Ti­tans bring huge rush

Bron­cos brac­ing for the chal­lenge

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Cameron Wolfe

The Bron­cos know what’s com­ing Sun­day.

Their de­fense’s sea­son-long weak­ness, de­fend­ing the run, has pre­vented them from match­ing the per­for­mance of the 2015 cham­pi­onship team. Now the Bron­cos’ leaky run de­fense will get one of its big­gest tests Sun­day at Ten­nessee, which fea­tures a run-heavy offense and a dual-threat quar­ter­back.

In a league full of fan­tasy foot­ball num­bers, Ten­nessee‘s offense is more old-school, with a smash­mouth run­ning game headed by power backs De­Marco Mur­ray and Der­rick Henry, plus elu­sive quar­ter­back Marcus Mar­i­ota.

It’s a matchup heav­ily slanted in fa­vor of the Ti­tans’ third-ranked rush­ing offense, which is why the Bron­cos have fo­cused so much on run de­fense in prepa­ra­tion this week.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what they do in the run game,” said Bron­cos safety T.J. Ward, who will prob­a­bly play closer to the line of scrim­mage than he nor­mally does to try to help slow Mur­ray and Mar­i­ota. “We’ve got to take care of what’s go­ing on in-house.”

Tak­ing care of in-house prob­lems in­cludes self-eval­u­a­tion in de­ter­min­ing which teams have ex­posed in the Bron­cos’ 28thranked run de­fense. The num­bers are bor­der­line em­bar­rass­ing for a Su­per Bowl cham­pion that was built on de­fense. In seven of the Bron­cos’ 12 games this sea­son, op­po­nents have rushed for more than 120 yards.

The prob­lems have been mul­ti­fac­eted. Free-agency de­par­tures and in­juries have thinned the tal­ent. Den­ver’s in­side lineback­ers have strug­gled to shed blocks and plug the run­ning game at times. Oc­ca­sional poor tack­ling in the

sec­ondary and over­ag­gres­sive­ness on the edge has al­lowed run­ning backs and quar­ter­backs to get big plays to the out­side.

So what’s the game plan against the Ti­tans, the best run­ning team they’ve faced all sea­son?

“We’ll prob­a­bly play more man (cov­er­age). We might load the box a lit­tle bit more,” cor­ner­back Chris Har­ris said. “We’re go­ing to have to cover longer this week for sure. D-line has to do a great job of keep­ing con­tain; if we can keep them in the pocket and pres­sure them from there, it’s go­ing to be hard for them.”

For Den­ver to make that plan work, it will need to place Ten­nessee in un­com­fort­able po­si­tions. The Ti­tans rank first and fourth, re­spec­tively, in red-zone touch­down per­cent­age and third-down per­cent­age, largely be­cause of their abil­ity to run the ball well.

“They have a ton of for­ma­tions. They’re a big foot­ball team,” Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak said. “This team is ca­pa­ble of pound­ing you. We’ve had some is­sues with the run, so we know we’re go­ing to get tested.” Mur­ray and Henry have im­pressed Ku­biak. “For two big guys, they make a lot of big plays,” he said.

Mur­ray, the AFC’s lead­ing rusher with 1,043 yards, will chal­lenge the Bron­cos lineback­ers’ gap dis­ci­pline with his com­bi­na­tion of vi­sion, power and speed. Henry, a 6-foot-2, 247-pound rookie, is av­er­ag­ing 4.5 yards a carry, and he’s a load to tackle. Ten­nessee is av­er­ag­ing 141.5 yards rush­ing per game.

Ten­nessee built one of the NFL’s best of­fen­sive lines by shift­ing its iden­tity.

“They’re a mauler-type of­fen­sive line. You have to make them one-di­men­sional,” out­side line­backer De­Mar­cus Ware said. “They’re hogs. If you let them run the ball, that’s what they love.”

The Ti­tans will try to keep the Bron­cos in their 3-4 base de­fense, mean­ing more of nose tackle Sylvester Wil­liams and in­side lineback­ers and less of cor­ner­back Bradley Roby, in or­der to limit the Bron­cos’ knack for mak­ing ex­plo­sive de­fen­sive plays. Roby’s pick-six last Sun­day was the dif­fer­ence in the Bron­cos’ vic­tory at Jack­sonville.

Slow­ing down Mur­ray and Henry isn’t enough, how­ever. Mar­i­ota, par­tic­u­larly when he runs the zone read, is a weapon on the ground. He’s the NFL’s fourth-lead­ing rush­ing quar­ter­back, but he may be the most dan­ger­ous in terms of his speed and abil­ity to read the de­fense.

“Run­ning quar­ter­backs have been killing us all year,” Har­ris said. “We need to tighten up for sure, es­pe­cially this week. This guy is the fastest quar­ter­back in the league. We can’t let him get loose at all, be­cause he’s able to take it the dis­tance.”

De­Marco Mur­ray is just one piece of the Ten­nessee Ti­tans’ run­ning game. Heis­man Tro­phy winners Der­rick Henry and Marcus Mar­i­ota also con­trib­ute. Jonathan Daniel, Getty Im­ages

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