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NFL Preview - Denver (1-2) at Tennessee (2-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Tennessee Titans and the Denver Broncos will both be going on the offensive on Sunday - in a manner of speaking - when the two do battle at Nashville's LP Field. The approaches will be dissimilar, however, as the Titans and premier NFL rusher Chris Johnson will be seeking to outgain Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton and the league's No. 1-ranked passing game.
Johnson, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, bounced back last week after having his streak of 100-yard games snapped in a Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson, whose 12-game run of century-mark performances is the second-longest in league history, rebounded in last Sunday's 29-10 win at the New York Giants with a 32-carry, 125-yard, two-touchdown performance.
Also back in Titans head coach Jeff Fisher's good graces was quarterback Vince Young, who had been benched late in the Steelers defeat after committing his fourth turnover of the day. Young was efficient against the Giants, completing 10-of-16 pass attempts for 118 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt in the third quarter that helped give Tennessee a two-score lead.
The Tennessee defense, meanwhile, displayed its strength again by coaxing Eli Manning and Big Blue into three turnovers, as well as a safety secured when Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was penalized for an illegal chop block in the end zone.
The Titans win, coupled with a loss for the Houston Texans, moved Fisher and company into a three-way tie atop the AFC South along with similarly 2-1 Houston and Indianapolis.
The Broncos did not have as happy a Week 3 result, though they did offer up an eye-popping aerial display that kept them in a game they would eventually lose to Indianapolis, 27-13.
Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw for a career-high 476 yards on 37-of-57 passing in the home defeat, the second-highest passing total in team history behind a 499-yard effort for Jake Plummer in 2004.
Wideouts Brandon Lloyd (6 receptions, 169 yards, 1 TD) and Jabar Gaffney (12 receptions, 140 yards) were among the receiving stars for Denver, but the team was done in by a 1-for-4 showing on fourth down and the inability to finish off drives.
The Broncos, who now sit two games back of division-leading Kansas City in the AFC West, are the first team in NFL history to have four wide receivers (Lloyd, Gaffney, Eddie Royal, Demaryius Thomas) with at least 10 catches, 140 yards receiving and one touchdown through the first three games of the regular season.
The running game continued to falter for Denver, however, as a team missing running back Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) managed just 47 rushing yards against an Indy team that memorably allowed 257 rushing yards to the Texans in Week 1.
Making his first appearance in a Denver uniform, ex-Patriots back Laurence Maroney was held to 24 yards on 12 carries, and failed to punch the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line in a key second-quarter sequence that yielded no points for the Broncos.
Tennessee holds a 20-13-1 edge in the all-time regular season series with Denver, but has lost both of its last two meetings against the Broncos. Denver was a 34-20 home winner when the clubs last faced off, in 2007, and prevailed by a 37-16 margin when it last traveled to Nashville in 2004. The Broncos' most recent loss in the series came at the Astrodome against the then-Houston Oilers in 1995.
In addition to their regular season history, the franchises have met three times in the postseason, with the Oilers taking a 13-7 win in a 1979 AFC First-Round Playoff and the Broncos winning AFC Divisional Playoffs at home in 1987 (34-10) and 1991 (26-24).
The Broncos are one of four teams the Titans have never defeated in the State of Tennessee (Bears, Chargers, Seahawks).
Fisher is 1-2 against the Broncos in his career, while Denver's Josh McDaniels will be meeting both Fisher and the Titans for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Though the play of Orton (1078 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) and the passing game was nice in its own way last week, the Broncos will be out to achieve greater balance on Sunday. The return of Moreno (111 rushing yards, 2 TD) from his hamstring injury would likely be a step in the right direction, but if he can't return, Maroney (24 rushing yards, 2 receptions) must prove the ability to keep the Titans defense honest. Denver enters Week 4 ranked last in the league in yards per rush attempt (2.5). As mentioned, the passing game has been much better, but the team needs to figure things out in the red zone. Orton delivered the ball to the end zone just once, on a 48-yard pass play to Brandon Lloyd (14 receptions, 1 TD) that cut the Indy lead to 13-10 in the third quarter. Otherwise, it was two field goals, an interception that set up an Indy score, a trio of punts, and the aforementioned 1-for-4 ratio on fourth-down conversions. Orton was sacked just once in 60 drop-back attempts last week, and has been dropped a total of five times through three weeks.
The Tennessee defense could be somewhat limited in trying to defend the Broncos' array of receivers on Sunday. The Titans will be without cornerback Jason McCourty (broken forearm) for 3-4 weeks, and fourth-round rookie Alterraun Verner (5 tackles)) is expected to start in his place this week. That situation places more pressure on No. 1 corner Cortland Finnegan (18 tackles), safeties Michael Griffin (29 tackles) and Chris Hope (19 tackles, 1 INT), and a pass rush that has come up with 10 sacks through the season's first three weeks. Griffin had a team-high 12 tackles and a forced fumble against the Giants last week, while end Dave Ball (7 tackles, 2 sacks) had one of the team's two sacks on the day. Linebacker Will Witherspoon (15 tackles) leads the club in sacks with three. The Titans are a middle-of-the-road 17th in NFL rushing defense as Week 4 begins, but allowed a modest 107 yards on 20 carries in North Jersey last week. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (26 tackles) posted 13 tackles to help fuel the win, and Sen'Derrick Marks (8 tackles, 1 INT) was among the team's most active linemen with three tackles and his first career interception.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Obviously, job number one for the Tennessee offense will be establishing Johnson (301 rushing yards, 4 TD, 9 receptions), who will be seeking to extend his latest 100-yard rushing streak to two games. Johnson scored touchdowns on runs of one and eight yards last week. Second-year change-of-pace Javon Ringer (64 rushing yards, 1 TD) also made an impact, carrying six times for 30 yards in the victory. Young (338 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 48 rushing yards) raised his passer rating to a solid 96.9 in last week's win, and his completion percentage is now a strong 69.8 on the year. Eight of Young's 11 completions last week went to wide receivers Britt (7 receptions, 1 TD), Justin Gage (7 receptions) and Nate Washington (10 receptions, 2 TD), and the other three went to tight end Bo Scaife (8 receptions, 1 TD). Gage was high-man with three grabs for 39 yards. The Titans line allowed just one sack against the Giants, and has surrendered a total of seven on the year.
The Broncos will have to change their defensive approach on Sunday, facing the run-first Titans one week after taking on Peyton Manning and the pass-happy Colts. Cornerback Champ Bailey (7 tackles, 1 INT) did play for Denver despite an ankle injury, but with opposite corner Andre' Goodman (2 tackles) out of the lineup due to a thigh problem, Manning torched the Denver defense for 325 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-43 passing, including 12 completions for 171 yards and two scores to wideout Austin Collie. Goodman is a question mark for this week. The lack of a pass rush, which has generated a league-low-tying two sacks through three weeks, has been a major problem for the Denver "D". Former first-round pick Robert Ayers (11 tackles, 1 sack) will be among those trying to break through to Young this week. The Broncos have been better against the run, ranking 10th in the NFL in that category, but will have their hands full with Johnson. Nose tackle Jamal Williams (7 tackles), who had four tackles last week, sets the tone at the point of attack with linebackers D.J. Williams (20 tackles) and Mario Haggan (17 tackles) attempting to make plays behind him. Denver has failed to force a turnover in their two losses this season.
Orton is becoming a bona fide fantasy starter at QB, as his outburst last week was preceded by two outings in which he was right around the 300-yard mark. The fact that four different wideouts have big numbers is somewhat problematic for fantasy purposes, though it looks like Lloyd and Gaffney are going to be reasonably reliable plays. Steer clear of the Broncos running backs, however. Denver kicker Matt Prater has a big leg and is 4-for-4 on field goals thus far in 2010. The Broncos defense is inconsistent with big plays and is not a strong option.
On the Tennessee side, only Johnson and perhaps kicker Rob Bironas represent reliable fantasy options. The Titans have recorded 10 sacks and forced nine turnovers thus far, though it's risky to start them against a team that has moved the football as well as Denver has.
The Titans are going to be difficult to beat when they are able to establish what they do best, namely running the football and playing good defense. Denver has done a decent job stopping the run in 2010, but has yet to face as high- quality a back as Johnson and will not be dominant in that aspect. On the other side of the ball, Orton and the Broncos passing game should be able to make some gains against a less-than-100-percent Tennessee secondary, but a Denver team that has struggled to run the football and cash in on its red-zone chances cannot be the pick on the road.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 23, Broncos 17
09/30 14:03:21 ET
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