This game features two AFC teams going in opposite directions. The 10-2 Denver Broncos return home after two wins from one of the toughest three-game stretches you’ll see in terms of win/loss records. They top our cumulative team grading in offense and special teams and appear poised to secure a first-round playoff bye during the last quarter of the season. The Tennessee Titans, on the other hand, have lost three of their last four games, not to mention improved starting quarterback Jake Locker to a season-ending injury. The 5-7 Titans are by no means out of the playoff race, so this game won’t simply be about pride and player evaluation for next season. While the Titans grade well defensively, particularly against the pass, they’ll need to play nearly flawless football in all phases of the game to have a chance against one of the best teams in the league. Let’s take a look at three areas that could impact the game.
Titans Defensive Tackles vs. Broncos Interior Offensive Line
As we’ll touch on later, the Titans’ secondary has been impressive all season. However, their defensive backs would have a much tougher task in coverage if it weren’t for the constant pressure up front from defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. Casey (+34.4 overall) grades as our second-best interior tackle, due primarily to his dominance rushing the passer (+26.9). Though Klug has played in 466 less snaps, he has been no less efficient rushing the passer, ranking fifth in DT/NT Pass Rushing Productivity–one spot behind Casey—with 19 total pressures in 156 pass rush snaps.
Denver will counter with their own dominant interior linemen, led by the second-rated players at their respective positions, guard Louis Vasquez (+21.3) and center Manny Ramirez (+15.9). Vasquez could find himself without much help in blocking the Titans’ tackles, partly because of his success—he’s allowed no sacks, no QB hits, and just six hurries in 446 pass block snaps, tops among all guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency but also because the other Broncos’ guard, Zane Beadles, ranks 63rd out of 75 qualifying guards with a -9.8 pass blocking grade.
Wes Welker vs. Coty Sensabaugh
Don’t be surprised if the matchups on the outside are a wash, with Denver wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker going up against Tennessee’s Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner. Thomas and Decker rank in the Top 7 of our wide receiver ratings, but both Titans’ defensive backs are among the five best cornerbacks in the league according to our grades.
That leaves an interesting matchup in the slot with Coty Sensabaugh on Wes Welker. While the Titans’ defense primarily uses a 4-3-4 alignment, expect their top slot corner Sensabaugh to see a lot of action given Denver’s almost exclusive use of 11 personnel. Welker is Peyton Manning’s favorite target on crossing routes and out routes. Manning’s passer rating of 130.4 when throwing to Welker on the shallower slant routes is higher than any other pattern when he is targeting the All-Pro slot receiver. This could be an issue for the Titans, as Sensabaugh allows a team high 136.5 passer rating on slant routes.
The Emergence of Montee Ball
Last season, Denver boasted one of the best offenses in the game. During the offseason they added the aforementioned Welker to an already potent wide receiver group. This season you have the oft-injured but talented former basketball player Julius Thomas emerging as one of the best receiving tight ends in the league. The third-year player has provided Manning the type of dynamic threat similar to what TE Jimmy Graham has done for Drew Brees in New Orleans. So, do we now add rookie RB Montee Ball to the mix? If his +3.0 performance last week against the Kansas City Chiefs (second only to Adrian Peterson) is any indication, then the Broncos may very well have another reason to give defensive coordinators sleepless nights. Taking a step back, Ball’s performance shouldn’t be a surprise, as the second-rounder out of Wisconsin (where he broke the NCAA career record for touchdowns) appeared to bring the type of running style and dependability that the Broncos were looking for. It’s just that many thought he would perform a little better than -0.2 (35th among halfbacks) on just 202 snaps through Week 13. If Ball continues to improve—his 2.40 yards after contact per attempt now ranks him ahead of backs such as LeSean McCoy (2.33) and Doug Martin (2.16) and only .01 behind Eddie Lacy—he could form a formidable duo with Knowshon Moreno, who produced his own +3.0 (running) grade two games ago.
It will be interesting to see how this tandem fairs against Tennessee safeties Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard. The Titans are one of just two teams to place two safeties in the Top 14 of our Run Stop Percentage rankings when playing within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Also, expect to see underrated safety George Wilson make an impact. One of our Secret Superstars two seasons ago, he filled in for the suspended Griffin last week against the Indianapolis Colts and graded as our fourth-highest-rated safety.
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