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Burning Questions: Broncos vs. Titans

DENVER — The Broncos are back at home, and they’ve finally got some momentum.

A Week 5 win against the Chargers showed Denver’s potential on both offense and defense, and now that the team has its first win of the season, the Broncos will aim to start to stack the victories.

“It was nice to get over the hump and get that first win under our belt,” President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said Friday. “… We dug the hole. We have to take it one at a time and dig our way back out. We’ve got one last week in Los Angeles which was good and then we’ve got a good Titans team coming in here. … Hopefully we can continue the upward stream as far as trying to win football games.”

It’s clear that after one win, the Broncos aren’t satisfied. They know how far the team still has to go — and what it could have accomplished already. With a pair of last-second losses, the difference between 1-4 and 3-2 is razor thin.

On the day when the Broncos will honor Champ Bailey and Pat Bowlen, the team has a chance to move closer to .500.

“At the end of the day we have a very deep hole, right?” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said Tuesday. “We’re not out of the hole. I don’t know if it’s excitement or the focus to say it’s not time to get excited. It’s not time to pat ourselves on the back. We’re still looking up saying, ‘Man, we’ve got a long ways to go to get ourselves out of this hole.’ At least that’s how I feel, so I’m overly focusing trying to get another win, back-to-back wins and that’s where my mind is. I don’t have time to be excited over one win when we’re sitting here at 1-4. I’m worried about that next, trying to get us to two and try to get us to three. That’s where my mind is. I hope and I feel that’s the reason why it feels that way.”

Here, then, are the questions the Broncos will have to answer if they hope to earn that second win.

WHICH RUN DEFENSE WILL SHOW UP?

Against the Jaguars in Week 4, the Broncos gave up 229 rushing yards in the second half and 225 total yards to Leonard Fournette. The Jaguars dominated time of possession in the game and mounted a double-digit second-half comeback to push the Broncos to 0-4.

A week later, a different Broncos team showed up. Denver allowed just 35 rushing yards all game to a pair of talented backs in Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. The Broncos held a 17-0 lead at halftime, which helped change the nature of the game, but there’s no doubt the team was more physical. Three personnel changes helped key the difference in performance. Defensive lineman Mike Purcell was active against the Chargers and helped set the tone up front. Linebacker Alexander Johnson filled in for an injured Josey Jewell in the center of the defense and recorded eight tackles and an interception. Then, there was safety Kareem Jackson, who recorded a game-high 10 tackles and was often near the line of scrimmage in run support. He also knocked the ball loose from Ekeler near the goal line on a fourth-down passing play to save a touchdown.

Against the Titans’ Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back, the Broncos’ defense will need to be its Week 5 self. Purcell, Johnson and Jackson should all see extended playing time again, so the personnel shouldn’t be an issue. Jewell is also healthy again, though it remains to be seen if he’ll see snaps at linebacker.

If last week’s mentality can be matched, as well, the Broncos should find themselves in good position to make the Titans one dimensional. As the Broncos aim to earn their first home win of the season, that could be a massive step in the right direction.

HOW DOES A BEAT-UP SECONDARY RESPOND?

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. appears to be his normal dominant self at the cornerback position. The issue, it seems, is how the Broncos’ cornerbacks line up behind him. Bryce Callahan has yet to play this season because of a foot injury, De’Vante Bausby was put on injured reserve this week with a neck injury and Duke Dawson Jr. is questionable for Sunday’s game with a foot injury.

That could require Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris to fill in opposite Harris at cornerback. Yiadom, a second-year player, was flagged against the Chargers for a pair of penalties, and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell made it clear that the Broncos’ first priority will be to play a clean game. 

“First thing, we’re going to play penalty-free,” Donatell said Thursday. “That’s something Vic talked about from the beginning. You have to be assignment- and then technique-clean, and he did not do that, so we put in another guy.” 

The Broncos signed veteran cornerback Coty Sensabaugh this week, and he could be another option at cornerback. Denver could also move Jackson to cornerback or nickel cornerback. Head Coach Vic Fangio, though, has made it clear he hopes to keep Jackson at safety.

Fangio has relatively simple goals for whichever player he chooses to fill in at cornerback.

“There’s no corner in this league that pitches shutouts,” Fangio said. “We just need to have good coverage, break up some passes and avoid penalties.”

The Titans have just the 28th-ranked passing offense in the league, but the Broncos must find the proper combination in the secondary to ensure Marcus Mariota doesn’t take advantage of the defense through the air.

“[Mariota]’s doing well,” Fangio said Thursday. “He throws the ball well — particularly well outside the numbers. He’s just running their offense. I don’t see them or him being conservative or anything. He’s done a good job of keeping it clean and avoiding the picks.”

CAN THE OFFENSE FIND CONSISTENCY?

Against the Chargers, the Broncos scored touchdowns on their opening two drives for the first time since a Week 3 game against the Ravens in 2018. Denver, though, scored just six points the rest of the game.

In the third quarter, the Broncos particularly struggled. They picked up just one first down on their four drives and turned the ball over. They faced similar struggles against the Jaguars, as they totaled just eight yards in the third frame in Week 4.

“Any time you have that happen two weeks in a row, it’s a little bit of everything,” Fangio said Thursday. “I don’t think you could pin it on one thing. You could sit there and watch each individual series, see what happens and what you’re looking for is common denominators. Is it the same thing or two that’s causing these problems? Then if it is, you fix it. If it’s a one-time happening here, there or somewhere else, then you just have to fix it.”

The early success suggests that the Broncos’ offensive script — a set of pre-planned plays — is working quite well.

“There is a group of plays that they get an extra group of reps in practice and walkthroughs to prepare their minds and they can visualize it the night before,” Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said Thursday. “I think that only helps your odds of being successful on a given play. It just gives everyone just a heads up from quarterback to center on his calls to everybody. That can obviously lead to more production.”

Scangarello said the Broncos also script plays for after halftime, but the production hasn’t been there in recent weeks.

If the Broncos are to earn their second win and improve to 2-4, they’ll need to avoid going stagnant in the second half — particularly the third quarter.

“We’re trying to figure out a way [to fix it],” Sanders said Tuesday. “Whether it’s aggressive play calling or better execution, we have to be better in the second half.”

WHAT THE TITANS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS WEEK'S MATCHUP:

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