NASHVILLE, Tenn. -Kyle Orton is throwing the ball around better than he ever has. The Tennessee Titans have a stingy defense right now.
Somebody has to crack Sunday, and the Titans can't wait to be challenged by Orton.
"We're going to have our hands full," Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon said. "But as a defense, you like to have those opportunities.Anytime there's balls in the air, the more opportunities for us to get our hands on it and really make something happen."
The Broncos (1-2) bring the NFL's top-rated passing offense to Nashville, averaging 350 yards a game, and Orton is coming off the best passing performance of his career. He threw for 476 yards in last week's 27-13 loss to Indianapolis.
The Titans (2-1) are working hard to erase any last vestiges of last season's 0-6 start, and it's been the defense shutting down opponents that has led the way. They rank first in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing only two touchdowns on 12 trips inside the Titans 20. Tennessee also ranks fourth in points allowed, giving up an average of 14 per game.
Making this game a bit more challenging? These teams really don't know each other.
This will be only the fourth time Titans coach Jeff Fisher has faced the Broncos, the least of any AFC opponent. The Broncos are making only their second trip to Tennessee and first since 2004. Denver coach Josh McDaniels is one of the few on the roster who knows what to expect out of LP Field from personal experience, through his visits while an assistant with the Patriots.
"It's one of the most difficult places to play in the National Football League on the road. I think opponents averaged more than two false start penalties there in that stadium per game last year. It's a big home-field advantage. I've been there a few times and it's certainly not easy," McDaniels said.
This starts a two-game road swing for the Broncos before a trip to Baltimore. Looking ahead to the Ravens won't happen, not with what the Broncos have seen out of Tennessee's defense.
"They played half their third down plays in third-and-10 plus," Orton said. "That certainly means they do a great job on first and second down. We don't want to be in that predicament the whole game. We are going to have to do a good job of limiting negative plays on first and second down, so we can stay in manageable situations."
The Broncos will have to try and run better than they have so far this season. They are averaging only 67 yards per game, and the Titans insist they expect Denver to be more balanced. Tennessee loves to pressure quarterbacks after shutting down the run, and the Titans have 10 sacks already.
But they also gave up 471 yards in last week's 29-10 road win over the New York Giants, and Eli Manning threw for 386 yards. Some Titans called that stat-padding by Manning after they picked him off twice and came up with another turnover.
"Offenses are built now to have good receivers, good skill positions, to get yards," Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "That's just the way it is. We just have to stop the big play and not give up points."
Titans coach Jeff Fisher has his own take on that bend but don't break defensive idea.
"We have a lot of things to fix in the bending area," Fisher said.
Orton will be attacking a Titans defense missing starting cornerback Jason McCourty, who had surgery Tuesday on his broken right forearm. Rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner is expected to start in his place after a tight competition for the job during training camp when he got lots of practice in camp with the first-team defense.
McDaniels said he's sure the Broncos will test Verner, a cornerback out of UCLA they also looked at drafting.
"We have a great deal of respect for him. So although this would be his first start, he's played very well in the kicking game already and he's definitely shown that he belongs in the NFL," McDaniels said.
While Orton and his receivers Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Demaryius Thomas have the Titans' attention, the Broncos are focused on stopping Chris Johnson, better known as CJ2K who already leads the NFL with 75 carries. Denver held Maurice Jones-Drew to 98 yards in the opener, the most the Broncos have allowed a running back through three games.
But Johnson already has a touchdown run of 76 yards this season. Broncos linebacker Jason Hunter calls him a Ferrari with a sturdier body. Johnson touched the ball on 33 of the Titans' 58 plays last week, a workload Denver linebacker Mario Haggan said not many guys can handle.
"The guy has a low center of gravity if you watch him run. He's fast and so everyone is concerned with his speed when they're trying to tackle him. They really don't form up and his power is very deceptive. It doesn't surprise me that people bounce off him a lot," Haggan said.
The Titans see this as a must win. They will be home only once after Sunday until Nov. 21. With four of the next five on the road, every win puts more distance between the present and last year's woeful start.
"To be 3-1 in that first quarter is huge," Witherspoon said. "It's like taking three steps to one up Mount Everest."