Week 14 Preview: Texans vs. Broncos

Huge win over the Patriots in their pockets, the Texans will look to topple the Broncos to complete a 3-for-3 homestand and firmly solidify a playoff spot. I would not call this game huge by an objective measurement compared to what the Texans have been up against all year only because they are two games behind a first-round bye and (effectively, assuming they can beat the Titans once in two games), two games ahead of the AFC South race. All that is imminently turnable in one week is the race for the 3-4 seed with Kansas City, who play the Patriots. Obviously, of course, if the Texans have real designs on the playoffs rather than just wanting a participation trophy, they’ll want this one in pocket as well.

This is sort of a weird game to call because so much has changed for these two teams this season. Deshaun Watson is around and is consistent, but every other position group on these two teams — including every great edge player each team has — can’t really be counted on for one reason or another. Last year, when the Texans went to Denver, Watson hung on to a win that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney mostly generated by dominating the Denver line and Case Keenum.

These two teams share a very linked history, with Houston importing Gary Kubiak from Denver after the 2005 season and importing Brock Osweiler after the 2016 season. And, of course, Kubiak linking up with Peyton Manning after it was rumored that Manning wanted that to happen when he was originally released after 2011. Prior to beating up on Keenum last year, the last two games the teams played were Broncos asswhippings — one in Osweiler’s return to Denver, and one with Manning at the trigger in his record-breaking season.

Opening at 7.5-point favorites, the Texans quickly ballooned to 8.5 or even 9-point favorites in some books. That reflects the reality of the Broncos starting a regressed rookie quarterback who didn’t exactly look stellar in the second half of his debut. But is that initial view of Lock what we should count on against the Texans?

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

Let’s start with where Denver is at as Kareem Jackson re-visits NRG: The big news is that Von Miller has been dealing with an MCL injury and may not play in the game, telling reporters that “when you take away exotic movements that make me who I am it changes the type of player I am.” Bradley Chubb is on IR. Derek Wolfe is on IR. That might give you the thought that this defense will pack it in — don’t get suckered in. The Broncos have a ton of depth and experience over the middle of the field. I’ve long been a fan of Todd Davis. Shelby Harris is having his typical solid season with four sacks at off-tackle, and Justin Simmons appears to be this team’s next star in the making at safety. Jackson, of course, remains a stellar box safety as well.

All of which is to say: Bill O’Brien made a big point of how he wants to run, and I don’t think he’s going to have a lot of success with it. The Broncos have gotten spilled by the Jaguars and Bills this year to the tune of 200+ yards on the ground, but have tended to be fairly solid over the course of the season. The Broncos are a YAC allowing ground defense: They gave up 151 yards after contact to the Bills and 159 after contact to the Jaguars. Carlos Hyde is an arm tackle breaker, but not really the back who is going to leave someone in the dust after getting past them. If the Texans go into the lab and get RPOs working as a staple play again, I’d totally get it. But simple inside zone with Hyde is not going to get the job done in my estimation.

The Broncos show a pronounced split in how well they do against 11-personnel versus how well they do against other groupings. They’ve held 11-personnel to a 40% success rate against the pass, and a 43% success rate against the run. Only New England, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh have done better. The Texans have been moving towards more 12-personnel with Jordan Thomas back, even mixing in more 13-personnel last week, and that would seem to be an easier area of attack with teams succeeding on 54% of their dropbacks in 12 against the Broncos.

The big letdown spot for the Broncos have been the non-Chris Harris corners. Bryce Callahan, big free-agent signee, has never gotten on the field. That’s left the Broncos rotating through corners and, as the Texans did last year, shifting Jackson back-and-forth between corner and safety. Last week, Jackson took one spot with Will Parks playing safety, and Isaac Yiadom took over and allowed 114 yards on seven targets, with two missed tackles.

Harris had shadowed against several big-name wideouts this year and has played quite well when doing so, holding Stefon Diggs catchless and Keenan Allen to 16 yards last week. That’ll likely be this week’s DeAndre Hopkins challenge. Note that No. 1 wideouts have been quite good against the Broncos empirically, as they’ve averaged a 27.1% DVOA that ranks 29th in DVOA allowed to No. 1 wideouts.

I don’t have a lot of doubt that the Texans can throw on the Broncos. For one thing, the Broncos are not frequent blitzers under Fangio. They sent seven blitzes at Philip Rivers in 32 dropbacks, and have blitzed on just 26.2% of opposing dropbacks this year, a middle-of-the pack amount. With the big pass rushers down or at least hampered, I don’t foresee a reason that Watson should be especially harried outside of excessive Chris Clark play. (Please, please, don’t make me watch Chris Clark.)

But the Fangio Broncos are impressive overall as a defense — they aren’t going to make things easy for the Texans unless Yiadom and Jackson simply can’t hold up in deep coverage.

When the Broncos have the ball

Both coordinators on this side of the ball — Rich Scangarello for Denver and Romeo Crennel for the Texans — commented on how hard this game is going to be because they simply don’t have a lot of tape on how each side plays with new additions. So if I am wildly wrong somewhere, please keep in mind that even the coordinators are not entirely sure what to make of the matchup.

The Broncos had one of the best run offenses in the NFL last year, but haven’t really been able to do as much inside as they did last year with Matt Paradis off to Carolina and Ron Leary ineffective away from the Dallas dream team line. Phillip Lindsay averaged 5.9 yards per attempt on inside runs in 2018, and is down at 3.3 in 2019. The group as a whole just doesn’t get as much push as they did in 2018.

The good news for Denver is that Houston has been woeful over the last three weeks against the run. Each of the last three opponents are over 145 yards, and with J.J. Watt done the Texans generate very little in the way of negative plays. They have just 10 run stuffs since Week 9. They had 28 in the first eight weeks. The Texans only allowed 54 yards after contact to the Patriots and 71 yards to the Colts too — they were getting whipped up front, it wasn’t just poor tackling.

Denver actually uses a lot of 21-personnel — two backs, one tight end — they’re at 14% of plays out of that set, fourth to only Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They are built to run the ball because, outside of Courtland Sutton, they don’t have much in the way of scary receiving threats. DaeSean Hamilton dropped an open slant that might have gone for 30 yards last week. Even Noah Fant, though he’s come on of late, has had a lot of inconsistency as a rookie.

Houston’s new big strength with all its healthy cornerbacks, as you saw against New England, is the ability to cover traditional mismatches with more adept cover players. That doesn’t deeply matter against Denver — the Broncos are going to find a way to throw to Sutton and they don’t have a deeply impressive receiving option.

Drew Lock’s first start showed a lot of what we already knew about him coming into the season. He made a rookie mistake on his pick. He has a ton of arm strength and an uncommon ability to create out of structure. I think it’s probably a good thing for the Broncos in this particular game that there’s not a lot of tendency tape out there for the Texans to study, because he strikes me as someone who can succeed right away but struggles more as the little things pile up against them.

One thing that I think bodes well for the Texans is that the Broncos don’t attack the middle of the field all that often — even with some improvement against the Patriots, the Texans are still allowing a league-worst 65.6% DVOA on passes over the short middle.

Special teams

Is this the week the Texans actually get a return going? Denver’s coverage teams have been abysmal all season. The Broncos have allowed 28.43 yards per kickoff return — second-highest in the league — and are one of three teams to have allowed a punt return touchdown this year. DeAndre Carter hive, this could be your week.

The read

High point spreads in the Bill O’Brien era … the Texans have won every single game that they’ve been favored by more than 6.5 — but that’s often been them getting matched up against ghastly teams. I don’t think the Broncos are ghastly, and I don’t know if Houston is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to salt leads away.

I do think there is some blowout potential for the Texans, both because of Watson and because Lock’s potentially combustible. But I think the more likely scenario is one where two conservative coaches take turns trying to out-conservative each other. I will be taking the points and going Broncos 16, Texans 20.

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