Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos: Where Sunday's Game Will Be Won or Lost
It was a rough outing, and it was made worse by the fact that Manning threw three interceptions on Denver's first three drives, only to have Knowshon Moreno end the first quarter with a fumble of his own to make it four Denver turnovers in the first quarter alone.
The Broncos would rebound from their slow start to nearly complete their comeback, being one Julio Jones conversion away from potentially winning the game.
The Broncos (1-1) enter their Sunday matchup with the Houston Texans (2-0) at home at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Texans are widely considered to be one of the best teams in the NFL, and they're considered one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year.
Here is where Sunday's game will be won or lost.
Denver's Short and Intermediate Passing Game
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The Broncos utilized a sort of dink-and-dunk game plan versus the Pittsburgh Steelers en route to a successful 31-19 victory in the season opener.
In their second game of the season at Atlanta, Peyton Manning looked to throw the deep ball early against the Falcons, with the worst results possible. He threw three interceptions on the first three drives, with all three turnovers occurring on deep passes over the seams and picked off by defensive backs playing in deep zone coverage.
Manning is playing in his third real game in the past two seasons, and it's not a shock to see that he's a bit rusty. I think Manning has admitted that himself numerous times to reporters.
Having said that, the Texans have a tough defense. They have a playmaker at defensive end in J.J. Watt, who single-handedly accounted for two interceptions by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Week 1 when he tipped the passes at the line of scrimmage.
Their defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL, having allowed just 17 points through the first two weeks of the season. The defense ranked No. 4 in the NFL in 2011.
The Broncos would be best-utilized to get a feel for the game as they did against Pittsburgh, by moving the ball slowly down the field and taking what the defense gives them.
I find it highly unlikely that Manning takes the shots that he did at Atlanta against Houston this Sunday. It seemed Manning found it a necessity to quiet the Georgia Dome crowd as soon as possible.
He won't encounter the same problem as he'll be playing in friendly confines in Denver this week.
The Broncos Pass Rush
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The Broncos pass rush was non-existent on Monday night. As solid as the defense was, considering the dreadful situation the offense put them in with four turnovers, the lack of a pass rush was still inexcusable.
Elvis Dumervil got completely shut down by Falcons LT Sam Baker. He was a non-factor. The other defensive lineman, including linebackers such as Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard, were invisible. Von Miller was the only linebacker who put noticeable pressure on Matt Ryan.
The Broncos now face an offense with a similar amount of talent that the Falcons possessed. The Texans have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Schaub and potentially the best wide receiver in the game in Andre Johnson. Alongside Johnson, they have Arian Foster, who led the league in rushing yards in 2010, Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter.
The Broncos lined up in the nickel defense just about all night against Atlanta's offense, and they could face a similar predicament with Houston.
Broncos nickel cornerback Chris Harris might not play again this Sunday, which may play a role in Houston's offensive game plan.
Nonetheless, if Denver's defense is to stand a chance against one of the league's more talented offensive supporting casts, it is a necessity that Denver's pass rush actually amounts to a pass rush against the Texans.
Points on the Board
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This may sound as broad as possible, but the Broncos need to put points on the board.
It's easier said than done, but what do I mean by this?
The Texans have faced two cupcake opponents to start the season. They have faced the Dolphins and the Jaguars, two teams that are expected to be at the bottom of the standings by the time the season ends. The Dolphins had a rookie quarterback start his first game, while the Jaguars started a second-year quarterback who was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL last season.
The point is the defense hasn't faced anybody of note thus far.
Now they face an offense led by Peyton Manning. Big difference.
If the Broncos can cut the turnovers down, move the ball down the field as they did against a similar defense in Pittsburgh and put points on the board, it will be to Denver's advantage.
If the Broncos put points on the board and force Houston into a shootout, it gives Denver their best chance to win.
Although the Texans aren't short of talent on the offensive side of the ball, the true strength of the team lies in the defense. This was proven when rookie quarterback T.J. Yates took the team to the second round of the playoffs.
Matt Schaub is not a slouch of a quarterback, but it's not as if he's an elite quarterback either. The Texans are not exactly the New Orleans Saints; they're not a team that wins shootouts week after week.
If you put the Texans offense in unfamiliar territory, you give yourselves the best chance to win.
In order to do that, the Broncos will need to put up points on the board—a lot of them.
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Willis McGahee set the tempo for the offense on Monday night, as he was the one consistent force on that side of the ball for the Broncos.
McGahee ran for 113 yards, two touchdowns and over five yards per carry. He didn't turn the ball over, and he came through time after time when the Broncos needed him.
Do the Broncos need McGahee to play as well as he did against Atlanta when the Texans visit Denver on Sunday? No. But it wouldn't hurt.
If the Broncos wear down the Texans 3-4 defense, as they did Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, with a variety of short passes and solid runs, it gives the Broncos an advantage by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.
McGahee is a big bruising back who wears defenses down. If McGahee wears down Houston's defense, it gives Manning the opportunity to win the game with his arm in the fourth quarter with the Texans defenders worn down from the run game, the short passing game and the high altitude at Sports Authority Field.
If the Broncos don't get into a shootout, they could just play to their game plan that they had versus the Steelers.
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I can't say this enough: turnovers are the difference between wins and losses.
It's an obvious statement, one that every NFL fan should know. But it's so important.
The Broncos turned the ball over four times on Monday night, and the defense failed to force any turnovers. What that resulted in was a negative-four in the turnover department, and what do you know? Denver lost the game.
Matt Schaub has yet to throw an interception this season, largely due to the fact that he has played well, but at the same time, he has to be truly tested by solid competition.
Schaub faces his first true test against the Broncos this Sunday.
If Manning limits his turnovers as he did against Pittsburgh and if the Broncos can come up with one key turnover as Tracy Porter did with Ben Roethlisberger in Week 1, it can be the difference between a win and a loss.
You saw it in Week 1, and you may see it again in Week 3.
Let's just hope it's in the Broncos favor.