concussion protocol.
Walker is having by far the best receiving season of his career; he already has career highs in receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns. The Titans use him differently than the 49ers did in previous years; according to the numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus, Walker stays in to block on pass plays once every 32.8 snaps; the previous two years with the 49ers, he stayed home to block once every 8.4 snaps.
If Walker can't play, it will be difficult for the Titans to replace his all-around production. But the presence of Kendall Wright will keep the Broncos busy, and befitting a receiver who makes his living on inside routes, he is numbingly consistent. In the past eight games, he's amassed between 69 and 103 yards each time, and only once had fewer than five catches -- but never had more than nine.
The Titans like to set Wright up by bunching and stacking targets to create space for him underneath, an increasingly prevalent tactic league-wide. As is the case most weeks, this places a heavy burden on Harris, who has to guard against being caught up in the congestion that ensues when teams bunch or stack their receivers.
"In the slot, there's so many routes they can run on me, and I have to be able to cover everything," Harris said. "They run over routes, corner routes, streaks. I've got tons of routes. When you're just outside, there's not too many routes they can do, so it's a lot easier outside."
"They do a lot of different things, so we have to be ready as a collective group and it's going to be more of an inside game."
Nate Washington is also an effective option, but Wright may be leaned upon heavily as the Titans try to steadily gain yardage in small clumps to eat up clock and keep Manning and the Denver offense off the field.
AND THEN THERE'S CHRIS JOHNSON, who remains a home-run threat in the backfield, but is fast enough to be split out from time to time. Johnson's per-carry average of 3.8 is the lowest of his career, but his 8.1-yards-per-reception average is his best since 2009, bolstered by 49- and 66-yard touchdown plays in October.
The 66-yard catch-and-run was your standard, perfectly-executed screen pass. But the 49-yarder was more interesting and illustrative of Johnson's adaptability: he goes low to block Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, then gets up and finds a gap through which Fitzpatrick could push him a shovel pass. No one touched him after that.
Johnson might not have the numbers of his late-2000's, "getting-away-from-the-cops-speed" prime. But he's still potent -- "a faster version of Jamaal Charles," as Harris noted -- and containing him and preventing his explosive plays must remain a top priority. Without Walker to make plays down the seam, Johnson's playmaking in space represents the Titans' best chance to snatch a win that would thrust them back into decent position to gain the AFC's last wild-card spot.