DENVER — The Vic Fangio defense is beginning to take hold.
Even with Von Miller going near sackless (he got credit for a half sack), the Denver D here Sunday came up with seven sacks, three interceptions, made Tennessee's quarterback Marcus Mariota look so awful he was benched, and held Titans' power back Derrick Henry to just 28 yards rushing on 15 carries.
On a near perfect fall afternoon before a little more than 72,000 at Empower Field at Mile High, Denver’s defense and special teams were the difference in the Broncos shutting out the Titans, 16-0.
"That last 1 1/2 quarters (against the Jacksonville Jaguars) when our run defense left the stadium too early, I think it embarrassed everybody, me included,'' said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "And since then we just played better. We haven't really put anything in new."
Not true, coach. In what is the early coaching move of the year, Fangio made three key personnel changes after the Jacksonville debacle. One and two, he inserted the more stout-bodied Mike Purcell at defensive tackle and inside linebacker Alexander Johnson in place of Adam Gotsis and Corey Nelson. And three, Fangio decided to keep tackling machine Kareem Jackson back at the tackling position of safety instead of having him drop down to nickel corner where he would get run off virtually every play by a receiver.
Voila! Against Jacksonville, the Denver D was trampled for 229 yards rushing in the SECOND half, on 8.2 yards per carry with Leonard Fournette steamrolling for 190 after the intermission.
The past two weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers and Titans, both wins, the Broncos allowed a combined 74 rushing yards on 37 yards, 2.0 yards per carry.
“When you stop the run they have to throw the ball,'' said Shelby Harris, who was moved from defensive tackle to Gotsis' former end position to make room for Purcell. "It’s a lot easier when you know they’re throwing the ball. Teams can’t play-action us the whole game. That’s what was happening the first couple games – run and play-action, run and play-action. When you stop them on 2 yards per carry, it makes them have to throw the ball.’’
Two weeks ago, the Broncos' nationally televised game this Thursday night against their AFC West Division-rival Kansas City Chiefs was a frightening proposition. But after an 0-4 start, the Broncos have now won two in a row. And after the Chiefs started 4-0, they have now lost two in a row.
Might as well tee it up and, you know, see what happens.
"I'm hyped up,'' said Chris Harris Jr., whose interception was the 20th of his career, moving him into a tie for 10th on the team's list along with Orange Crush linebacker Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson. "I can't wait. You all don't have to ask me about the Titans anymore. I'm ready for the Chiefs."
And back to feeling good about taking on Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce at their home stadium. The Broncos' snapped their four-game home losing streak with their win against the Titans.
"We're confident,'' Miller said. "We've always been confident when we play the Chiefs at home. We're going to celebrate this one tonight for about two hours and then get started on the Chiefs. They've lost two straight so they'll come in here ready to fight."
"We get to see where we really are,'' said Shelby Harris. "We put ourselves behind the 8-ball going 0-4 but these last 2 weeks we showed what we can do as a defense and we want to keep it going.''
With the sun beaming bright Sunday afternoon and the game-time temperature at 69 degrees, conditions were ideal for defense and punts. The first-half MVPs for the Broncos were punt returner Diontae Spencer, punter Colby Wadman and kicker Brandon McManus.
Spencer had a 59-yard punt return after the Titans were stopped on the game’s first possession. Spencer put the ball in Tennessee territory. The Broncos’ offense moved to a first-down-at-the-16 opportunity, but the drive stalled into a 31-yard field goal by McManus.
The Broncos, who had just 137 yards of total offense in the first half, finally made an offensive play midway through the second quarter when Joe Flacco threw a 41-yard beauty down the left sideline to Courtland Sutton. On fourth and less than a yard at the Titans’ 35, Broncos coach Vic Fangio didn’t go for it, instead opting for a 53-yard McManus field goal try. McManus made it for his first 50-yard-plus field goal since last season’s opener.
Otherwise, the Broncos’ offense was stagnant, bailed out only by Wadman’s punting. He punted five times for 52, 55, 53, 53 and 51 yards. Only one was returned, for seven yards, while the other landed safely in the end zone for a touchback with 12 seconds left in the half.
It took a Justin Simmons' interception and return into Titans' territory to help the offense along on their only touchdown drive of the game. Phillip Lindsay, who rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries, spun in from 2 yards out to give the Broncos what felt like an insurmountable 13-0 lead with less than 5 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel must have felt desperate too because at that point he benched Mariota, who was 7 of 18 for 63 yards with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks, and replaced him with Ryan Tannehill, the former Dolphins' starter.
"I was inaccurate today and I didn't give our guys a chance to make plays,'' Mariota said. "Obviously, those are some of the reasons why I got pulled.''
McManus all but clinched the win with a 48-yard field goal with less than 5 minutes remaining. The bad news for the Broncos was they lost receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the second half because of a knee injury. Sanders showed up on the injury report this week with a knee injury but practiced through it. The knee irritation was bothering him enough in the first half for the team to decide to keep him out of the second half.
But this game was about the Denver D's resurgence. Last week, Fangio made the best move of his young head coaching career.
Move one: Purcell. The former Highlands Ranch High School star bounced around from team to team to team the previous two years before finally finding his place in the middle of his hometown team's defensive front. Did he ever think of hanging 'em up as he getting cut time after time?
“Ah, yeah,'' Purcell said. "It’s always tough. I spent time with five teams in one year. And then I went to the AAF. It was a battle. But it was something I kept fighting for. I’ve got to prove everybody wrong and myself right.”
Move two: Johnson was a surprise hero last week against the Chargers when in his first NFL start he was second on the team with eight tackles and had a touchdown-saving interception in the end zone. After sitting out nearly 4 years between college and the NFL, Johnson suddenly found himself in the limelight. Did he have trouble keeping level-headed last week?
"Some guy will say, “Hey, don’t go out there and be some one-hit wonder,''' Johnson said. "I was like, no, the only one hit wonder I’m going to be is when I hit somebody they’re going to be wondering where they are.”
He led the team with 9 tackles against the Titans.
Move three: Fangio kept tackling machine Kareem Jackson back at the safety position instead of having him jump in at the slot cornerback position.
After leading the team with 10 tackles last week, Jackson had one tackle for loss and the third of the Broncos' three interceptions against the Titans
After having zero takeaways in the first four games, the Broncos have six in their last two.
After having zero sacks through their first three games, the Broncos have 12 in their last three. The breakdown of their 7 sacks Sunday: DeMarcus Walker, 2; Derek Wolfe, 2; Johnson, 1.5, Shelby Harris, 1; Miller, .5.
Offensively, the Broncos haven't been much different in their past two wins -- scoring 20 and 16 points -- than they were in their first four losses, when they scored 16, 14, 16 and 24 points. The offensive side of the ball will probably have to carry more of a burden Thursday night against the high-powered Chiefs, who are averaging 28.7 points a game, than they did Sunday against the Titans.
"The offense was just trying to get things rolling and our defense was able to bail us out the entire game,'' said DaeSean Hamilton, who filled in for the injured Sanders in the second half to have two catches for 25 yards. "Really it was a matter of us trying to find a rhythm but our defense was bailing us out and doing things to get us back in position to make the plays we made.”