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GIF Horse - Taking on the Texans

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In this week’s GIF Horse, we break down the Denver Broncos matchup against the Houston Texans.

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NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs
Thanks for the memories D.T.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a stroll back through memory lane for a minute. I’m in Colorado to watch my first game in Denver since the Broncos 2005 season. I went to the game with my buddy Dailey since he was a Detroit fan and boisterously confident in the Lions ability to “womp the @#%!” out of the Broncos.

So was I, really. Tim Tebow had just taken over for Kyle Orton the previous week and completed less than half his passes in a victory over the Miami Dolphins. I wanted to believe, really. I was in high school when Tebow gave his famous “promise” speech. It gave me goosebumps. My eyes couldn’t lie though, while fans were abuzz with the Florida quarterback I saw a fullback who could throw and thought it was little more than a gimmick. On the plus side, I was a big fan of the defense for the first time in forever because John Elway had nabbed Von Miller 2nd overall in the draft.

If you remember 2011, you’ll know that was the year Denver improbably made the playoffs and eventually stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime. I remember guests asking about Tebow all winter as I worked in Big Sky, Montana and their confused looks as I ranted about my new favorite player, number 58. The defense literally carried Tebow to the playoffs that year, but without a little Mile High Magic, the ride would have ended in round 1.

Enter Demaryius Thomas. In the Tebow offense he was basically an afterthought in 2011, posting a 32-551-4 TD line. The stats and scheme masked the burgeoning talent John Fox had inherited from Josh McDaniels, but that all changed on January 8th.

Probably the single greatest game winning play in Broncos playoff history.

I’ve hated the Steelers since 2005, so it was sweet revenge to see D.T. rip their still-beating hearts out of their chests. Following the season, Peyton Manning came to Denver and Thomas grew into arguably the best receiver in Denver’s history.

The move yesterday made all of the sense in the world on paper. The playoffs are the longest of long shots following the 30-23 loss to the Chiefs last Sunday. Courtland Sutton is ready to step into Thomas’ role and DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick need more reps in order to grow. It also made sense if Elway was going to turn around and cut Thomas after the season in order to avoid paying his 2019 salary.

Thomas caught the Sheriff’s first touchdown.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Fans were harder on Thomas than seemed fair given his talent, at his peak he was a top 5 receiver in the league and one of the scariest playmakers at the position. I’ve long said that an NFL receiving corps is sort of built like an NBA starting lineup: the best ones have a superstar number 1, an all-star number 2 and then quality role players to compliment them. Thomas played LeBron James on arguably the best passing offense ever assembled. 5 years later it’s still hard to believe that 55-touchdown campaign came from my favorite team.

So the objective, logical part of me knows that Elway made the right move, but there’s no doubt a small part of me is rooting for the Texans the rest of the way. It will be fun to see what Thomas can do with a budding star QB throwing him the ball after the short hand Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch dealt him for two years.

Wish you the very best Bay Bay, in football as well as life. Stay golden.

Peyton’s single game record tying touchdown pass? To D.T. There’s little doubt he did most of the work on this one.

Overshadowed by Thomas’ departure are the results of last week’s game. How did the Broncos do in accomplishing the keys I laid out for victory last week?

In 2 words? Not great.

Key #1 Slow down Dee Ford

Ford (55) haunted the Broncos line last Sunday.

This was an abject failure. Ford had 3 sacks and completely overwhelmed the Broncos in key moments. Denver wound up just 3/12 on third down while also fumbling twice. Far too often Bolles and/or Turner were left alone with Ford and with little more than hope that one would find a way to keep him off Keenum. It didn’t work. In the 4th Quarter Keenum had a 4 play stretch where he had a sack-fumble, an interception, a sack, and then a 2-yard loss on third-and-2.

Key #2 Run the Damn Ball

Booker had 9 carries for 78 yards and could have had even more with additional opportunities.

The Broncos ran for almost 200 yards on 30 carries and would have had more if penalties hadn’t wiped out 2 huge runs. Even then, both Devontae Booker and Phillip Lindsay had great games on the ground.

At this point in the game the Denver backs were averaging almost 6.5 yards a carry.

That doen’t hide the fact that play calling was questionable at times, with the 3rd and 2 jet sweep to Emmanuel Sanders first to mind. Both the Bronco’s backs were already gouging the Chiefs run defense and in a short yardage situation the ball was taken out of their hands. Unfortunately, this is nothing new and it seems Broncos fans should resign themselves to questionable decisions so long as Bill Musgrave is the playcaller.

Key #3 Force Mahomes into mistakes

Early on it looked like the Broncos would aim to slow down Mahomes.

Early in the game it looked like Joseph and Woods’ game plan had all but copied last week’s GIF Horse word for word. I mentioned then that the Broncos best chance to win is to sell out in order to limit Patrick Mahomes as best they can, even if it meant Hunt goes ham.

After the first drive though, it became apparent Kareem Hunt was the marked man last week and the Broncos were going to do all they could to slow down the Chiefs running game, even if it meant giving up 300 yards, 15 first downs, and 4 touchdowns through the air.

It’s debatable if the Fly Zone ever had a realistic chance to slow down Mahomes, so perhaps Joseph went with the only game plan the team could accomplish. Denver did hold Kansas City to their 2 lowest point totals on the year, it just wasn’t enough when the offense couldn’t score 30+ on the worst defense in the league.

This was about as easy a TD as you’ll find in the NFL.

So what will it take of the Broncos to beat the banged up Houston Texans?

Key #1 Protect Keenum

Houston has a variety of ways to get to the passer, it’s vital Musgrave finds a way to protect Keenum.

With their return to health this season J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney have been terrorizing opposing passers. The trio has combined for more than 50 pressures on the season, which is insane. Their production is a big part of the Houston pass defense and any of the three have the potential to force Keenum into a big mistake. What’s even scarier is how Romeo Crennell will use them as decoys in order to dial up blitz plays to attack the protection’s weak points with blitzes.

It’s critical that Musgrave calls a game plan that minimizes his quarterback’s chances to commit a catastrophic mistake. The Broncos need to run early and often to manage the sticks as best they can, even if the Texans D is the league’s best run defense by DVOA. If they can stay ahead of the downs, it will go a long way towards preventing Watt and the gang from taking over.

Key #2 Dink and Dunk them to Death

It’s almost a paradox given the necessity to protect Keenum from himself, but given the Houston run defense it will be all but necessary to look to pass here and there. Incidentally, the secondary is really susceptible underneath and will be without their best cornerback in Jonathan Joseph. There will be an opportunity for plays to be made and it’s critical Keenum finds Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and Jeff Heuerman when they’re open.

It will be a bit riskier than the last few weeks though, as the Texans are one of the best teams in the league against play action passes.

Key #3 Disrupt Deshaun Watson

If the Colts can sack Watson 7 times...

Twice this season the Houston QB has taken 7 sacks in a single game. He’s been hit more than any other passer in the league and has been so banged up he’s had to avoid flying to games. The fact that Bill O’Brien and the Texan medical staff is letting him play is pretty insane, really. What’s crazier is how productive he’s been when he can find the time to complete a pass. Last week the Dolphins couldn’t get home and Watson shredded them for five touchdowns. The pieces around him aren’t as talented, but there’s no doubt the former Clemson Tiger is every bit as dangerous as Patrick Mahomes.

Before Will Fuller’s injury he was having a breakout campaign and the Thomas trade was made in part to pair DeAndre Hopkins with another legitimate running mate. Lamar Miller’s 130-yard game versus the Dolphins notwithstanding, there is little doubt it’s the passing game that carries the Texans O.

They have a critical weakness, however. There are few bookends less talented than Julie’n Davenport and Kendall Lamm so the Broncos edge rushers should have a field day. It also seems doubtful that D.T. will step in and see significant snaps off the jump so the Broncos are probably catching Houston at the most opportune time for their own chances. They need to capitalize.

If the Orange Rush can’t get to Watson he could make mincemeat of the Fly Zone, even minus Will Fuller.

What do you think Broncos Country?