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5 things to watch for in the Broncos game in Houston

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A Texas sized test for the rookie QB. What should we watch for out of Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos against the Houston Texans?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit that with the way Denver beat Los Angeles last Sunday, this whole week has been a bit of a reprieve. It’s a lot easier to find silver linings when the scoreboard keeps most of the boo-birds at bay.

Unfortunately, this week’s game is going to be a really tough matchup against an offense perfectly suited to exploit the holes in the Broncos’ decimated secondary and pass rush. Talking with Rivers McCown earlier this week helped keep me off the doom and gloom wagon, but don’t be surprised if the final score looks ugly.

With that huge caveat out of the way, here are the things I’m keeping a close eye on.

Defense

1. Will Fangio send the dogs minus Wolfe?

2. Can the run defense hold up?

3. How does the coverage prevent Nuklear fallout?

If you missed the report Thursday, Von Miller revealed he’s trying to play through a sprained MCL. He’s officially on the injury report as questionable going into the Texans’ game.

“It was hard. It was extremely hard. I cried real tears. A 30-year-old man. It was extremely hard for me. I thought, especially at the beginning of the week and the way that I’ve healed over my career, I thought I was going to be able to put it out there.But MCL is just an important ligament, and especially with my game. If I was standing back off the ball, playing D-tackle or something like that, or inside backer, anything like that, but all exotic movements I really couldn’t do. My game has a foundation in exotic movements. I took it all the way up until the deadline and just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even say it. I couldn’t even say I wasn’t playing, I had to let them make that call because in my head I had already geared my mind up. I was ready to go, I went to sleep the night before and went through all of my pregame rituals. Everything that I do, I was getting ready for the game, and I just couldn’t do it.”

All week he’s been a limited participant in practice. With the Broncos sitting at 4-8 and eliminated in any realistic playoff conversation, the smart move would be protecting the 30-year old future Hall of Famer from himself. The last thing anyone wants is Miller playing through pain and making a bad situation worse that lingers into the 2020 season.

What that means for the Texans’ game is the pass rush is going to be down to maybe one of their best pass rushers, maybe. Justin Hollins and Jeremiah Attaochu played a ton last Sunday and would pick up a lion’s share of the snaps on the edge. Malik Reed’s already been a starter since Bradley Chubb was lost for the season in week 4.

Let me start by saying all three played far better than I dared hope against Philip Rivers last weekend. Attaochu had some really great rushes and did a far better job holding down his edge than I anticipated. He earned a holding call against Russell Okung and probably should have gotten a second.

The way Fangio used Hollins showed a hints as to why he was such a savvy move in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. He’s still developing a rush plan and is a bit stringier on as a force player than the veteran free agent, but he looks comfortable in space. He offers the defense a viable rusher who can also drop into coverage when the Broncos try to dial up the havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Hollins’ ability to drop and disrupt in coverage brings a lot of flexibility to the Broncos’ D.

One thing that throws a bit of a damper on their performance is the competition. It’s no secret that LA has one of the worst offensive lines in football. While Deshaun Watson takes his fair share of pressure, far more of its because he’s hanging in the pocket to try and create plays downfield. According to the Athletic’s Ted Nguyen, Watson ranks second in passer rating (110.5) and fourth in yards per attempt (10.1) among the 32 NFL quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts made 2.6-plus seconds after the snap,

Even if Von Miller’s able to go, he’s going to be hampered. That and the fact that the Broncos have blitzed on just 26.2% of opposing dropbacks this year means Watson’s going to have time to throw barring a career day from one of the young pass rushers Shelby Harris. What I’m looking for is how Fangio tries to limit his opportunities for big plays.

Fangio generally believes in safe pressure.

One of the prevalent complaints about Fangio this year is how he’ll rush three instead of four and doesn’t send a lot of heat. To be honest he’d probably send one rusher if he thought it was enough to hurry the pass, as the Broncos’ head coach adheres to the belief that a pass rush is a zero sum proposition: sending an extra player after the passer takes one out of coverage, which means if the quarterback can withstand the rush, the defense is exposed.

Because of this, whenever possible he’ll send four or less. Even if he can convince an opponent that more could be coming, as he did when Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson threatened the Chargers’ A-gaps above.

Fangio will play games with the defensive line to provide mismatches.

Another way Fangio will try and give his young pass rushers favorable matchups is through stunts like the one above. This is done to confuse blocking assignments and get offensive linemen out of position and has been an effective maneuver. One player in particular who has benefitted from these is De’Marcus Walker, who will get more playing time in lieu of Wolfe’s injury. I’ll be looking to see how Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones, and the young edge rushers try to capitalize on these.

Of course, with the questions mounting about the pass rush its puts an enormous burden on the backend to hold up in a game they’re already outgunned. Isaac Yiadom had a far more encouraging game against the Chargers than Mike William’s fourth down catch suggests. He was in sound coverage on the play but gave up the reception after a perfect pass by Philip Rivers. Unfortunately, the big reception overshadowed a really solid job on the preceding third down.

I had my eye on Yiadom’s first start in months. He looked much improved over the beginning of the season.

All told, Yiadom had his best game of the year last week. There’s still some kinks to work out and he has room to grow, but the big catch at the end of the first half was Justin Simmons’ running into him, while a couple of the receptions were schemed. This isn’t apologizing or protecting a player, but the fact is when a corner is playing off coverage a hitch or quick out is probably going to turn into a reception.

With that said, Deandre Hopkins, Kenny Stills, and Will Fuller give the Texans have one of the most dangerous three receiver sets in football. If Fuller is able to suit up this will be the biggest test Fangio’s pass coverage will face all season outside of the Chiefs’ games.

The other big thing to keep an eye on with Wolfe’s injury is how the Broncos’ run defense is impacted. McCown suggested that Bill O’Brien is likely to try and keep the Texan’s offense on the ground, even if its slow going. Jones, Gotsis, and Walker have all had issues in spots against opposing running games, and with the way Houston uses the threat of Watson on the zone read, they could hold an extra defender from committing to the back.

They could also lean on Duke Johnson, who’s been a dangerous change of pace runner this season. He’s a capable receiver and nasty on cutbacks out of stretch runs. He’ll test the Broncos’ gap responsibilities and if Miller can’t hold up at the point of attack, it could get nasty.

Duke Johnson and the Texans’ running game is no joke.

Offense

4. Drew Lock. Duh.

5. Will building blocks emerge?

So now that I’ve gotten through the scariest part of the matchup, I’ve got some good news. Even with the impressive win over the New England Patriots, the Houston defense has been pretty iffy most of the season. The big name, of course is J.J. Watt, who went on injured reserve after the 27-23 win over the Oakland Raiders in November.

I wrote at length about Drew Lock’s first game, so won’t repeat myself too much here. If you missed it, feel free to follow the link. We’ll wait. I promise.

As has been the case all year, it would be wise for Rich Scangarello and the offense to lean on the Broncos’ rushing attack to manage the down and distance situations. It could also wind up the most effective way to attack the Texans.

Since Watt’s injury, the Texans’ rush defense has taken a noticeable step back from their early performance. Through the first eight weeks of the season the run defense was good for a -18.01 DVOA. 2.4 the last four weeks . Remember negative numbers are good for defense which means the difference between the two numbers is about the equivalent of the difference between the Titans run defense and the Packers.

Houston’s rush defense hasn’t been the same since J.J. Watt went on I.R.

With a young quarterback facing one of the better defensive coordinators in the league, leaning on Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman could help to avoid must-pass situations where Romeo Crennel can throw curve balls at the rookie. With Lock still a neophyte at dissecting NFL coverages, this could be huge.

Expect the Texans to work to take away Courtland Sutton and force Lock off his first read. They used a similar game plan and found success against Gardner Minshew earlier this season and it’d throw a wrench into where the Broncos’ rookie passer had most of his success in week 1.

Bradley Roby’s health status could make combating Denver’s number one receiver difficult, but if he draws enough attention it could free up Tim Patrick, DaeSean Hamilton and the backs. If the Broncos’ are going to keep up with Watson’s offense, the less heralded receiving options will have to maximize their opportunities.

McCown expected the Texans to utilize a lot of MOFO coverage shells, specifically Cover 4 and 2. This will be a changeup from the Chargers, who favor a closed middle of the field (two high vs. one high). They could also lean on man coverage as a way to send extra bodies at a Broncos’ offensive line missing Ron Leary in an effort to rush Drew Lock into mistakes.

Noah Fant and Jeff Heuerman could be the big X-Factors for Lock. Houston’s been one of the worst defenses in the league at stopping tight ends most of the season and really struggle to defend the middle of the field.

Noah Fant will probably have chances to make plays. He has to make them count.

Final Thoughts

Remember how I said things looked pretty grim going into the Minnesota Vikings game? This feels a lot like that. With an injury report about the size of a Dear Santa letter, the banged up Broncos are heading into Houston shorthanded.

It’s just as easy to see Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense lighting up the secondary as the shorthanded pass rush fails to get home as it is to imagine Bill O’Brien out-thinking himself and tries to run the ball into a stout Denver front.

In a similar vein Drew Lock could just as easily follow up last week’s impressive debut with an even brighter encore as a stinker if Romeo Crennel successfully stifles Sutton and Lock gets flustered.

This is one of those games I’m not looking for the final result so much as the process. Houston’s a legit Super Bowl contender, and they serve as a great litmus test to see where respective members of the Broncos’ roster stacks up.