The leaves are changing, snow is on the ground, and it’s finally football season. On Monday night, Week 1 will wrap up with a matchup between the Broncos and the Titans, who made the AFC Championship game just last year. With that bout on the horizon, let’s take a look at three of the most important matchups that could swing the tide in either team’s favor.
Titans edge rushers vs. Broncos tackles
One of the most significant pieces of news to occur in the National Football League in recent weeks was the signing of Jadeveon Clowney by the Titans. He should instantly upgrade their pass rush and offer some reliability to the unit alongside Harold Landry and Vic Beasley. That threesome will be tasked with battling Denver’s weak tackle tandem of Garett Bolles and Elijah Wilkinson in what will be one of the Broncos’ most important matchups for Week 1.
Following the opt-out decision of Ja’Wuan James, Bolles and Wilkinson struggled mightily in camp and often looked like the Achilles heel of the Broncos first-team offense, as well as looking worse than any unit on the first-team defense. That’s a massive concern for the Broncos, as this year the team will look to build on a promising five-game audition from Drew Lock. That development will be much harder to accomplish if he’s constantly having to run for his life, as he had to throughout training camp. This week should serve as a good barometer for what the Broncos can expect from Bolles and Wilkinson this season.
That tandem will have their work cut out for them against this improved Titans pass rush. Landry played fine for Tennessee last year, generating nine sacks and more than 30 pressures, but should be even better this season as he continues to develop. The additions of Clowney and Beasley should also help Landry significantly, as he had very little help on the edge last season. Clowney is one of the league’s best run defenders and Beasley could be a major factor if he rebounds from a rocky training camp and recaptures the form he flashed early in his career.
Broncos defensive line vs. Titans interior offensive line
The loss of Von Miller was a crushing and demoralizing blow to the Broncos defense, and while the pass rush is guaranteed to suffer somewhat, there is reason to believe that Denver will still generate a lot of pressure on quarterbacks this season.
That reason is the defensive line. Shelby Harris and Jurrell Casey have already cemented themselves as some of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL, but with Dre’Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, and DeMarcus Walker behind them, the Broncos will be able to send waves of interior pass rushers at their opponents this season. That depth will be especially dangerous if Jones lives up to the off-season hype that has started to build around him following Casey’s praise.
On the other side of the ball is the Titans offensive line, which played well last season but should decline some following the departure of All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin. The interior of the line is especially concerning, with Nate Davis, Ben Jones, and Roger Saffold leading the way. That group doesn’t inspire much confidence, as Davis is arguably the weakest link on the entire offense, and last season Saffold didn’t live up to the big contract he signed with Tennessee in free agency.
If the Broncos win this matchup in Week 1, it could help lessen the blow felt by losing Miller for the season.
Broncos receiving core vs. Titans secondary
Denver completely re-tooled their receiving core this off-season, drafting Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. Those two have looked great in their own right, but it’s still clear that Lock feels much more comfortable relying on Courtland Sutton, which will make Sutton’s ability to make plays vital to the success of Denver’s offense, at least early in the season.
In Tennessee, Malcolm Butler hasn’t played to the same level he did in the past with New England, but he’s still an above-average starting cornerback that has the size and strength to contain Sutton. He also has a good amount of help surrounding him at every level of the Titans defense, to help make the matchup more even. Additionally, Sutton’s health for the Week 1 contest is now murky following an injury in practice on Thursday.
That means other pass-catchers will be forced to step up for the Broncos in Jeudy, Hamler, and Noah Fant. If they’re able to ease the pain of not having Sutton at 100 percent — or at all potentially — there’s a good chance the Broncos offense will be able to stay afloat. On the other hand, if they’re not ready to take on a starring role this week, there’s a good chance Denver’s attack flounders.