The Denver Broncos need to get back on the winning track. They lost in Week 15 to the San Diego Chargers, their only home loss of the season and Peyton Manning’s first loss against an AFC West opponent.
Their 27-20 loss against the Chargers could actually be a good thing. The Broncos will now have laser-like focus as they enter the postseason.
The Broncos still have business to take care of, and they can’t lose focus with two games left in the regular season. If they win their final two games, then they will enter the playoffs as the top seed in the AFC. This will give the Broncos home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If they win the AFC West, the Broncos would have three straight division titles for the first time in team history.
Peyton Manning is not thinking about the playoffs. He knows better than to overlook an opponent at the end of the year, despite its poor record. Manning is 16-3 in his career versus the Houston Texans, with 44 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He has 10 more wins versus Houston than any other quarterback.
After practice on Wednesday, Manning talked about his mindset this week. “It’s all about Houston. I think we’ve done a good job taking things week to week. I think we’ve prepared well each week. We haven’t always played as well as we would have liked. You like to transfer good practices to the playing field and thought we had a good day today. We need to have a good rest of the week. Its Houston, it’s on the road and that’s really all the focus is.”
The Broncos offense is still scoring at a record pace, despite only scoring 20 points last week against the Chargers. With 55 points over the next two games, the Broncos will break the NFL record for points in a season.
With two games remaining, Manning needs three passing touchdowns to tie the single-season record set by the New England Patriots' Tom Brady in 2007. Manning is averaging 3.37 passing touchdowns per game this year.
Manning’s 4,811 passing yards are the most through 14 team games in league history. He needs 665 passing yards to tie Drew Brees’ single-season record from 2011, or 333.0 per game. Manning is averaging 343.6 passing yards per game this season.
We’ll see if the Broncos can get their ground game back on track this week. Last week against the Chargers, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were only able to compile 18 yards on 11 carries.
The Texans rush defense ranks 24th in the league this year. It allows an average of 120.9 yards rushing per game. We could see both Moreno and Ball have strong performances against this defense.
After practice on Wednesday, head coach John Fox was asked about where Welker was in the NFL’s concussion protocol. “I don’t know if there are different stages. I’m a little busy out here. I just know that he’s not cleared to participate yet and he will be day-to-day moving forward.”
The Texans are soft against the run, but their pass defense is fairly strong. Their pass defense currently ranks second in the league, allowing an average of 183.3 yards per game through the air.
The Broncos have a challenge to overcome. If Welker doesn’t play, then perhaps we’ll see Eric Decker line up primarily in the slot. Demaryius Thomas will still be the primary target on the outside. Without Welker, we’d once again see more from Andre Caldwell.
Defensively, the Broncos have plenty of problems to iron out before the start of the playoffs.
Their run defense has been strong for most of the year, but they haven’t been as stout since losing defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to a hip injury a few weeks ago.
They’ll be facing a new-look Texans rushing attack. Ben Tate was put on season-ending injured reserve this week, so that means rookie Dennis Johnson will be the starter this week.
Johnson is a compact runner who can hide behind his linemen then burst to daylight quickly when a hole opens up. He has a low center of gravity, runs bigger than his size and can change directions quickly. Johnson is a decent receiving option out of the backfield, and he should get plenty of touches no matter how the game script unfolds on Sunday.
With Case Keenum banged up, the Texans will go back to Matt Schaub as their starting quarterback. Schaub may get plenty of opportunity in garbage time. The Texans could be playing from behind early in this contest.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson missed practice on Wednesday with a wrist injury, but he’s expected to play on Sunday. The playing status of both tight ends Garrett Graham and Owen Daniels is up in the air right now.
The Broncos pass defense has struggled most of the season, especially when an opponent goes into a pass-happy mode to keep up with Denver’s offense. Their pass defense may be able to look better this week against a banged up and struggling Texans offense.
Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the Houston Texans on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The pistol could be the preferred formation for the Broncos to run the ball out of on Sunday. This does not tip the defense off to which way the play is going to go.
In this play, the Broncos force the defense to honor the run on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Moreno ends up running this off right tackle for a six-yard gain.
The Broncos don’t have an overly complex system when it comes to running the ball. Manning will audible to run plays when he sees the defense with six in the box. The offensive line just blocks each man straight up, and the backs are asked to hit the hole with momentum.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
Most expected the Broncos to use Jacob Tamme more last week. The team did use “12 personnel” (one running back, two tight ends), but Tamme barely saw the field. Instead we saw the Broncos use Julius Thomas and Virgil Green almost exclusively in that personnel grouping.
In the play below, we see Thomas and Green on opposite sides of the line. Thomas motions before the snap down to Green’s side, but he returns to the left side of the line to run his route. Notice how the Chargers are using an umbrella coverage to start the game.
The Broncos use a play fake to set up a downfield throw. The linebackers clearly stay home with a watchful eye on Moreno. This creates a huge passing window for Manning to hit Thomas in. The play results in a 22-yard gain for the offense.
When they use three wide receivers, we may see Decker in the slot with Demaryius Thomas and Caldwell on the outside.
When the Texans Run the Ball
Dennis Johnson gets the start for the Texans this week. The rookie has a little bit of experience from earlier this year. He runs with choppy steps and can change direction in a hurry.
In the play below, we see the Jaguars over-pursue the play to the outside. This creates a cutback lane for Johnson to exploit.
The diminutive runner can hide behind the line, and defenders will lose track of him. Johnson is patient on this run, pressing the hole until he finds the lane.
The rookie sees daylight and hits the accelerator. This carry went for 29 yards, and it could have been much longer. Johnson tripped himself up toward the end of the carry.
The Broncos must stay disciplined facing this type of runner. Johnson can make big plays as a runner or receiver. However, he lost 14 fumbles in his college career, and ball security could be a problem for the rookie.
When the Texans Pass the Ball
The Texans love to spread the formation out and run multiple route combinations to put pressure on a defense at every level.
In the play below, we see the Texans in the shotgun formation. They have four wide receivers on the field, and the tight end is going to run a route as well.
From these five routes, three of them are run underneath. The single high safety knows before the snap that Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins on the outside are the primary deep threats.
Schaub is watching for false steps from the safety. If he favors Johnson’s side, then Hopkins is the call. If he favors Hopkins, then targeting Johnson is the throw to make.
The safety drifts ever so slightly toward Johnson, so Schaub drives the ball to Hopkins. The rookie picks up 46 yards on this play with the Texans playing from behind.
We should see plenty of these type of plays on Sunday.
The Broncos haven’t lost back-to-back games since Weeks 2-3 in 2012. They’ve won four straight games following a loss by an average of 18.3 points per game. With another win, the Broncos will post consecutive 12-win seasons for the second time in team history (three straight from 1996-98).
The Texans have lost a franchise-record 12 straight games after beginning the season with a 2-0 start. The only other team over the last five years to have a losing streak that long was the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, who started 0-13 without Manning.
The Broncos will be facing a hostile home crowd in Houston. The Texans aren’t the team they used to be, but they could still put up a decent fight this week.
After practice on Wednesday, Fox talked about having meaningful games left this late in the season. “We’ve got two more opportunities in the regular season—this week against Houston on the road, our first 12 p.m. kickoff of the season. So there is a lot at stake, no doubt. You’re just trying to make the most of each opportunity.”
This could be a blowout if the Broncos play up to their potential.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.