3 Up 3 Down: Broncos’ defense officially among the league’s elite

Denver Broncos nose tackle Mike Purcell (98) reacts after a play as defensive end DeMarcus Walker (57) looks on in the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High.
Oct 13, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos nose tackle Mike Purcell (98) reacts after a play as defensive end DeMarcus Walker (57) looks on in the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio‘s defense finally made its arrival in Denver on Sunday against the Titans.

While the unit had played well in the beginning of the season, it wasn’t until the past two weeks that it started to play like the elite unit that Broncos fans were promised when Fangio was hired.

Let’s take a look at who stood out the most on a day where the pass rush was suffocating and the secondary was ball-hawking.

3 Up

Defense

The defensive stats from Sunday’s shutout are so impressive, the stock of the entire unit saw a tremendous rise.

They entered the game as the league’s ninth-best defense according to Pro Football Focus, and ranked in the top-10 of every defensive category besides the pass rush, where they ranked 25th.

Today, the pass rush was remarkable, coming away with seven sacks on 10 quarterback hits. The defense also took the ball away from the Titans three times (though it would’ve been four if Justin Simmons recovered the ball in bounds), and forced a negative play nine different times.

The Denver defense forced Tennessee’s offense to go three-and-out four different times, including on the first two drives of the game. The defense also didn’t allow the Titans to cross midfield for three quarters of the game and allowed them to convert only one first down on their first 12 third-down tries.

In the run game, the Broncos’ defense held Tennessee to just 39 yards on 21 attempts. They also didn’t allow the Titans to pick up a single first down on the ground.

Most importantly, though, the defense recorded a shutout, even with the Titans having the ball for a staggering 14 possessions, thanks to two huge fourth-down stops.

Secondary

The Broncos’ secondary played all-out today.

In his first NFL start, Davonte Harris appeared to be a huge upgrade on Isaac Yiadom. He was targeted several times by the Titans’ quarterbacks, but locked his man down for most of the game.

Meanwhile, Justin Simmons and Chris Harris Jr. had a turnover-filled day. On the Titans’ second drive, Harris got things kicked off by forcing a fumble, which Simmons unfortunately killed by touching the ball while out of bounds.

Harris forced another turnover later in the game, securing an interception with the Titans driving near midfield. It was the first interception thrown by Marcus Mariota all season, but he would soon throw a second one, this time to Simmons.

Finally, Kareem Jackson would intercept the Titans the third time, but as Mariota was benched, Ryan Tannehill found himself victimized. The interception capped off the Broncos’ second red zone stand of the game, and an excellent effort from Jackson on the day.

Week 5 replacements

For the second-straight week, Mike Purcell and Alexander Johnson had huge games.

Purcell snagged five tackles, the third-most on the team, and two tackles for loss, good for most on the team. However, his impact on the run game has been more impressive.

He was promoted to starting nose tackle after the Broncos struggled to stop the run through the first four games, and the difference has been tremendous. After allowing 149 rushing yards per game through the first quarter of the season, the Broncos have held their opponents under 40 yards on the ground in back-to-back games.

The addition of Alexander Johnson at linebacker has also been a huge boost to the run defense.

For the second-consecutive week, Johnson recorded at least eight tackles and a tackle for loss. Throughout this season, Todd Davis and Josey Jewell have combined to do that zero times. Johnson also came away with one and a half sacks, the third-most on the team.

3 Down

Offense

For as amazing as the defense was, the offense was almost every bit as bad. Despite having the ball for 14 separate possessions and having the defense take the ball away three times, the Broncos’ offense scored a meager 16 points.

Until finding a hole to scamper through for 30 yards, Phillip Lindsay was held under three yards a carry. Also, Joe Flacco was held under 180 passing yards for the second consecutive time, and the third time in four weeks.

As a unit, the offense gained just 270 yards, 11 first downs and went 2-for-14 on third down attempts.

Offensive Line

In a story far too familiar to the Broncos this season, every linemen outside of rookie Dalton Risner struggled mightily.

Connor McGovern didn’t draw any penalties but for the second week in a row had a supremely sketchy snap barely find its way into Flacco’s hands inside Denver’s 20.

Elijah Wilkinson got off easy, as his biggest miscue came when he drew a holding flag that was declined. Garett Bolles also drew a holding call, an all-too-familiar sight, but he hasn’t been the worst linemen for the Broncos this season, and he wasn’t against the Titans.

That honor belongs to Ronald Leary. Leary was called for his eighth penalty of the season (six holdings, two false starts), against the Titans. That’s worse than Garett Bolles, and even more embarrassing given Leary’s status as an interior blocker.

Leary also allowed the lone sack of the game, as he allowed Wesley Woodyard to take a free shot on Flacco late.

Wide Receivers

The Broncos wide receivers played well today, but the unit still sees its stock goes down as Emmanuel Sanders left the game with a knee injury.

Even with Courtland Sutton developing into a top receiving option, Sanders has been phenomenal for the Broncos this season. He’s arguably looked even better than he did before his Achilles injury last season.

If the Broncos miss him for a long time, they could be in store for more ugly offensive showings like the one they had today. That’s a major concern with the Chiefs on the horizon this Thursday.

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