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NFL Preview - Denver (1-1) at Tennessee (1-1)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Who needs Chris Johnson, anyway?
Oh sure, the Tennessee Titans made news during the brief offseason when their All-Pro running back decided he'd stay home because he wanted more money -- which he ultimately got -- but the more prudent dollars seem to have been spent a few feet in front of the former 2,000-yard rusher.
Veteran quarterback and former Super Bowl participant Matt Hasselbeck won his first game in his new uniform last week, throwing for 358 yards in a 26-13 point defeat of perennial AFC defensive power Baltimore, and will lead to Titans into battle once again in Sunday's matchup with the Denver Broncos from LP Field.
Hasselbeck signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Titans in the offseason, after Tennessee went all-in on the idea of change when it jettisoned both starting quarterback Vince Young and backup Kerry Collins and drafted University of Washington standout Jake Locker with the eighth pick in April's draft.
Hasselbeck was brought in to mind the store while Locker developed, but has done a bit more thus far, placing sixth in the AFC with 621 passing yards and completing 67.1 percent of his throws (51-of-76) with three touchdowns and two interceptions during Tennessee's 1-1 start.
"We knew that he could come in and be a leader, and if anyone could get caught up on what we are doing in a short amount of time, it would be a guy like him," first-year Titans head coach Mike Munchak said of Hasselbeck. "Now two games in, [we're] just excited to see where he's at. The guy finds windows to deliver balls."
Hasselbeck's No. 1 target, wide receiver Kenny Britt, has 14 catches for 271 yards and all three touchdown catches thus far.
In the meantime, Johnson has carried just 33 times for 77 yards in two games while trying to return to form with abbreviated prep time after the sides agreed on a $56 million deal just prior to the start of the regular season.
"A lot of teams come in thinking they can just load the box and if they stop me, they can win," Johnson said. "It just showed we have other playmakers. We have other ways to beat you. Hopefully, they help out and let other teams around the NFL know you just can't stack the box and try to stop me and win."
As for the Broncos, the epicenter of a quarterback and billboard controversy in Week 1, they bounced back for coach John Fox last Sunday and downed Cincinnati, 24-22, in the absence of five starters -- wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, cornerback Champ Bailey, running back Knowshon Moreno, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive end Elvis Dumervil -- that were sitting out with injuries.
All but Bailey were back to practice on Wednesday, but the perennial Pro Bowler's absence may be telling when it comes to the performance of Britt. Next on the depth chart is second-year man Cassius Vaughn.
"The next man up is the best man up, and whenever your number is called you have to go out there and execute whatever the coach asks you to do," said Broncos linebacker Joe Mays. "Every single player on the team deserves to be here and you never know when your number is called."
Veteran running back Willis McGahee ran for 100 yards and wide receiver Eric Decker caught a career-best five balls for 113 yards and two touchdowns in interim duty during last week's win over the Bengals.
"I hope we don't have to repeat [last week's] depth chart," Fox said.
The Broncos won last season in Nashville when Johnson was held to 53 yards in a 26-20 Denver victory. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 341 yards, with 11 completions to Lloyd.
Tennessee holds a 20-14-1 edge in its all-time regular season series with Denver, but the Broncos have won the last three meetings between the teams and came through with a 26-20 decision over the Titans at LP Field last October. Denver also prevailed by a 37-16 margin when it traveled to Nashville in 2004 and posted a 34-20 home victory over Tennessee in 2007. The Broncos' last loss in the set occurred all the way back in 1995, a 42-33 setback at the Astrodome against the then-Houston Oilers.
These franchises have also squared off three times in postseason play, with the Oilers claiming a 13-7 triumph in a 1979 AFC Wild Card Game and the Broncos winning AFC Divisional Playoffs at home in 1987 (34-10) and 1991 (26-24).
The Broncos are one of four teams the Titans have never defeated in the State of Tennessee, with the Bears, Chargers and Seahawks the others.
Fox is 0-2 lifetime against Tennessee, having been dealt defeats in 2003 and 2007 while then in charge of the Carolina Panthers. Munchak will be facing both the Broncos and Fox for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Orton has 20 touchdown passes and no interceptions when he has a 100-plus passer rating in a game with the Broncos, a feat he's accomplished nine times. McGahee's 100-yard rushing game last week was the 24th of his career, while Lloyd had 115 receiving yards at Tennessee last season and needs 93 to reach 4,000 for his career. Decker had career-highs in receiving yards and touchdowns against the Bengals and has three scores in his past two games, taking a punt back 90 yards in the team's season-opening loss to Oakland.
Tennessee's defense has allowed 276 yards per game in 2011, the third-lowest in the NFL, with middle linebacker Barrett Ruud leading the team with 16 tackles. Defensive end Dave Ball had a career-best 2.5 sacks in last year's game against Denver, while fellow lineman Derrick Morgan had a sack in his season debut last week and rookie defensive tackle Karl Klug had his first career sack and two forced fumbles in the win. Safety Michael Griffin had an interception of Orton in the Titans' 2010 meeting with Denver, while cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner recorded their first picks of the season last week.
Denver is tied for 18th in scoring (22.0 ppg) and is 22nd in total yardage (314.0 ypg), while the Titans are fourth (14.5 ppg) in scoring defense and as mentioned previously, are third in total yards allowed.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Hasselbeck has a 90-plus passer rating in the past two games, while Johnson needs 100 rushing yards to record his 25th career game with triple digits. Backup running back Javon Ringer posted his first rushing touchdown of the season with a 10-yard TD run last week, and had a career-long 54-yard run in Tennessee's last game against Denver. Britt came up with nine catches and posted his sixth 100-yard receiving game last week (135 yards), and aims for a third straight game over the century mark after compiling 136 yards in a season-opening defeat at Jacksonville. He also had a touchdown catch in last season's bout with the Broncos. Britt's counterpart, Nate Washington (166 receiving yards) is averaging 83 receiving yards per game this season.
Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller, selected No. 2 overall in April, posted his first career sack in last Sunday's win against the Bengals. Bailey, who is doubtful for this week's contest with a strained hamstring, needs two interceptions to reach 50 for his career. Williams (dislocated elbow) also isn't expected to play, but replacement Wesley Woodyard has racked up a team- high 19 tackles over the first two games. For some local connections among Broncos, defensive end Robert Ayers attended the University of Tennessee and tackle Kevin Vickerson spent three seasons with the Titans from 2007-09.
Tennessee is 24th in scoring (20.0 ppg) and 15th in total yards (362.0 ypg), as compared to Denver's tie for 14th place in scoring defense (22.5 ppg) and 15th in yards allowed (335.5 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Hasselbeck's resurrection has made a star of Britt, who could continue the high arc if he's healthy and matched with a backup cornerback in Vaughn.
Johnson went from nine carries to 24 from Week 1 to Week 2 and could be ready for numbers more in line with his new tax bracket against a Denver defense that struggles in stopping the run.
Orton quieted the quarterback controversy calls with last week's defeat of the Bengals, during which backup and fan favorite Tim Tebow actually took the field as a wide receiver for a few plays. If Orton's confident and going well, the Broncos improve dramatically.
Through two weeks, Hasselbeck has been everything the Broncos hope Orton to be, a cool veteran with a sound receiver and a solid running game. Injuries and production issues have been a recurring headache for Denver, and this week the opponent is simply better. Expect Johnson to begin going off and Hasselbeck to continue to mind the store successfully to give Tennessee a second straight win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 24, Broncos 20
09/22 15:03:23 ET