The Titans and Broncos haven’t played each other since a 13-10 Titans win during Week 14 of the 2016 season to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Broncos starting quarterback in that game was Trevor Siemian which makes it seem like ages ago since Denver has had approximately 32* different starting quarterbacks since that game.
*Actually just four — Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco — but it feels like a lot more.
The Titans need this one, in a 16 game season where just 12 of 32 teams make the postseason you could certainly argue that you need all of them, but this one feels a little more last stand-ish than most Week 6 matchups. Yes, the Titans are just one game back of division leaders Houston and Indianapolis, but as we all know too well, that 2-3 record is loaded down with an 0-2 record in the division and a 1-3 record in the conference.
Dropping to 2-4 would sure feel like a deep hole for this team to climb out of. The schedule only gets tougher from here with home matchups against the Chiefs, Saints, and Texans loom alongside road trips to the two buildings that have tormented the Titans the most: Lucas Oil Field in Indy and NRG Stadium in Houston. Tennessee has combined to win just 1 of their last 14 games on those two fields.
So which matchups bear watching for this critical game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High?
Kevin Byard vs Joe Flacco
These two have locked horns twice, once in 2017 and once in 2018, while Flacco was a member of the Ravens and Byard has picked off the veteran quarterback in both matchups, twice in 2017 and once in the 2018 game. Despite playing him just twice in his young career, Byard has intercepted Flacco more than any other QB.
Byard also ranks surprisingly high on Flacco’s “most intercepted by” list. Only two players — Joe Haden (5) and Johnathan Joseph (4) — have picked off the 12-year veteran more frequently than Byard and both of those players have squared off with Flacco at least 10 times.
Byard picked off the 14th pass of his career last week against the Bills which means he’s now tied for 2nd in the NFL in interceptions since entering the league in 2016. Another INT against Flacco would put the former MTSU star level with Marcus Peters for the top spot over the last four years.
Flacco is known for his big arm, but he rarely uses it these days. He tends to get the ball out quick and his 6.8-yard average depth of target for the 2019 season ranks 32nd out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks per PFF. If the Titans corners and linebackers can take away some of the quick hitter type throws and force Flacco out of his comfort zone, that could mean good things for a Titans defense with Byard patrolling the middle of the field.
Harold Landry vs Garett Bolles
There are going to be a couple interesting matchups on the edge when the Titans are on defense in this game. Landry’s 4 sacks are good for 13th in the NFL through five weeks, but we’ve still yet to see the second year pass rusher truly take over a game. Bolles was the Broncos 2017 1st round pick, but he’s been just OK so far in his young career. He had a nightmare game against the Bears in Week 2 where he was flagged for holding an unbelievable five times in the same game. Bolles leads the NFL in penalties since entering the league so this isn’t a new problem for the left tackle.
Bolles is a highly athletic tackle so Landry’s speed rush will be in for a test.
On the opposite side, expected starter Reggie Gilbert will draw either Ja’Wuan James in his first start since he left with a Week 1 knee injury or struggling backup Elijah Wilkinson who leads the NFL in sacks allowed. James is listed as questionable on the Broncos injury report and is still yet to return to full participation in practice and with a Thursday night division matchup with the Chiefs looming after this one, I’d be a little surprised if he goes. If Wilkinson gets the start again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans flip Landry over to the right side on a few critical third downs.
Corey Davis and A.J. Brown vs Chris Harris Jr. and Isaac Yiadom
The Broncos are one of the teams that will use their top corner to shadow the opposing team’s top wide receiver, using Chris Harris Jr. to shadow Allen Robinson and Davante Adams earlier this season and mostly tracked Keenan Allen last week. Harris is playing outside this year after many seasons manning the slot corner position for Denver. I’m not sure if he’ll shadow either Davis or Brown, but if he does, I’d suspect the Titans will spend more time looking towards the opposite side of the field.
Part of the reason for that is how good Chris Harris is. The four time Pro Bowler remains one of the top cover men in the league at age 30. The other reason is how questionable the rest of the Broncos cornerbacks are. Free agent addition Bryce Callahan remains out with a foot injury and slot corner Duke Dawson popped up on the injury report this week with a foot injury of his own and is listed as questionable. If Dawson can’t go, that would likely force Denver to move former Texan Kareem Jackson down from his safety spot to fill that role.
Regardless of what happens with Dawson, the starting outside corner opposite Harris is going to be a weak spot for the Broncos. Isaac Yiadom has struggled mightily so far this year, allowing 16 catches for 178 yards on 20 targets in just 80 snaps in coverage along with a pair of defensive holding penalties. The only other option is Davontae Harris who has just 23 snaps in coverage this year. Whoever draws the corner opposite Harris should be targeted frequently in this game.
Jack Conklin vs Von Miller
The first time these two matched up back in 2016, Conklin — a rookie at the time — got the better of the seven time Pro Bowler, holding Miller without a sack or quarterback hit, though he did allow three pressures. To be fair, the Titans attempted just 21 passes in that game so opportunities to rush were hard to come by.
That game really doesn’t have much bearing here though. That was a different Titans and a different Broncos defense three years ago.
Miller is off to a slow start in 2019 by his for lofty standards. Just 2 sacks and 4 QB hits through the first five weeks of the season have him on pace for his lowest total in both categories since his injury shortened 2013 season. Sacks tend to come in bunches though and the Titans have to find a way to keep Miller from getting back on track against them.
Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton vs Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler
The Broncos have a pair of pretty good receivers on the outside in Sutton and Sanders. Sutton, the big second year receiver out of SMU, appears to be on the verge of breaking out. Through five games, the 6’-4”, 216-pounder already has 401 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sanders has bounced back remarkably well from a torn Achilles suffered late last season and has 307 yards and 2 touchdowns himself.
The Titans outside corners have been pretty good this year. Jackson has rarely been targeted by opposing quarterbacks, and while Butler has been a little more up and down, his ups have included a game where he completely shut down Julio Jones.
Sutton’s ability to change directions quickly at his size is special and makes him a particularly tough cover and we all have seen what the shifty Sanders can do during his 10 year career. The Titans excellent secondary will get a tough test in Denver.
Rodger Saffold and Nate Davis vs Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe
The Titans struggles at both guard spots have been one of several major issues on the offensive side of the ball. Saffold’s play has been especially mystifying as the veteran free agent addition has allowed 5 sacks already as a Titan after giving up just 6 sacks in the past three seasons combined in LA. Whether it’s a focus problem, a technique problem, a scheme problem, or all of the above, it’s past time for him to figure things out.
Davis got his first NFL start against the Bills last week and things went mostly OK. He was beaten badly twice — once on a tackle for loss and once for a sack — but otherwise held up well and produced a nice combination block on the Derrick Henry touchdown run that got called back for a hold on Conklin.
The Titans guards will mostly be tasked with blocking Broncos veteran defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris. Harris is playing at a very high level and will be a load to handle in the middle. Wolfe is off to a slower start — possibly due to him trying to play through a high ankle sprain — but has been a solid NFL player for years. On 3rd downs the Broncos like to bring in rookie Dre’Mont Jones to help rush from the interior.
The Titans offensive line has struggled early, but if you’re looking for reasons for hope, I think continuity is the best argument for things getting better. With the starting five of Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Jack Conklin seemingly locked in place, you’d expect some of the communication issues that we saw last week to begin to get ironed out. Davis, in particular, should improve with more reps. The Titans offense desperately needs this group to show significant improvement, starting this week.