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Broncos vs. Texans: Breaking down Denver’s game plan on Sunday

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

There is reason for hope in Broncos Country. The future looks bright if rookie quarterback Drew Lock can continue to develop. He started for the first time last week against the Chargers and led the Broncos to just their fourth win of the season.

This Sunday, the Broncos travel to face a Texans team that is built to make a Super Bowl run. It will be Lock’s first start on the road in his pro career, so expecting him to struggle isn’t an outlandish outlook.

However, with the Texans coming off two huge wins (and two huge games coming up for them against the Titans), perhaps the Broncos can catch them off guard and put up a better performance than most expect.

Let’s take a look at how the Broncos will attack the Texans on both sides of the ball.

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When the Broncos Run the Ball

This team has to get the ground game going. Balance is a quarterback’s best friend and on the road it will be critical for this team’s success to have a good day on the ground. Phillip Lindsay is on pace for more than 1,000 yards rushing this season, but the big games and the explosive plays have been missing from this offense for most of the year.

The backfield was split between Royce Freeman and Lindsay, but during the last few weeks, that has not been the case. Lindsay still has averaged a meager 3.9 yards per rush attempt with no touchdowns in those three games in which he has been given the reigns. He has not rushed for more than 100 yards in a game since Week 5, and Lindsay has not had a carry over 20 yards since Week 6. The Broncos need to get back to the type of attack they had against the Chargers earlier in the season.

The Texans don’t have a good rush defense, especially since their Week 10 bye. They have given up an average of 192 rushing yards per game over the last three games. The Texans have surrendered at least 130 rushing yards to running backs in all three previous contests. If there is ever a week for the Broncos rushing attack to get on track, it’s this week against the Texans.

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When the Broncos Pass the Ball

The Broncos were able to set up Lock nicely in his first start. They didn’t have a consistent offense in the second half as execution became a big problem. This week on the road against the Texans, Lock will be facing challenges he didn’t have last week at home. Crowd noise is going to be an issue for him at NRG Stadium. We’ll see how Lock handles the crowd and the added pressure that he didn’t have in his first start at home.

The best asset in this passing attack is wide receiver Courtland Sutton. He has taken a great leap forward in his second year and Sutton is playing like a top-10 receiver in the league. Sutton has been consistently targeted for this passing offense and has posted more than 70 receiving yards in eight out of 12 games on the year.

Lock can handle things better if tight end Noah Fant comes through for him. Sutton is going to do his thing, but this passing attack could use a second asset to produce. Fant is set up with his size/speed combination and the Broncos have designed several plays for him to get the ball as a receiver. Lock was off target with Fant on at least one throw last week and they need to clean that up this week on the road.

The Texans have been a poor pass defense for most of the year. On the season, they have given up the fifth-most passing yards at 262.9 yards per game and 25 passing touchdowns allowed. Opposing quarterbacks have passed for three or more touchdowns against the Texans in six of their last eight games.

They don’t get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, especially since losing superstar defensive end J.J. Watt earlier this year. Their secondary did get former Broncos first-round pick Bradley Roby back from injury last week and he had a sack and an interception in their big win over the Patriots. The Broncos have a rookie quarterback with only one quality weapon, so it will be interesting to see how things weigh out against the Texans bad pass defense.

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When the Texans Run the Ball

The Texans have a strong rushing attack and they have a weapon at the running back position that is starting to get a bit more work. Their ground game is led by veteran Carlos Hyde but backup Duke Johnson Jr. is a playmaker, as well. The Texans rank seventh in the league with 129.8 rushing yards per game.

Hyde is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and gets around 70 yards rushing per game on average. There is not a lot of nuance to his game, but he does run with power that can be tough to handle as the game goes on. Johnson is primarily a receiver out of the backfield, but the former University of Miami star could be effective (and dangerous) as a runner if given the opportunity.

Denver’s defense has been pretty strong against the run for most of this season, allowing an opposing running back to exceed 85 yards just three times. However, two of those games came within the past two weeks as Devin Singletary ran for 106, while Melvin Gordon put up 99 rushing yards last week. Hyde is going to be difficult to stop if he builds a head of steam. If the Texans can build a lead, then Hyde can be used as a grinder to wear down the clock.

In addition to the two running backs, the Broncos must have a plan to deal with quarterback Deshaun Watson. During the last three games, Watson has had fewer than 15 rushing yards after exceeding 30 rushing yards in five straight outings from Week 5 to Week 9.

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When the Texans Pass the Ball

Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the game today. Not only can he hurt you with his legs, he does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield when he escapes pressure. If you try to “mush rush” Watson to keep him in the pocket, he will kill you with his timing as a passer. Simply put, Watson is tough to game plan against and will be the primary player the Broncos have to concern themselves with on Sunday.

The Texans also have one of the biggest superstars in the league in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He’s likely to be covered for most of the game by Chris Harris Jr. in what will be the one-on-one matchup to watch. The Broncos may be without Von Miller rushing the passer, so Watson may have plenty of time to find his targets like Hopkins.

If the Broncos do bottle up Hopkins, they really don’t have an answer for Will Fuller. When healthy, Fuller has speed that most can’t run with. Fuller can get open deep with ease and has the ball-tracking ability to have monster games. He’s oft-injured and that’s the only thing that has held him back in his pro career.

Hopkins versus Harris is going to be fun to watch. Fuller versus Isaac Yiadom or anyone else not named Chris Harris could be a nightmare for the Broncos defense.

Denver’s passing defense has been strong this season, ranking fifth in passing yards allowed (210.6). However, during the last three weeks there has been a regression in their production. They have allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for multiple touchdowns in all three games, while two wide receivers have exceeded 115 receiving yards – the only two to exceed that mark all season against Denver.

Play from the Denver safeties has been outstanding in 2019, which has led to a limitation of big plays by opposing passing offenses. This is going to be a “revenge game” for Kareem Jackson, as he returns to the place he played for nine seasons. The two sides parted ways this offseason and Jackson has been a fantastic player for the Broncos defense. We’ll see if he can make a field-flipping play or key stop in run defense to help the Broncos get the improbable win.

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Summary

The Broncos are up against it in Week 14. They have to find some way to get the rushing attack on track after several weeks of underperforming. The Texans should stack the line to stuff the run, further complicating what the Broncos want to do on the ground. The passing game is going to be led by Sutton, but the team must find someone else to step up and help out their rookie quarterback.

The Texans could throttle the Broncos on the ground with their two-headed backfield. However, they can also get out to a big lead with one of the NFL’s best passing attacks. Hopkins, Fuller, Kenny Stills and their trio of tight ends will be difficult for the Broncos pass defense to slow down completely. Even though the Texans are coming off two huge wins (and have not won three in a row this year), I don’t see them falling asleep against the Broncos.

I’ve got the Texans by a score of 23-20 on Sunday.

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All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Game screenshots from NFL Game Pass. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.