I mentioned before the game today that this was always going to be about more than the final score. This is true for many games, but with the Broncos clearly rebuilding while the Texans aspirations are a Lombardi, that feels especially true.
So obviously... there’s a lot to love about today’s performance Broncos’ Country.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The pass rush relied on “the other guys”
I’ve been vocal about wanting the face of the Broncos to be shutdown in light of the sprained MCL, but he suited up today and looked how you’d expect a speed rusher to look with a bad wheel. With Malik Reed out for the game the onus fell on Miller, Jeremiah Attaochu and Justin Hollins to hold down the edges.
Luckily, both of Hollins and Attaochu were ready to pick up some of the slack left to them, especially early on.
Jeremiah Attaochu runs down Deshaun Watson for a big sack. The edge rusher is having a game #Broncos Country pic.twitter.com/sA0iNM720j— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Attaochu didn’t rest on his laurels early and hurried Watson on the Texans next drive. Between he and Von, it’s fair to say they were getting into Laremy Tunsil’s head as the left tackle had three false starts in the first half.
Jeremiah Attaochu. May be time to learn the name #Broncos Country. pic.twitter.com/jTd4BydByC— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
2. The Broncos’ defense came to play early
Even with a compromised pass rush, the Denver D didn’t lay down for the Texans’ offense. Chris Harris Jr. came up for a big stop on a receiver screen on Houston’s second drive, Justin Hollins pressured Watson into scrambling.
Of course, the biggest play was the forced fumble by Alexander Johnson. He stripped Keke Coutee after a catch and Attaochu recovered. As he was being tackled, the Broncos’ backup edge rusher pitched to Kareem Jackson who had himself one of the most memorable plays in recent Broncos history.
Holy hell what a play by Alexander Johnson and the #Broncos defense! pic.twitter.com/UFuA8zHhHb— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
As awesome as the Lock show was, the defensive performance was the biggest shock of the first half. Even with Miller clearly hampered, Fangio had all the answers for a scorching hot Texan offense.
Vic Fangio dialing up some chaos with the #Broncos D pic.twitter.com/Yy0YSwcF1H— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
3. Tight ends abuse the Texans’ D
Coming into the game I mentioned how the supporting cast would need to maximize their opportunities for the Broncos’ to have a chance. Houston had huge problems slowing down tight ends prior to the contest and Scangarello and the coaching staff clearly noticed: Noah Fant and Jeff Heuerman caught all four of their targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
Noah Fant with another big catch and run for the #Broncos. Great play design. pic.twitter.com/xivTSLeZnq— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
4. Kareem Jackson was a lucky lumberjack
Even beyond his huge fumble recovery for a touchdown, the veteran safety was lighting up his teammates. He makes it easy to forget that he’s 5’10 and under 200 lbs.
Kareem Jackson chops a big fella down to get the #Broncos D off the field! pic.twitter.com/3GB8bhy9v0— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
He also came up with an interception off a tip that could have gone to any number of Broncos, but didn’t. It went to the former Texan. It’s going to be overlooked this week, but both the pitch and tip could have easily gone to any other number of player, but Jackson happened to be in the perfect spot to come up with both. What a remarkable homecoming.
5. Shelby Harris steps up
With Derek Wolfe out for the year and Dre’Mont Jones hurt early, the Broncos defensive line rotation was down to the nitty gritty. You wouldn’t have known it in the first half.
We don't appreciate Shelby Harris enough #Broncos Country. Got to hope Elway does. Keep this man in orange and blue pic.twitter.com/XzVbmdjgID— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
In the second things started to crop up a little, but I fully expect Harris to pop up when I review the defensive tape later this week. He’s quietly had a really nice season since moving off the nose and I sure do hope the Broncos find a way to keep him around.
6. Scangarello kept the pedal on the gas in the third
One of the big complaints in the media and among fans out of last week’s win was how the play calling got conservative in the second half. This didn’t meet up with what was on the tape or the play by play (the Broncos threw more than they ran, for example) but yet the narrative stuck.
Pretty sure that won’t remain the case this week. The Broncos got the ball to start the second half and went back to the well hitting Noah Fant for a big gain.
If you don't make sure Fant goes down, he's going to get some yards. Nice catch and run by the #Broncos rookie here. pic.twitter.com/uc80rqnjZi— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
They followed it up with an sort of RPO near the goal line.
Pretty sure this is what's called an "Alert" in Madden #Broncos Country. pic.twitter.com/eROBpdtJJD— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Finally, Phillip Lindsay capped it off with a tough run behind the right side of the Broncos’ line.
Elijah Wilkinson, Austin Schlottman and Phillip Lindsay have the #Broncos pushing 40 pic.twitter.com/pj7nYyQrqe— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
7. The defense got torched in the third
One reason I was so surprised by the Broncos defense early in the first half is all of the injuries left the pass rush looking like a shell of itself against an elite quarterback with weapons at his disposal. It didn’t take until the third quarter for that issue to crop up.
Plays like this really illustrate how much the #Broncos lack of a true pass rush has hurt the D the last few weeks. pic.twitter.com/sMWad0b9oZ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Early in the game, it seemed like Bill O’Brien was reluctant to open up the offense for shot plays. Facing a huge deficit out of the locker room, that stopped being the case and Denver’s secondary was put under enormous stress.
Deshaun Watson could have done his taxes in that pocket. Huge kudos to Will Parks for holding up downfield. pic.twitter.com/fjE90L2SAP— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
8. Zebras try to work their magic... Again
False starts and holding calls were the tale of the Texans first half, so of course they didn’t get called on Deshaun Watson’s second touchdown.
Comebacks are good for ratings. https://t.co/wxitkZ5R4H pic.twitter.com/RhajHqII4W— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Then of course, following that same touchdown the Broncos are called on back to back holding calls to kill any promise of a drive to answer.
The #Broncos first three and out comes after two dubious holding calls and a Jacob Martin fly by. pic.twitter.com/OrapgvKDjM— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
It’s probably because I’ve been torched by their dark ways a time or two over this 2019 season, but I found myself making bets on Twitter that the game would wind up close by the final whistle. Glad no one took me up on it. Even happier that it didn’t happen.
9. Pay Justin Simmons, John
Held up in deep coverage, stuck to his assignments in man, and factored into the run defense. If the Broncos don’t retain him after this year I’m going to lead the charge for John Elway’s job. He’s elite.
Let's give @jsimms1119 and @ReemBoi25 a #ProBowlVote or two... #Broncos Country. This was insanity. pic.twitter.com/LoRIEZTocb— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
10. Drew Lock’s amazing encore
The first drive of the game had two would-be touchdowns thanks to the zebras. Backed up in the shadow of their own goal post, Lock found Noah Fant on a tight throw that the first rounder turned into a 48-yard gain. The young quarterback followed it up with a money throw to Andrew Beck off play action.
On first down the Broncos came out in a spread set and hit Phillip Lindsay for an easy catch and run that got called back due to a soft block in the back on Garett Bolles.
A penalty by Garett Bolles cancels out a #Broncos touchdown. pic.twitter.com/mJixUnhSWD— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
A lot has been made of the Broncos red zone and third down issues this year, so it seemed only fitting for Lock to hit Fant again for a 12-yard strike on 3rd and 12.
Lock to Fant for the first time. Probably not the last #Broncos Country pic.twitter.com/I8Xjm3ODlE— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
On the Broncos’ second drive of the game they once again rode chunk plays in the passing game into the red zone. Tim Patrick started the party, Devontae Booker kept it going and Jeff Heuerman finished it.
Drew Lock finds another tight end and the #Broncos lead 21-0! pic.twitter.com/6XfctFdRqs— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Picking nits to find something to complain about a three touchdown half, but contrary to popular belief, Lock wasn’t perfect in the first half, even if his passer rating was.
Learning moment: Lock had a wide open Courtland Sutton. Would have given the #Broncos a first. Didn't look that way though. pic.twitter.com/0ulmnjX0h9— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Even with that small complaint, it wasn’t until the final minutes of the third quarter that Lock had a true rookie moment. He went for the home run ball and gave up his second easy interception in as many starts.
Rookie mistake here #Broncos Country. These are going to happen with a quarterback with a gunslinger mentality, but got to hope he learns from it. pic.twitter.com/41d8ToCZZK— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
Even with the mistakes, it’s worth noting that for the second straight week the Broncos looked alive on passing downs. After 10 games watching Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen turn any and all third down into an insurmountable obstacle it’s pretty staggering to watch competence.
The hype around Drew Lock is going to get unreal this week. After all, he’s 2-0 to start his career for a team and fanbase starving for a franchise quarterback. It’s a good problem to have and I’m definitely looking forward to his tape review this week, but there will be tougher days ahead.
So far Drew Lock has the best winning percentage in NFL history.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 8, 2019
The 11 who impressed
Take note that these are not in any particular order and I tend to leave off the interior lines until I get a chance to study the end zone tape. With that in mind here are the 11 Broncos who really caught my eye the first time through the Texans’ tape.
- Drew Lock
- Jeremiah Attaochu
- Justin Simmons
- Kareem Jackson
- Noah Fant
- Austin Schlottman
- Alexander Johnson
- Chris Harris
- Will Parks
- Tim Patrick
- Von Miller
8-8 ‘til we ain’t Broncos Country. Let’s go!