Here are five things to watch when the Texans (2-0, 1-0 AFC South) face the Denver Broncos (1-1, 0-0 AFC West) in Week 3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Kickoff is at 3:25 p.m. CT.
1. Familiar foe: Peyton Manning is 16-2 against the Texans and 5-4 against Wade Phillips-coached defenses. He's 0-0 against the 2012 Texans, 0-0 against Wade Phillips-coached Texans defenses and 0-0 against the Texans as a member of the Denver Broncos.
In 18 games against the Texans with the Indianapolis Colts from 2002-10, Manning threw for 5,122 yards (285 per game), 42 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 110.6 passer rating. In nine games against teams with Phillips as their head coach or defensive coordinator, Manning has 2,174 yards (242 per game), 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The last meeting was in 2005, when Phillips was defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers.
"Peyton Manning looks like the same guy he's always been," Phillips said this week. "He's a great quarterback. He looks like a guy that hadn't played in a while and was a new team, but he's still productive. He still calls the right plays, gets them in the right situations. He can explode at any time. He can make the throws that count. He makes touchdown throws. He calls the right audibles… I don't see a whole lot of difference."
Manning did not face the Texans last season, when Phillips implemented a 3-4 and led a defense that ranked second in the NFL and set a franchise record with 44 sacks. He has never faced the Texans with J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed, Johnathan Joseph or Danieal Manning. He has never faced the Texans with Connor Barwin playing outside linebacker, Brian Cushing playing inside linebacker and Antonio Smith playing 3-4 end. The Texans rank first in the NFL through two weeks in points (8.5), total yards (196.0) and passing yards (124.0) allowed per game.
Manning was picked off three times last week at Atlanta, but he was still almost led the Broncos to a comeback victory. He was lights-out in Week 1 against Pittsburgh, leading the Broncos to a victory with 253 passing yards, 73.1 completion percentage, two touchdowns and no interceptions. One last item of note: Manning has been sacked five times this season, putting him on pace for 40 in 16 games. He was sacked an average of 17.8 times a season in his 13 years with the Colts.
2. Denver duo: One of the primary challenges for the Texans' offense will be containing the Broncos' Pro Bowl pass-rushing duo of defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller. Texans coach Gary Kubiak allowed defensive players to line up offsides in practice this week to prepare left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Derek Newton for the Broncos' quickness off the snap.
Adding to the challenge for Brown and Newton will be the crowd noise at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, which should allow Dumervil and Miller to get a jump on the snap count. Newton, a second-year pro from Arkansas State, is making his third-career start. He got a taste of playing in a hostile environment when he started the Texans' third preseason game at New Orleans.
"It's a new challenge for him," Kubiak said. "Either guy is a great pass rusher. Wherever they line up, they both line up all over the place. He's going to face the quickest guys he's seen off the ball, and he's probably going to be a little late off the ball because of the noise. I always tell him that's a built-in truth right there, so there are no excuses… He's got his hands full, and so does Duane on the other side."
Miller (6-3, 237), the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, had 11.5 sacks last season as a rookie out of Texas A&M. He is tied for the AFC lead with 3.0 sacks. Dumervil (5-11, 260) had 17.0 sacks in 2009 and 9.5 last season after missing 2010 with a chest injury.
3. NamasTate: For years, the formula for trying to beat Manning was controlling the clock to keep him off the field. The Texans can do that as well as any team in the league thanks to their offensive line and running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Foster and Tate combined 184 rushing yards and three touchdowns last week, helping the Texans set a franchise record with 43:17 in time of possession in a 27-7 victory. They accounted for 50 of the Texans' 83 offensive plays. Foster had 147 yards from scrimmage (110 rushing, 37 receiving). Tate had 97 yards from scrimmage (73 rushing, 24 receiving).
Kubiak said the Texans will continue to rotate Foster and Tate based on the feel of the game. Foster typically never plays more than four consecutive snaps before Tate spells him for two or three.
"We want them fresh when they're playing, but at the same time, there's something to do with backs that the more they carry it, the better they get," Kubiak said. "Last week was a little different because it was so darn hot, so we were trying to keep a fresh guy out there. I think we're going to go into the game with a set way how we're going to start. How we're going to finish, I don't know. I think it all depends on the flow of the game."
4. J.J. Swat: Watt has tipped five passes in two games, earning the nickname "J.J. Swat." It's entirely appropriate considering Watt is tied for third in the NFL in passes defensed – and considering the players tied with or ahead of Watt in that category are all defensive backs – but it doesn't begin to describe the second-year defensive end's overall impact.
Watt is tied for the AFC lead with three sacks. He had a team-high five tackles and a fumble recovery last week at Jacksonville, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. It has been a continuation of his dominant play from the end of last season, when he tied for the NFL playoff lead with 3.5 sacks in just two games.
Watt has never faced Manning and said this week that he wants to "add number 18 to my sack list." If the Broncos find a way to slow him down, they'll be the first team to do so in a long time. In his last four games, including the playoffs, Watt has 22 tackles (17 solo), 6.5 sacks, one interception, six passes defended and a fumble recovery.
5.Muddle huddle: Last Sunday, the Texans successfully unveiled their "sugar huddle" or "muddle huddle," a variation of the no-huddle offense. It will be interesting to see if they use it this week in the altitude of Mile High.
The Texans used the "muddle huddle" from the get-go against the Jaguars, keeping them on their heels as they drove 66 yards in 13 plays on the game-opening drive. They kept using it for most of the entire game, including their 17-play, 80-yard drive in the third quarter. Quarterback Matt Schaub completed 26-of-35 passes, throwing to seven different receivers, as the Texans rolled to a 27-7 victory.
"You're trying to get a defense not to substitute, to make quick calls," Kubiak said. "We can use it a lot. It's something we're going to always have in our arsenal whether we use it week to week, I don't know, depends on what we think situation-wise. Our guys have confidence in it. Last week was a great start with it, so we'll see how we progress."