DENVER — We. Are. Back.
After the most unusual offseason in recent memory, the Broncos kick off Monday night looking to continue the momentum they built at the end of 2019. The team doesn't look quite the same, as Denver added dynamic veterans in Jurrell Casey, A.J. Bouye, Melvin Gordon III and Graham Glasgow and drafted rookies like Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Michael Ojemudia and Lloyd Cushenberry III who could contribute as early as Monday.
Denver has also suffered losses, particularly this week as Von Miller suffered a potentially season-ending ankle injury and Courtland Sutton injured his shoulder, which has left his status for the game in doubt.
How do those storylines impact the Broncos' chances of winning their eighth consecutive season opener in Denver? We explain that — and a lot more — in the first season's edition of "Burning Questions."
From Drew Lock's ability to impact the offense to who will succeed when the ball is in the red zone, these are the questions that will determine if the Broncos start the year with a win and continue their momentum into 2020.
WHAT DOES DREW LOCK HAVE IN STORE FOR YEAR 2?
You've seen the stat line time and time again. Four wins and just one loss as a starter. A seven-to-three touchdown-to-interception ratio. More than 1,000 yards passing and a 64.1 completion percentage.
Lock's rookie season was historic, as he tied John Elway for the most wins by a rookie quarterback while bettering his winning percentage.
It's a stretch to say none of that matters when the Broncos kick off Sunday, but Lock will have to prove himself again in a new offense. The second-year player said things clicked for the unit during the last week of training camp, but Lock will face pressure to help the offense improve upon a scoring output that ranked 28th in the NFL in 2019.
Lock and Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur can rely some on Pro Bowl running backs Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, but the Titans' defense ranked 12th against the run in 2019 and could be stout up front again. Tennessee's pass defense ranked just 24th a season ago, and they will be without both of their top cornerbacks against Denver. Logan Ryan left the team in free agency, and Adoree' Jackson was ruled out Saturday with a knee injury. Denver's Pro Bowl wide receiver Courtland Sutton is listed as questionable for Monday's game, but even if he cannot play, Lock may be well-advised to challenge the Titans in the passing game.
"Like all young quarterbacks in a new offense there's good plays, bad plays," Head Coach Vic Fangio said of Lock's progression in training camp. "Overall, I've seen steady improvement. When you don't look at it play by play, but you look at it every couple of days, every week I do think there's been improvement. He's got his work cut out for him as our entire offense does. Tennessee was the one team that slowed down the Baltimore train last year. Baltimore was just rolling through everybody with lots of points, lots of yards until they faced Tennessee in the playoff game. We have our hands full on offense for sure. Hopefully he'll play well."
It's unfair to expect Lock to be perfect early in the season given the lack of preseason reps, but his play could determine the outcome of the game. A big-time pass to Sutton,Jeudy or Noah Fant could push the Broncos ahead, while a poor decision late in the game could cost Denver a win.
HOW WILL DENVER RESPOND WITHOUT VON MILLER?
The Broncos' defense took a serious hit Tuesday when Miller suffered a potentially season-ending ankle injury during practice. Miller recorded just eight sacks in 2019, but his performance in training camp suggested he was poised for a bounce-back performance.
Undoubtedly, the Broncos' defense isn't as good without the eight-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl 50 MVP, but the full extent of the impact of losing Miller remains unknown. From a tactical standpoint, the Broncos will lose production in both their run defense and pass rush. Bradley Chubb will play Monday as he returns from an ACL injury, but he may be on a pitch count against Tennessee. Reserves Malik Reed and Jeremiah Attaochu will be expected to pick up the slack in Miller's absence, and Derrek Tuszka could be elevated to the game-day roster, as well. If the Broncos can force Tennessee into passing situations, they may still have an advantage; the Titans allowed the third-most sacks of any NFL team in 2019.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who had the league's best passer rating in 2019, certainly presents a threat to Denver's defense. The team, though, may be better off taking its chances against the Titans' passing offense than its formidable rushing attack.
There's more to Miller's absence, though, than who can provide a pass rush. Miller was one of the emotional leaders of the defense, and how the team responds in his absence could determine the outcome. If Denver is emotionally flat without their star player, the Broncos could be in for a long day against Derrick Henry and the Titans' rushing game. If the team chooses to rally for Von Miller — as Casey said they would early in the week — the Broncos could ride that momentum to a Week 1 win.
"It definitely sucks," Casey said. "Having a player of his caliber and his leadership not be out there with us is definitely going to be a blow to the team. At the end of the day, this business is about adapting to situations. We've all been forced into having to adapt to something with the whole COVID that's going on. It's just another challenge and another hurdle we have to get over and come together as a team, as a unit and push forward and make sure that one, we win for this organization and we win for him also."
WHO WINS IN THE RED ZONE?
"Monday Night Football" will pit the Broncos' strength against the Titans' strength.
In 2019, the Titans had the top-ranked red-zone offense, while the Broncos' red-zone defense was the league's best. Fangio said earlier this week that their success stems in part from Henry, who was the league's most productive back in 2019. The Alabama product led the league in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2019.
"They do a great job running the ball down there, which most teams that are successful in the red zone can do," Fangio said Thursday. "With the threat of that running game, it just opens up the passes when they choose to call them down there. Tannehill does a good job of understanding how the red zone works and where the ball has to go when the field is tightened up like that. They're really hard to defend down there because they're good at running it down there, and then the rest of their stuff plays off of that."
If Denver can hold Tennessee to field goals rather than touchdowns, that should put the team in position to earn the win. If Henry and the Titans roll through Denver's defense, though, the Broncos' offense will face more pressure to keep pace.
Perhaps just as importantly, how will Denver's red-zone offense respond? In last year's season opener, the Broncos scored just one touchdown on four red-zone trips. That aspect of the offense may take longer to develop than most, but they'll need to be better in Week 1 to challenge last year's AFC finalist.