Denver Broncos: Most Critical Matchups vs. Houston Texans
After dropping their first game of 2012 last week, the Broncos will need to regroup and focus on every matchup on the field to stop their slide and regain a winning record on the season.
A few matchups in particular will be key when the Broncos host a team coming off of their first playoff appearance in franchise history in 2011.
The first half of this year's schedule will not be friendly to this Denver team, and this week's affair is testament to that. Let's take a look at which man-to-man faceoffs will be paramount for the Broncos and new frontman Peyton Manning in the NFL's third week of action.
Tracy Porter vs. Kevin Walter
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While Champ Bailey covers Andre Johnson, the Houston Texans' lead receiver, Tracy Porter will have his hands full with Kevin Walter on the other side of the field.
Porter has thus far, in a young season, been good and bad for Denver.
In the first week of play, Porter was responsible for the most momentum-stealing and electric plays of Denver's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he intercepted a pass from Ben Roethlisberger and took it back to the house for six.
One week later, Porter was eaten alive by Roddy White and Julio Jones in Atlanta while his young safeties in the defensive backfield did little to provide any backside support.
He showed up on a few critical downs, falling just short of big plays multiple times. He was hardly in the right place at the right time.
This week, after Houston let their ground game do the work in Week 2, it's safe to assume Matt Schaub will be back to his throwing ways. And with Johnson being smothered by Bailey, Porter will need to take away Schaub's second-favorite choice in Walter.
Ryan Clady vs. Antonio Smith
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Antonio Smith has recorded only one total sack for Houston this season, but a total of three in his last four games amounting to 23 yards lost for opposing quarterbacks.
Smith may not be a huge threat to rush the passer, and the Texans' are certainly missing Mario Williams, but even one sack can be too many when an offense's starting quarterback is coming off of multiple neck surgeries.
Ryan Clady's been criticized of falling off his mark over the last season as his offensive line's sacks allowed total skyrocketed in 2011. But it's widely known now that the reason for his decline was due more to a quarterback without an arm and some seriously happy and sometimes confused feet dancing around in the backfield.
Now that each defensive line player has taken on an immediately more important role with the absence of Williams in Houston, Smith will most certainly emerge as more of a factor for opposing lines in 2012. It's up to Clady to make sure that Week 3 does not serve as his breakout game and that Manning stays on his feet for the full 60 minutes.
Willis McGahee vs. Brian Cushing
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Willis McGahee and Brian Cushing should meet a few times during Week 3 and will at least spend a great deal of time staring back and forth at each other from the center of each backfield.
As Houston's defensive line is under more duress to create pressure without Williams, the linebacker corps must also step up their game.
McGahee crushed the Falcons' defense in Week 2 and served as the steady hand during an otherwise shaky offensive performance for Denver. He ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns during a losing effort in Atlanta.
Cushing has yet to record a sack in 2012, but has managed to notch one interception onto his statline against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. What's more important is that he is responsible for one forced fumble thus far.
McGahee must maintain his position as the offensive anchor in order to keep this game in Denver's hands and prevent another turnover frenzy. He'll also be responsible for picking up linebacker blitzes by Cushing and others while Peyton Manning is in his shotgun formation.
Demaryius Thomas vs. Johnathan Joseph
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Johnathan Joseph has recorded 19 interceptions in the league since his rookie year in 2006. Compared to the four interceptions by his fourth-year counterpart Kareem Jackson, Joseph will certainly earn the majority of the role of covering Demaryius Thomas this week.
Thomas has a full four inches on Joseph, so his size will have to be a factor when they find themselves leaping for a jump-ball down the sidelines or in the end zone.
But Thomas' role will not only need to be detailed by his usual pass-catching duties, but also as a sort of defense and safety blanket for Peyton Manning.
During the first quarter of Denver's Week 2 debacle against the Falcons, Manning threw an interception on each of his first three drives. He'll need to trust Demaryius to make the easy catches, strive for the tough ones and use his extra strength, size and arm span to try to deflect errant passes away from the eager arms of Joseph.
Peyton Manning vs. Himself
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Despite the players on the field being evenly matched 11 to 11, Peyton Manning's biggest test will be facing himself, his rust and his demons from Week 2.
The name of his game must be high-percentage short passes until his confidence is up and he can make better decisions down the middle of the field and in the end zone.
It will help that Manning's home crowd will keep the air much quieter than the noisy bunch in the Georgia Dome did on Monday. Nevertheless, mistakes can be made in any stadium and at any time.
Too many times last week, Manning could be seen floating balls over the heads of receivers, forcing passes into windows that had no room for a member of his offense and tossing touchdowns away through the back of the end zone. The end results were three back-to-back-to-back drives ending in interceptions and a number on the scoreboard that was in no way favorable to the men in the blue and orange.
Manning will need the support of every member of his offense and his coaching staff in order to build momentum early, move the chains consistently and revive the decision making and field control that made his career and earned him an NFL all-time-high four League MVP awards. And just maybe a win at home against the Houston Texans this Sunday afternoon.