The Texans (5-3) travel to Denver (3-5) for a Sunday afternoon showdown inside Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Here are five things to watch as Houston looks to win its sixth straight game in 2018. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) DT Time - The Texans pulled off a big trade Tuesday, sending 4th and 7th-round picks in April's NFL Draft to the Broncos for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos' 7th-round selection. Adding a Pro Bowl receive to the roster helps offset the loss of Will Fuller, V to injury, and it energized a Houston locker room and coaching staff in the midst of a five-game win streak.
Head coach Bill O'Brien said he's "sure" Thomas will suit up at Denver, but wouldn't say how much the wideout would play. Ultimately, Thomas stressed the importance of preparedness whenever he steps on the field.
"My main thing is when I'm in or when I get a chance, just knowing what I'm doing, don't go out and have mistakes to possibly hurt our team," Thomas said. "Just getting in my playbook, doing everything the way I'm supposed to, correctly, and trying to help us out to get a W."
His new position coach, John Perry, agreed.
"There's always expectations, but it really comes down to making sure that we put him in the best position," Perry said. "That's what we do every day. That's our jobs as coaches to make sure that we put them in the best position, and we're figuring that out as we go."
2) Keep rolling, Watson - Deshaun Watson's played brilliantly the last two games, and very well during the five-game win streak. Against Jacksonville and Miami, he tossed six touchdowns and zero interceptions, and was sacked just once. He completed 64 percent of his passes and helped guide the Texans ground game to a combined 329 yards in those two contests. He and Houston have been very efficient in the last couple wins, and they'd like to continue that trend in Denver.
Watson credits the offensive line for much of that success.
"They've been doing a great job," Watson said. "Those guys have been working their tails off being able to get better, improving, blocking out the outside noise and kind of keeping their head down and grinding."
That line allowed Watson to get sacked in the first quarter at Jacksonville, and has since gone seven quarters without letting that happen again. In fact, against the Dolphins, Watson was hit just once.
O'Brien is impressed by Watson's steadiness, and hunger to be excellent.
"He's the same guy every day, he's got a lot of confidence, he has no fear, he loves big moments, he loves when the ball's in his hands and he's learning every day," Watson said. "When you have those things going for you and you're like a sponge and you're willing to learn, work at it and get better – remember the things that you can improve upon each week and remember them for the next game – now you've got something."
3) Limit Miller and Chubb - Denver's pass-rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb is impressive. The former has eight sacks and seven tackles for loss, while the latter's tallied seven sacks and six tackles for loss. That tandem is highly-regarded and very respected by the Texans, with O'Brien calling them "two of the best players we'll play all year."
Watson, too, will know where they are at all times before the snap.
"Two of the best defensive linemen in the game, in the league," Watson said. "Both of those guys are going to come ready to play. Home game for them and great opportunity for those guys, but also great opportunity for us to be able to go out there and compete and try to be successful, too."
The challenge in limiting that tandem, as well as the Broncos pass rush as a whole, is not lost on the Texans offensive line. Guard Senio Kelemete explained their effectiveness.
"They can get to the quarterback," Kelemete said. "They're pretty stout bull-rush guys. Come right down the middle, try to squeeze that pocket. We've got to do our job, stand firm, and the tackles need to run the ends around the corner."
4) Stuff the run – During the five-game win streak, the Texans defense has allowed an average of 3.46 yards per carry. In three of those games, they've held their opponents to less than 100 yards per game as a team. They'll face a strong challenge in Denver rookie Phillip Lindsay, who's gained 531 yards, at an average of 5.7 yards per carry.
Last week against the Chiefs, Lindsay rumbled for 95 yards on just 18 carries, and he's found the end zone in each of the last two weeks. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel wants to limit what Denver does on the ground, because running the ball against the Texans would go a long way toward taking J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney out of the game in terms of sacking the quarterback.
"If they can do that again, then they don't have to worry about those guys quite as much in the pass rush," Crennel said. "That could be the game plan, to run for 189 yards. That's the thing that we have to be concerned about and be able to stop the run and try to get them into longer yardage situations."
O'Brien pointed out that Denver's offensive line and tight ends are doing a "good job blocking", and he was very complimentary of the rookie running back.
"Lindsay is a really tough runner, very hard to tackle, a downhill guy," O'Brien said of the former Colorado Buffalo. "I think in one game in college, he had 46 carries. I think he led the country in carries in his last year in college. This guy is a tough guy and a very good running back."
5) Keep winning the turnover battle - The Texans have had two seasons in the first half: a three-game losing skid to start 2018, followed by the last five wins. Their record in the turnover differential category mirrors that. At 0-3, they were minus-2 on the season in that stat, as they'd turned the ball over two more times than they'd take it away. In the last quintet of games though, they're plus-5, and they've been on the positive side in three of those wins, and even in the other two victories.
"I don't think there's a more important stat in pro football," O'Brien said. "I really don't. I think you can talk about third down, you can talk about red area – those are important, don't get me wrong, those are important – but when it comes to taking care of the ball and being able to take the ball away, I think if you look at our time here in the five years, I think when we've won that battle, we've won the majority of our games."
Denver's been good in that stat as well, as they're plus-1 on the season.