This Sunday, the Tennessee Titans (6-6) host the Denver Broncos (8-4) at Nissan Stadium.
Here are five matchups to consider.
1. Jack Conklin versus Von Miller
Titans’ right tackle Jack Conklin has been phenomenal in 2016. According to Pro Football Focus, he is not only the third best performing rookie, behind Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, but also the top graded right tackle in the NFL.
Despite this incredible start to his young career, Conklin will face his toughest opponent to date on Sunday, when he lines up against 2015 Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.
The 6’3’’, 250-pound linebacker has continued to live up to expectation through his sixth season. Miller currently leads the league with 12.5 sacks, and he is in contention for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, alongside Giants’ safety Landon Collins and Raiders’ linebacker Khalil Mack.
In anticipation of the matchup, Titans’ head coach Mike Mularkey is debating whether or not to help Conklin with his blocks, but the decision has not yet been made.
“We’re talking about it. That’s the next two days, again, looking through more film, looking at how we’re going to protect. It depends on how you do it. There’s a number of ways to do it, but we’re not going to put anybody at a disadvantage if we can.”
2. DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry versus Broncos’ defense
Through the past two seasons, the Broncos have had a top-performing defense. In 2015 they were the best in the NFL, allowing 283.1 yards per game, and this season they rank fifth, allowing 315.5 yards per game.
According to Mularkey, the Broncos’ defensive success stems from having good players across the board, not so much from overcomplicated schemes: “They’re not very complicated whatsoever. They’ve got a lot of good players playing the scheme—I mean, very good—the front end and the back end.”
The list of “good players” includes but is not limited to Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris Jr.
However, if there were a weakness in Denver’s defense to exploit, it would be their play against the run. While the Broncos are the league’s best team against the pass, allowing 191.2 yards per game, they rank 28th against the run, allowing 122.8 yards per game.
Therefore, do not be surprised if running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry get a large number of carries on Sunday, as they might find room against the Broncos’ front seven.
3. LeShaun Sims, Valentino Blake versus Broncos’ wide receivers
It is well established at this point of the season that the biggest weakness on the Titans’ defense is the secondary, which not only allows 270.3 yards per game (26th) but also has given up 21 passing touchdowns (tied-18th) and 45 completions of 20 or more yards (tied-27th).
On Sunday, the unit’s performance may take a turn for worse or better.
The Titans released veteran cornerback Perrish Cox on November 28, after his poor showing against the Chicago Bears, and in search of his replacement, Mularkey plans to rotate between Valentino Blake and rookie LeShaun Sims.
“The corner rotation is, at least early, now we’re going to see who’s playing the most consistent and playing the best. That guy will end up playing the most.”
Time will tell who ultimately claims the starting role opposite of Jason McCourty. It is certain though, that if the Titans hope to win, both Blake and Sims need to play well against DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, one of the top receiver duos in the league.
4. Titans’ pass rush versus Broncos’ offensive line
This matchup will be interesting.
The Titans’ front seven play hot-and-cold. They tallied five or more sacks in three games (5, 6, 10) but were limited to one or zero sacks in five (1, 3, 4, 9, 11).
Meanwhile, the Broncos’ offensive line has allowed 33 sacks this season, 6th most in the league, and they allow 3.75 sacks per game in losses versus 2.25 sacks per game in wins.
If Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo and company can pressure quarterback Trevor Siemian, it will relieve some of the responsibilities placed on Blake and Sims in the secondary.
5. Titans, Broncos versus playoff hunt
Tennessee and Denver are both contending for a playoff birth.
The Titans share lead of the AFC South with the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts, while the Broncos are projected to be AFC’s second wild card entry.
The result of this matchup therefore plays a role in determining who does and does not enter the postseason. Kickoff happens at 12:00 PM CST.