If the Denver Broncos are going to be successful on Sunday and leave Tennessee with another W, they’ll have to stop Titans running back Chris Johnson.
And they know how to do it.
Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver’s 4-3 defense showed a lot of 5-2 fronts, moving outside linebacker Von Miller up to the line of scrimmage to help stop the run and give the rookie less distance to travel on the way to the quarterback on passing downs.
In addition to their 5-2 scheme, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen would have safety Brian Dawkins creep up in certain situations as well, basically putting another linebacker-like player in the box. When Dawkins creeps up, it gives the Broncos a 5-3 look and eight men in the box — the ideal defense for stopping the run.
When the Broncos played Tennessee in week four of last season, the defensive scheme was a base 3-4, but they utilized the 5-2 look then as well. Then-outside linebacker Robert Ayers would come up to the line of scrimmage and take on the role of a run-stuffing defensive end across from Jason Hunter on the line.
Using an eight-man front against Johnson and the Titans last season, Denver’s defense limited Johnson to just 53 yards on 19 carries (2.8 yards-per-carry average) and won the game by a score of 26 to 20. It wasn’t just the defensive alignments that stopped Johnson however, the defensive line and linebackers played their responsibilities and tackled extremely well.
Ayers and Hunter are back this season and will most likely be playing their defensive end positions again (unless Elvis Dumervil is fully recovered from his shoulder injury and plays in more than just passing downs). The linebackers will be different, with D.J. Williams out with injury, Wesley Woodyard and Joe Mays will be the two linebackers in Denver’s 5-2 look with Miller coming up to the line of scrimmage.
Dawkins is the wild card, with the ability to take on multiple responsibilities. Expect Dawkins to often come up in run support as a third linebacker and cover the slot receiver in two-receiver sets. Rookie Rahim Moore will be the deep support, assuming Denver plays a cover one, one safety-free defense (man coverage).
After watching film from their match last season, the Broncos will notice that the defensive linemen did a great job of staying on the line of scrimmage and not getting too far up the field and letting Johnson run by them. The defensive tackles also did a great job of holding their ground and not letting the offensive linemen get to the linebackers, allowing the linebackers to make plays, tackling Johnson after short gains.
If the defense plays their responsibilities as well this week as they did last season, Denver will again be able to contain Johnson to a less than productive afternoon. However, Johnson is not the only player the Broncos will be worried about this season.
With Vince Young under center, the Titans did not have much of a passing attack last season, which allowed Denver to focus on stopping the run. On Sunday, veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will be calling plays in the Titans huddle, and will pose a greater passing threat to Denver’s secondary than Young did in 2010.
Hasselbeck has found a favorite target in Kenny Britt, who has caught all three of Hasselbeck’s touchdown passes two weeks into the season. Last year, cornerback Champ Bailey followed Britt, who was still able to catch three passes for 23 yards and a score. The Broncos are hopeful Bailey will be able to play Sunday after missing last week’s game with a hamstring injury.
If the secondary is without Bailey, expect Hasselbeck and Britt to score a lot of fantasy football points. Even if Bailey is not able to go though, Denver’s defense will still be focusing on Johnson.
“Kenny Britt is a baller, no doubt,” Broncos safety Rahim Moore said on Monday. “But C.J. is still the man. He’s one of the top five players in the NFL.”
The Broncos will travel to Tennessee on Friday to give the team two days to adjust to the time change. They shouldn’t have to adjust their defensive game plan from last season much, as it worked to perfection. The Broncos own a 14-20-1 all time record against the Titans (who were one of the original eight AFL teams and a member of the AFC West as the Houston Oilers) and a 1-0 record against Johnson.
On Sunday, Denver’s defense will look to make it 2-0 against Johnson and get the franchises 400th regular season win.