It’s still hard to believe this game is such a mismatch on paper. Last year, Houston handed Denver their only home loss of the regular season, holding the Broncos to their third-lowest scoring output of the year. With the 2-12 Texans on track for the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Broncos close to breaking even more offensive records, Houston will be hard pressed to hold Denver under their 38.2 per game average let alone win the game.
As if the matchup weren’t challenging enough, Denver appears to be entering a rare game where they won’t be at a clear injury/suspension disadvantage. Moreover, the 11-3 Broncos have had a few extra days to dwell on their surprising home Thursday night loss in Week 15 against San Diego. Will Denver take one step closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or will Houston have flashbacks to better days and beat a contender? Let’s take a look at three areas that could impact the outcome:
J.J. Watt vs. Louis Vasquez
PFF readers are well aware of our admiration for J.J. Watt. Yet, there’s a reason for that: he simply performs better than any other defender. Even though Watt had an “off” game last week by his standards—he graded under +2.0 for just the second time this season—he’s still on pace to grade higher than last year, when he became the first player to eclipse a +100.0 grade in a single season. In fact, the +63.7 margin between Watt and second-ranked 3-4 defensive end Calais Campbell is the greatest disparity among any of the top two ranked players in the league at their respective positions. Unlike some productive defenders, Watt does not dominate on one type of play. He leads all 3-4 defensive ends in Run Stop Percentage and Watt’s 74 total sacks, hits and hurries in 442 pass rush snaps equates to a 13.1 Pass Rushing Productivity score, also tops at his position.
Watt could face his toughest matchup of the season when he lines up over guard Louis Vasquez. Denver’s biggest free agent signing this past offseason has been money well spent, as Vasquez leads all rights guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency and ranks third in overall guard grading. The Broncos may have offered a big contract to Vasquez in part because of the way Watt manhandled their offensive line last year when he registered seven defensive stops and tied for a season high with three sacks. Even though battles on the interior line don’t generate many headlines, this has the makings of a fascinating matchup.
Demaryius Thomas vs. Texans Cornerbacks
With arguably the best slot receiver in the game appearing to be out for a second consecutive week, Denver’s best healthy offensive skill player outside of Peyton Manning needs to perform at a higher level. Demaryius Thomas is having a very good season, ranking eighth in our wide receiver grading and tied for third with 8.0 yards after the catch per reception. Still, he’s graded in the green (above +1.0) for receiving only twice in the last nine games. While Eric Decker has improved to the point where he is a top deep threat (league-leading 56.5% catch rate on passes over 20 yards) and Andre Caldwell (+1.5) graded well replacing Welker last week, Thomas provides that all-around, game-changing presence when he’s on.
Thomas should be matched up primarily with cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. Joseph (+5.3) is still Houston’s best corner, allowing a team-low 72.7 NFL passer rating on throws into his coverage, good for 18th in the league. Meanwhile, Jackson (-1.5) has regressed in an injury-plagued season, dropping from our 10th ranked corner at the end of 2012 to 63rd this year. Keep a particular eye out for when Thomas is split out wide left, as both corners allow their highest passer rating and completion percentage when positioned as the far right cornerback (minimum 19 cover snaps).
Champ to the Rescue?
The heading for this section isn’t necessarily meant to imply that Champ Bailey may not play against the Texans. As of this writing, all indications are that Bailey will return to the field for only his fourth game since injuring his foot in the preseason. Rather, the real question is which Champ Bailey will we see, the one who led the league in 2012 with 0.82 Yards Per Cover Snap or the corner who has failed to receive a positive overall grade in his last four games, including the postseason?
One could make the case that even an average Bailey would be an asset to this underwhelming, depleted Broncos defense. Only eight teams are allowing more than Denver’s 26.6 points a game, though the cumulative individual grades of the Bronco defenders rank at a more respectable 11th in the league. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (tied for fifth in coverage grading) and Chris Harris (tied for the seventh-best passer rating allowed) have played very well in Bailey’s absence. However, injured rookie corner Kayvon Webster (-2.8) had his worst showing of the season last Thursday against San Diego and Tony Carter can’t seem to get back into the cornerback rotation.
Where Bailey could impact the game the most, at least initially, would be defending the run. Bailey finished last season, including playoffs, as the seventh highest rated cornerback in run defense (+3.9) and has not slipped as much in this category his previous four games, grading negatively twice. On the other hand, Rodgers-Cromartie, essentially his replacement, is tied for 86th among cornerbacks with a -1.6 grade against the run and ranks 50th in combined Tackling Efficiency (Bailey ranked third in 2012).
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