The Denver Broncos traveled to Kansas City and beat the Chiefs for the second time this year. Their 35-28 victory over the Chiefs puts the Broncos in the driver’s seat for the division crown. They also control their own destiny when it comes to playoff seeding in the AFC. If the Broncos win out, they will enter the playoffs as the number one seed and get a first-round bye.
They begin the “fourth quarter” of the regular season with a home game against the Tennessee Titans.
The Broncos get to play these final four games with head coach John Fox back in the building. Fox missed the four games after the bye week due to emergency heart surgery.
At this time, Fox doesn’t know if he’s going to coach from the sidelines or up in the booth.
I haven’t really made that decision. Today is my first practice. Much like players, I’ll be day-to-day. I don’t think it is a tremendous effect one way or another. I communicate with the same people. I spent half of my career in the press box and another half on the field. I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest with you, but I’ll be at the game on Sunday.
Peyton Manning is on pace to throw for over 5,000 yards this season. He was able to throw for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns against the Chiefs in Week 13.
Over the last three games, Manning has only been sacked twice. The Broncos should be able to protect him well as they face a Titans team that only has 29 sacks in 2013. That mark ranks 20th in the league.
The Broncos have a new-look ground game entering Week 14. Knowshon Moreno is still the lead back, but the Broncos need to keep him fresh for a playoff run.
This has opened the door for second-round rookie Montee Ball. In Week 13 Ball was able to top 100 yards rushing for the first time in his career. We may see a near 50/50 split of touches between Moreno and Ball going forward.
So long as Ball hangs onto the rock, we could see his role with the team grow. An enhanced rushing attack will especially help the Broncos when the weather gets frigid at the end of the year.
The Broncos are a pass-happy team with Manning under center (or in the shotgun). The passing game can help the team build a lead quickly.
Manning’s favorite target is the open guy. That has been a different player from week-to-week. The Broncos offense will adjust to however a defense decides to play them. The Chiefs tried opening up the game last week in a dime package. This is what made the ground game so successful for the Broncos in Week 13.
Eric Decker is the hot hand for the Broncos and was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Chiefs. Decker’s four touchdown grabs in Week 13 tied for the most in a single game in Broncos history.
After practice on Wednesday, Fox talked about how Decker’s performance helps open up coverage for the other receivers.
This game is about matchups. We’ve talked about this numerous times. You can’t dictate what a defense does. Part of the process in the passing game is to try to create matchups in the game plan, exploit those and throw to the uncovered or the open guy. In the case the other night, Eric did a great job of getting open.
We’ve seen less of Wes Welker in recent weeks. After starting the season with nine touchdowns in the first eight games, Welker has failed to score in the last four games.
This fall in production has to do with defenses bracketing Welker. They try to take away the underneath routes to Welker but then leave the outside receivers with single coverage. This makes Manning look to guys like Decker and Demaryius Thomas early and often.
Like Decker, Thomas is being quite productive with his targets. Thomas was a little banged up in the game against the Chiefs, but he still managed to gain over 100 yards receiving.
The Broncos have been without tight end Julius Thomas over the last two weeks. He’s been nursing a knee injury that he sustained in the Week 11 game against the Chiefs. Thomas is expected to be back this week.
Defensively, the Broncos continue to improve each week. Their rush defense isn’t as strong as it was earlier this year, and the team certainly missed both Kevin Vickerson (hip, Injured Reserve) and Derek Wolfe (inactive, illness) on the defensive line against the Chiefs.
Denver currently ranks seventh against the run. They allow an average of 100.2 rushing yards per game. The Broncos have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Their rush defense will be put to the test against a big-play back like Chris Johnson.
The Titans upgraded the interior of their offensive line this year by adding Andy Levitre in free agency and drafting Chance Warmack in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. The Titans should try to soften up the Broncos defense by pounding the rock up the middle of the line.
Johnson’s 774 rushing yards rank 12th in the league this season. His seven rushing touchdowns are the highest total he’s had since 2010. The Titans use Shonn Greene as the primary backup behind Johnson.
The Broncos secondary had a different look last week. Champ Bailey was able to return to the lineup, but he was put on a snap count in Week 13. He was able to shake off some rust, and Bailey may get to play more snaps this week.
Denver was missing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last week, but he should be cleared for action this week.
Von Miller talked about the Titans playing with a sense of urgency as they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.
I think that in December, teams always get that playoff push going. Teams always get that sense of urgency. I think the Titans are no different. They have a good team. They lost some close games and if it wasn’t for those games it’d be a totally different story. They’re a good team—solid across the board. Solid offensive line, solid receiving corps, solid quarterback, solid running backs. It’s all across the board. It’s going to be another tough one this week.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t care about coverage or pressure. He will keep firing downfield, and the Broncos must be prepared to face such a gambling quarterback.
The Titans passing game has a couple of young receivers who are exciting to watch. Kendall Wright is a second-year receiver with the ability to turn short passes into long gains. The Broncos must do a good job of wrapping him up as Wright has exceptional run after the catch ability.
Rookie Justin Hunter has an intriguing size/speed combination. He is big enough to wrestle away contested passes downfield, and Hunter does a good job of tracking deep passes over his shoulder. The Titans will take a few deep shots to Hunter in this game.
Defensively, the Titans are a sound unit. In the front seven, they have a few standout players like defensive end Derrick Morgan and outside linebacker Akeem Ayers.
Their secondary has a nice mix of youth and experience. Cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner will have their hands full on the outside with Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
The Titans will use veteran safety Bernard Pollard close to the line of scrimmage. Manning had better keep an eye out for the safety blitz. Broncos receivers should be mindful of Pollard when running routes over the middle. He’s an enforcer who can intimidate opponents.
Weather is likely to be a huge factor in this contest. The temperature is going to be around 20 degrees at kickoff, and snow is possible during the game. This will be an issue for both sides.
Per Jim Wyatt, from The Tennessean, the poor weather may be an advantage for the Titans. Not only does Wyatt think that, but Titans head coach Mike Munchak said the same. “The worse the weather, probably the better for us.”
Manning’s performance in cold weather games has been a great point of debate for Broncos fans and analysts.
After practice on Wednesday, Manning was asked if he felt like a different player in cold weather games. “That’s not how I feel.” Manning succinctly said.
Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the Tennessee Titans on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Broncos are going to run the ball more than some think. The weather could dictate whether the team keeps the ball on the ground more against the Titans.
When the Broncos do run the ball, we'll see it out of many different formations. In the picture below, we see Ball get a carry out of the shotgun. Notice how the Broncos collapse the left side of the line. Ball picks up an eight-yard gain here.
When the Broncos needed to seal the win late in the game against the Chiefs, they turned to Ball again. This 28-yard run was a thing of beauty as Denver used Kansas City's aggressiveness against them. We see left guard Zane Beadles kick out, and Ball runs with great determination. He gets to the second level in a hurry, and crushes the Chiefs on this final run.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
The Broncos are going to take what the defense gives them. Tennessee may try to use sub-packages to slow down the high-powered passing game of the Broncos. This means the Broncos may face more "umbrella" fronts and more nickel or dime coverage.
Manning will dink and dunk underneath if that's what the coverage tells him to do. However, he will take deep shots when he sees single coverage on the outside.
In the play below, we see the Chiefs play soft coverage against the Broncos. Denver is using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and Manning executes a play action fake. That fake is enough to hold the linebackers for just a bit.
Notice how Joel Dreessen is taking the attention of safety Eric Berry. This allows Decker to work open deep against Brandon Flowers. Manning sees the hole deep, and lofts a pass that lands perfectly after traveling about 50 yards through the air.
Flowers had been locking down Welker on most plays. He failed to jam Decker at the line of scrimmage, and the wily wide receiver gets six steps into his route before contact. This created a huge gain and a touchdown for the Broncos.
The cold weather is going to be a big talking point before the game. On Wednesday, Decker talked about catching passes when the temperature is frigid.
I think growing up in Minnesota, the cold, you never really get used to, to be honest. It’s a mindset. You have to understand the difficulties of being cold and the challenges that come with it. It is the same game whether it’s warm or cold but there are some challenges to it. Both teams have to face it so for us it’s just being mentally prepared to be able to do the things that are going to allow to have us success and not let the cold affect any of our play.
The Broncos will be ready for any adverse conditions they may have to play in the rest of the season.
When the Titans Run the Ball
Tennessee's offensive game plan on the ground is simple. They use a zone-blocking scheme to help spring Johnson. The interior of the line gets a push, and the team trusts Johnson to make the correct read.
In the play below we see a standard single-back formation for the Titans. Johnson is lined up seven-yards deep and gets the handoff immediately.
Before Johnson makes his cut upfield, he gets to choose from six different holes to run through. Running backs are taught to look for shoulders of the defenders on the edge. Johnson notes the outside shoulders of both edge rushers, and that read tells him to follow the blocks up the middle.
The Broncos must play with discipline when facing a back like Johnson. He has the speed to take it to the house on any play. Edge discipline is vital for the Broncos. If they get too far upfield, then Johnson will gash them to the outside.
Pinch the ground game on the edges, then clean up in the middle with sure-tackling linebackers. If the Broncos do that, they should continue to play strong run defense.
When the Titans Pass the Ball
Like the ground game, the Titans passing game is fairly simple as well. Many times they will only have two-route combinations.
In the play below we see Nate Washington sent in motion before the snap of the ball. After the snap, Washington crosses Wright to the outside and finds himself wide open.
The Titans like to hammer you with the ground game, then run play-action passes to attack downfield. Discipline is also the key here for the Broncos pass defense.
Cornerbacks need to keep their eye on crossing or "rub" routes so their man doesn't get sprung free. So long as the linebackers do their job against the run, the Broncos corners won't have to peek into the backfield much as the play unfolds.
The Titans' passing game isn't going to remind anyone of the "Greatest Show on Turf", but with Fitzpatrick slinging the rock no route is off limits. Denver must recognize the type of gunslinger that Fitzpatrick is. Even if the coverage is tight, the veteran quarterback will take his shots downfield.
The Broncos destiny is in their hands. They need to win the rest of their games to ensure they will be playing at home throughout the playoffs.
The Titans are no pushover defensively. The frigid weather may play into the hands of the Titans defense. Denver must execute with precision offensively, and they also must take care of the rock. Any sort of turnover could help turn the tide in favor of the Titans.
Fox talked about the matchup on Wednesday. “As far as the Titans, they are 5-7, but they’re mathematically in the hunt. This will be like a playoff game for them, the way they’re approaching it. I’m sure [Titans Head Coach] Mike [Munchak] and his team will be very ready. It’s going to be up to us to make sure we’re ready.”
Tennessee also presents problems for opposing defenses. They have a simple offense, but one that can be quite effective if a defense lacks discipline.
If the Broncos bottle up Johnson, it will go a long way to help seal a victory. Then they must contend with Fitzpatrick. They'll know that every receiver is open to Fitzpatrick as he has the ultimate confidence in his arm, and he doesn't care about coverage.
The Broncos may build a lead in this game. They need to make sure they don't get too conservative once that lead is established.
It would be nice to see the Broncos show more of a killer instinct as they roll towards the playoffs.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.