As many of the preseason favorites have started to show signs of weakness, the Houston Texans have stormed to the forefront of the AFC. They now sit at 3-0 after their 31-25 victory over the Denver Broncos, who fell to 1-2 after losing their second straight game. The Texans controlled the majority of the game, as they jumped out to a 31-11 lead, but the Denver defense showed signs of life in the second half and quarterback Peyton Manning nearly pulled off the fourth-quarter comeback.
Houston now sits firmly in control of the AFC South and, even though it’s early, they appear to be the favorite for home field advantage in the AFC. In Denver, Manning is still trying to find his rhythm, as his return after missing all of last season has been rocky the past two weeks. There’s still plenty of time as the AFC West remains wide open, but regardless of Manning’s development, the Broncos defense needs to play better from start to finish if they want to compete in the AFC.
Here are Sunday’s most important performances.
Three Performances of Note – Houston Texans
Watt Does it Again
The year’s most dominant defensive player turned in another brilliant performance, as J.J. Watt (+5.5) once again made plays all over the field in Denver. After beating Broncos right guard Manuel Ramirez for three sacks to bring his season total to six, Watt now boasts a ridiculous +15.7 pass rush grade after three games this season. He added three more hurries, as well as excellent play against the run, notching four stops in the process. His first-step quickness was too much for Ramirez and he was able to knife into the backfield with little resistance.
The good news for Ramirez is Sunday was Watt’s worst performance of the young season. He’s the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year honors, and you may be sick of hearing us sing his praises, but he is worth every ounce of hype thus far.
Big Play Passing Offense
The Texans are known for their running game, and they used their reputation to create big plays off play action on Sunday. The Broncos were caught out of position in the secondary throughout the first half, and Matt Schaub (+3.8) made them pay with some beautiful deep balls. It started at the 6:38 mark in the first quarter as Schaub’s play-action fake forced Denver safety Mike Adams to creep toward the line of scrimmage. With cornerback Tracy Porter expecting help to the inside, Schaub hit WR Andre Johnson in stride on the post route for a 60-yard touchdown.
Houston went back to the play action with 8:52 to go in the second, but this time it was WR Kevin Walter who was able to get inside Porter on the deep post. Schaub came out of his fake with pressure in his face, but hung in the pocket and uncorked a perfect throw for a 52-yard score.
For the day, Schaub was 6-for-10 for 221 yards on passes beyond 10 yards and the Texans big-play passing offense helped build an insurmountable first half lead.
Right Tackle Replacement
Perhaps the Texans biggest question mark coming into the season was finding a viable replacement for departed right tackle Eric Winston. Through three games, it’s been an up-and-down season for RT Derek Newton. After a difficult Week 1 showing against the Miami Dolphins, Newton bounced back strong last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sunday’s was a game to forget as he struggled in all facets of the game to the tune of a -6.3 overall grade. The first quarter was particularly poor as Newton was beaten off the edge by DE Elvis Dumervil for a sack that led to a safety. He followed it up with a false start penalty on each of the next two drives. The rest of the game was not much better. Newton picked up the wrong blitzer to allow a free run at Schaub for LB Nate Irving and his holding penalty stalled the Texans’ drive at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter.
Though the Texans are off to a strong start, the right tackle position will be one to watch as Newton looks for consistency and tries to replace one of the league’s best.
Three Performances of Note – Denver Broncos
Perfect in Pass Protection
After a disappointing 2011 by his standards, offensive tackle Ryan Clady has been playing as well as any OT in the league in 2012. He was outstanding on Sunday, as he did not surrender a QB Disruption on his 60 pass block attempts. Through three games, he’s given up only one QB hit on his 136 attempts. Clady is a player who often lives off reputation after he did not surrender a sack during his rookie season in 2008, but he was actually much better in 2009 and 2010 before taking a step back last season. Continued strong play will keep his reputation matched up with on-field production.
As Manning continues to shake the rust from his season away from the game, Clady’s blindside protection will go a long way toward increasing his comfort level in the pocket.
Strong Up Front
As mentioned, the Texans’ running game is among the best in the league, but the Broncos’ defensive line was up to the challenge. Though they surrendered some big plays early, Denver was able to make the necessary changes to slow down Houston’s zone blocking scheme. Rookie DE Derek Wolfe led the way as he graded at +3.4 against the run, while DT Justin Bannan (+2.5 Run Def) and Kevin Vickerson (+3.1 Run Def) continued their season-long strong play in the running game. The trio combined for eight stops.
Bannan’s work was particularly impressive Sunday as he worked against our top center from 2011 in Chris Myers. Bannan was able to stand him up at the point of attack on a number of occasions, disrupting the flow of the well-oiled Texans attack. The Broncos’ defensive front was a key factor in their comeback effort as they were able to stall the Texans’ attempts at running out the clock throughout the second half.
Demaryius Drops the Ball
It was not a good day for WR Demaryius Thomas who struggled to produce against CB Jonathan Joseph. On two other occasions, when Thomas was not lined up against Joseph, he dropped wide-open passes. There was some bad luck involved as well, as Thomas had a step on Joseph deep down the right sideline at the 5:04 mark in the fourth quarter, but quick pressure from Houston OLB Brooks Reed moved Manning up in the pocket and forced an overthrow. Later in the quarter, Thomas had separation again but he was unable to keep his feet in bounds for a would-be touchdown on a perfect throw from Manning.
Earlier in the second quarter, a Broncos drive stalled on third down when Thomas and Manning had an apparent miscommunication on a throw into the end zone. Thomas ran an out route while Manning threw an apparent fade.
When Thomas finally broke away from his battle with Joseph, he couldn’t hang onto the ball. In the second quarter, he broke free on a crossing route with room to run in front. Manning’s throw was a bit high, but certainly catchable and Thomas couldn’t haul it in. He later found himself wide open on a Texans coverage bust, but again, was unable to catch the ball with no one around him.
Thomas will continue to be a frequent target for Manning, but his two drops on Sunday bring his season total to four, and he will have to do a better job of catching the ball to continue to earn Manning’s trust.
– Houston used 3-WR sets only 13 times, which in turn, kept pass rush specialist OLB Von Miller in his 4-3 OLB spot more often. He only rushed the passer 13 times while dropping into coverage on 18 snaps
– Texans OLB Connor Barwin was the man going up against Clady more often than not. Barwin finished without a pressure on his 51 rushes.
– Manning was 6-for-16 for 73 yards and a -2.2 grade when the Texans blitzed.
PFF Game Ball
It’s tough not to give the game ball to J.J. Watt for his domination up front, but this game was won in the first three quarters on the strength of Matt Schaub’s arm. He was pinpoint on his deep passes and his four touchdown strikes gave the Texans a lead that not even Peyton Manning could thwart.
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