Is a Struggling Denver Broncos Run Defense Rooting for Ryan Tannehill To Start?

Ryan Tannehill Broncos

The Denver Broncos are coming off of a desperately needed bye week. Fans hope the Broncos figured out whatever ailments the offense has, as it’s been one of the most disappointing units in the NFL. While most will look to see if the offense improved any over the bye week, what could determine the game on Sunday will be if Ryan Tannehill starts, and how well the Broncos can stop the Tennessee Titans running attack.

Over the last two weeks with Ryan Tannehill out, the Titans have been the best rushing team in the league. Rookie quarterback Malik Willis represents a much bigger running threat than the veteran quarterback does. If that’s the case, would the Broncos prefer Tannehill at quarterback over Willis?

Could Ryan Tannehill Starting Be Good For Denver Broncos Run Defense

If the Broncos aren’t careful, King Henry and company could have a big game on Sunday.

Denver has had a great DEFENSIVE season in 2022.  They sit second in total DVOA, but most of that rating is due to the phenomenal secondary. The pass defense is first in DVOA (-32.7%) and is allowing a league-low 165.8 passing yards per game. The secondary has been great, and downright historically good. They are a clear 12 yards ahead of the mark the 2021 Buffalo Bills’ secondary had last season.

As good as the secondary has been, the Bronco’s run defense, is severely lacking. That -37.7% overall defensive DVOA is being carried by the secondary. The Bronco’s rush defense sits 25th overall with a DVOA of 1.8%. That discrepancy in ranking, 24 spots, is tied for the second biggest gap (1st pass, 25th run) with Miami (31st pass, 7th run) and behind Green Bay (9th pass, 31st run) and Philadelphia (2nd pass, 27th run) which have a 25-spot gap. Denver allows 122.6 yards per game, which ranks them 25th in the NFL. Chances are, the run defense won’t get better with Bradley Chubb in Miami.

The few explosive plays that Ejiro Evero’s defense has allowed this season has come through the ground. Breece Hall’s 62-yard touchdown run in Week 7 of this season is an example of what the Titans can exploit on the Broncos’ defense. It will be interesting to see how Evero fixed this after a bye week. He knows it will be a tall order to stop Derrick Henry, Dontrell Hilliard and, possibly, Malik Willis.

Willis over Tannehill?

Titans’ usual starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, has been out for the past 2 games, and there is no clear indication of whether or not he is making his return on Sunday against the Broncos. On the surface, Broncos fans would want Tennessee to start rookie quarterback Malik Willis. Willis’ inexperience is something the Broncos could exploit. However, if you look at the rushing production the Titans have put up during Tannehill’s absence, it would benefit the Broncos to have Ryan Tannehill start instead of Willis.

During the two games Willis was under center, the Titans averaged 243 yards per game. They rushed for 214 yards against the Houston Texans and 172 yards against the Chiefs.  Henry himself had 219 and 115 yards respectively with two touchdowns in each game. In the six games that Tannehill started, Tennessee averaged 107 yards a game. Whether that is an aberration or not, it’s clear that Willis’ threat to run in their RPO system, opens up the lanes for Henry and Hilliard as well. This will keep the defensive line guessing who might run the ball.

Having Tannehill at quarterback will keep pressure off their defensive front and bring the Bronco’s secondary, their best unit on the field, back into the game. Having Willis only throw 13 times a game (which is what he is averaging in two games) will keep Patrick Surtain, Justin Simmons, and company at bay. Taking the Broncos’ secondary out of the game is something the Titans should look to do. Bronco fans would look at the Titans’ injury report and hope to see Tannehill’s return.

Can the Broncos Learn From Previous Games?

For a case study as to how the game could go for the Broncos, look no further than the game before the bye week. The Jacksonville Jaguars are sitting in seventh place in rushing yards per game, 146.8, one spot above the Titans at 142.6. Jacksonville had 191 total yards against the Broncos, a chunk of that coming from rising star running back Travis Etienne Jr., who had 156 yards and one touchdown. Thankfully for the Broncos, Dre’Mont Jones had a career game, in which he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week due to his great performance. He finished with seven tackles, a sack, and three tackles for loss. If not, it could have been worse.

Another game to look at is what the Broncos did, or did not do, against the Las Vegas Raiders. Josh Jacobs had 144 yards with two touchdowns and as a team, the Raiders had 212 yards. Most of these yards came in the second half as the Raiders stuck with the running game. Las Vegas is rated a spot better (ninth) than the Titans in rush DVOA.

The aforementioned Hall, before getting hurt on the last drive of the second quarter, had a big first half with 72 yards, which included that 62-yard touchdown run.  So, these are all examples of teams that took advantage of the Broncos’ inability to stop the run. So not only is the offense something to worry about but so is the ability to stop the run. If not, King Henry could have a King’s feast on Sunday.

On the Flip Side?

There might also be something worth looking at on the opposite side of the ball. The Broncos’ run offense vs the Titans’ run defense. Tennessee has the best DVOA-rated run defense. They only allow 87.6 yards per game, which is second in the NFL, only behind the 49ers.

This might be an issue for the Broncos, as they have not developed a consistent running game so far in 2022, only averaging 108.4 yards per game ranking them 20th in the NFL and 25th in DVOA. The game could very start and end on how well both the Broncos’ offensive and defensive lines play on Sunday.

Its been shown all season long that head coach Nathaniel Hackett and defensive coordinator Eviro have trust in their secondary. Stacking the box with the Broncos and leaving their cornerbacks and safeties on an island is something they are willing to do.

If Willis does indeed play, it will be up to Surtain, Simmons, and company to stop any big plays the Titans might want to sneak behind them as they lull them to sleep running the ball. If the coaches took inventory during the bye week, Broncos Country is hoping that the run defense improved enough to stop the Titans’ lethal running game. Once the Broncos stop the run, they will force Willis to try and beat them through the sky.