For the second week in a row, Denver came crawling out of the gate and didn't bring an offensive firepower that matched their opponents'. For the second week in a row, Denver put themselves in a near impossible hole to climb out of. And, for the second week in a row, Denver suffered a tough defeat to fall to 1-2 on the year.
On paper, the only thing separating the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos is cohesiveness and smart play. Based solely on talent, this game is evenly matched, yet poor decision making clearly made Denver the weaker team on Sunday.
The Denver defense started the game strong, sacking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone for an early safety. The succeeding Denver drive resulted in a Matt Prater field goal, yet was quickly followed by three Houston scores—bombs to Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and a short pass to Arian Foster—and all of the sudden Denver was down 21-5.
Last week in Atlanta, it was Peyton's interceptions that allowed Atlanta to put up 21 unanswered points on the Broncos. This week, it was failings in the red zone and blown pass coverage.
Offensively, Denver has been coming up very dry on third downs. Six-for-17 on third down conversions is not going to win games, and for the second week in a row, the play calling from Denver was baffling to me.
Take for instance the fourth quarter drive where Denver was (incorrectly) awarded the ball at Houston's one-yard line as a result of a bad pass interference call. Rather than further infuriating and demoralizing the Texans by sending three or four receivers into the end zone, possibly scoring a quick touchdown, they ran two standard runs in a row to Lance Ball, losing four yards in the process and putting themselves in a another third-down hole.
The Houston defense was on fire at this point, and Denver handed them their confidence on a silver platter by calling plays that were likely to fail against a defensive front line like Houston's. The only reason that the drive was salvaged was because Joel Dreessen caught a deflected pass that would have been otherwise incomplete.
Decision making further doomed Denver on Sunday. In the third quarter, with Denver desperately needing to begin their comeback, Von Miller and Joe Mays committed subsequent, back-to-back roughing the passer penalties. Both of them were equally reckless and ignorant—Miller unnecessarily drove Schaub into the ground after he threw, while Mays came running in like a wild bull, knocked Schaub to the ground in one of the year's more violent hits, and handed Houston a first down.
Let's dissect some crucial plays that have cost Denver their last two games and point out the flaws in the schemes.
On this play, the weakness of the Denver offensive line, specifically the guards and the center, is exposed. From the start, there are three linemen taking on two defenders.
Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton and Manny Ramirez, who has proven to be an unsuccessful fill-in for the injured Chris Kuper, then let one defender slip through. There are now three linemen on one defender, and they turn their attention to the linebacker who is merely eying the running back. Manning is forced to dump the ball off for an incompletion.
On this sequence, we see Denver purely get outplayed physically by their opponent. Wesley Woodyard comes in to blitz, yet is picked up by fullback James Casey, who plows him down, rendering him useless, and makes himself wide open for the first down completion.
Here is the 3rd-and-5 play from the Houston 25-yard-line that Denver let the Texans convert on, effectively making any shot at a final drive for their offense impossible. Denver sends the two defensive tackles, Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan, blitzing with linebackers Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil drops back into coverage with linebacker Joe Mays.
Dumervil drops so far back that he is out of the shot, and Mays is patrolling the middle of the field for nobody. He's a useless body in this play, and Andre Johnson is able to go one-on-one with cornerback Champ Bailey.
Johnson proves too tough for Bailey, as he out muscles him to get open, make the catch and gain some extra yardage. Dumervil and Mays were non-factors in the play, and the blitz was ineffective. This type of zone defense is clearly not working with Denver. It takes good players out of the play, and leaves other players overwhelmed.
Here is the same play from the Atlanta game in the week prior. It is eerily similar. Denver is down by six, and Atlanta has a 3rd-and-5 from their own 25-yard line. Tracy Porter initially lines up with wide receiver Julio Jones, as seen in the box.
Jones cuts across field, and Porter drops back to prevent the long pass, which is futile in this situation, given that Atlanta needs only five yards and two safeties are back already for the preventative coverage. Porter is left defending nobody while Joe Mays eyes the running back out of the backfield, leaving Jones completely uncovered across the middle.
Matt Ryan completes the pass to the wide open Jones, making a throw that a Pop Warner quarterback could have made. The Denver zone defense once again fails to defend the offense, and Atlanta converts to essentially end the game.
It's obvious after breaking down these plays that Denver needs to play smarter and harder. They need to get on the same page with each other on zone defenses, the offensive line needs to act as a more cohesive unit and they cannot let themselves get physically ousted by their opponents.
The current Denver schemes will win those games against worse teams, yet with the schedule that Denver has this season, it's apparent that changes need to be made.