The Denver Broncos are 1-1 after two games against very good opponents, but their Week 3 matchup with the Houston Texans could be the toughest to date. There is a very real possibility that the Texans are best team in the AFC, but until they beat a quality opponent like the Broncos, that might not get a lot of play.
The reason the Texans are so tough is because they do everything well and a few things very well. To beat the Texans, Denver’s front seven will need to be disciplined and the offense will have to exploit Houston’s linebackers in coverage.
Houston will adjust to its opponent, so the Broncos can’t totally sellout to stop the running game. The Houston defense is extremely solid in the secondary, but there could be an opportunity to attack the linebackers with running backs and tight ends.
Houston has Arian Foster and Ben Tate and both can run wild behind an offensive line well-versed in the zone blocking scheme. Houston has perfected the scheme, which is tough to beat unless the defensive line can win in one-on-one blocking situations and the linebackers can fight through blocks to get into cutback lanes.
The running game also sets up the passing game, and the Texans will use nearly identical plays to run naked bootlegs. If the Broncos have to commit a safety to the box or otherwise have the safeties crashing in on running plays, the Texans will use play action and try to find Andre Johnson in open space.
Stopping the running game makes the passing game more one-dimensional for the Texans, and to do so, the Broncos can look at this play from Houston’s Week 2 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also use the 4-3 defense.
Based on the defensive alignment, the two offensive guards attempt to get blocks on the linebackers. The right tackle is going to cut-block the defensive tackle. It’s nearly impossible for a defender to get leverage to the opposite side of the way they are shaded, and the center and left tackle will use this fact to their advantage.
The blocking is set up in front of Foster, who takes one more step before cutting back. One of the linebackers reads the run and shoots the lane, but he’s not the only reason Foster doesn’t pick up yards on this play.
This play can be run as a passing or running play. In the running play version (1) the Texans ran here, the center cannot stay engaged with the defensive tackle or ride him out of the running lane. The defensive tackle sheds the block and is in position to stuff Foster's run. This is the type of individual play that can help the Broncos slow down Foster and Tate on Sunday.
The linebacker helped stuff this play because he read it as a run and shot the gap, but he did so at the risk of play-action pass (2). In this version of the play, Matt Schaub would fake the handoff to Foster, and if the linebacker or safety crash hard on the run, he would throw to a receiver running into the area they vacated.
It’s simple and effective play the Texans will run a lot. To counter it, the Broncos need great individual performances from their front seven. Setting the edge and turning Foster back inside is the first step, and the second is shedding blocks and holding ground at the point of attack to foil Foster’s cutback lanes.
Hesitation by the linebackers will cost the Broncos yards on the ground, so they need to commit to their initial reads. If the linebackers read the play incorrectly, the safeties will have to fly up and make a tackle.
Should the Broncos run the ball more to take the pressure off Manning?
The Texans have emerging superstar J.J. Watt at defensive end. Watt has three sacks coming from the 3-4 end position and has already has batted down numerous passes. Watt will put the heat on Manning; the Broncos need to have running backs and tight ends running underneath the coverage so Manning doesn’t have to take unneeded risk.
Manning is learning what he can and can’t do from a physical standpoint, and the Texans, like the Falcons, might try to bait him to throw deep. Expect the Broncos to start more conservatively by running the ball and letting Manning find short completions until he gets into the rhythm of the game.
The Broncos should lean on Willis McGahee and also work in rookie Ronnie Hillman this week, especially in the short passing game. The Texans surrendered seven receptions to running backs in Week 1 and four more including the Jaguars' lone touchdown in Week 2.
The Jaguars were effective running the ball against the Texans, but fell behind so early Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t have a chance to carry the ball more than 12 times. The Jaguars ran a lot of plays straight up the middle.
One play that was particularly effective had the center and right guard initially double-team Watt, with the center disengaging to block a linebacker. The left guard was asked to get to the other linebacker to spring Jones-Drew into the secondary. The block on Brian Cushing is the key to this big running play.
The initially double-team of Watt gives Jones-Drew enough room to hit the hole at full speed. The linemen get to the second level and are in position to make solid blocks on Houston’s linebackers.
Jones-Drew is past the linebackers and has a lot of space to run. He’ll end up gaining 17 yards before being brought down by safety Danieal Manning. The Broncos should attack Houston the same way and see if they can’t spring McGahee into the secondary.
The Texans are a tough team to pass against and the Broncos should try to attack them in the running game and with short passes to the running backs that challenge Houston’s linebackers.
Once the defense starts loading the box to stop the run and the short pass, then Manning can take a deep shot. The Broncos shouldn’t overcompensate for a poor Week 2 and try to pass early and often against the Texans because it’s taken Manning a little time to work out the kinks in the first quarter and Houston’s secondary is one of the better ones in football.