The Texans last traveled to Denver on a Monday night in 2016, one year after Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler led the Broncos to a Super Bowl Championship. Plenty has changed since that disappointing night in Denver and one major change even happened this week, involving both teams. Four time Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas swapped sidelines for Sunday's game as he was traded to Houston on Tuesday afternoon. With Will Fuller V sidelined for the rest of the season, the Texans went looking for help at the wide receiver position and found a willing trade partner in John Elway.
That's just one of the stories in this one. Former Texans quarterback and University of Houston legend Case Keenum will step under center and face the Texans for the first time in his career. As such, there's familiarity on both sidelines heading into this key game for both teams. Both teams have a bye week following this game on Sunday, so a win is paramount for good feelings heading into a week's respite from game action.
With no further ado, let's get to know the 2018 Denver Broncos.
Schedule - Record (3 - 5)
W, 27-24 v. Seattle Seahawks
W, 20-19 v. Oakland Raiders
L, 27-14 @ Baltimore Ravens
L, 27-23 v. Kansas City Chiefs
L, 34-16 @ New York Jets
L, 23-20 v. Los Angeles Rams
W, 45-10 @ Arizona Cardinals
L, 30-23 @ Kansas City Chiefs
Rushing Yards Per game - 133.1 ypg (7th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 247.6 ypg (20th)
Total offense per game - 380.8 ypg (13th)
Turnovers lost - 11 (10 INT, 1 fumbles lost) - Broncos are +1 TO, 15th in the NFL
Broncos starting offense last Sunday vs. Kansas City:
QB - CASE KEENUM
RB - PHILLIP LINDSAY (Rookie)
FB - Andy Janovich
WR - Emmanuel Sanders
WR - Demaryius Thomas (now a Texan!)
TE - Jeff Heuerman
LT - Garrett Bolles
LG - Max Garcia
C - Matt Paradis
RG - Connor McGovern
RT - Billy Turner
Other Key Offensive pieces
RB - Devontae Booker
WR - DAESEAN HAMILTON (Rookie)
WR - COURTLAND SUTTON (Rookie)
WR - Tim Patrick
TE - Matt LaCosse
**All Caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Keys to the Broncos Offense
Best of Times/Worst of Times
With future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning leading the way from 2012-2015, the Broncos possessed one of the most lethal passing attacks in the NFL. Manning and his receivers set records throughout his stay in Denver, but as injuries struck in 2015, the Broncos turned to their running game to carry the offensive load. As such, the names have changed, but the philosophy hasn't. The Broncos have one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the NFL and the running backs are taking advantage of running behind that quintet.
The Broncos running backs average over five yards a carry which is first in the league. Yes, the entire league. Last week in Kansas City, even without rookie Royce Freeman, the Broncos ran for 189 yards on only 30 carries. That's a whopping 6.3 yard per carry average. Undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay is only 5-8, 180 lb., but he runs like he's 245 pounds, relentlessly pounding on the defense behind that offensive line.
Yet, juxtapose the running success to the struggles protecting quarterback Case Keenum. That's a head scratcher. The Broncos are 20th in the league in sacks allowed with 22. In Kansas City, Denver allowed five sacks, while rushing for 189 yards. That doesn't seemingly compute, but what it does say is that the Texans need to get out in front of this one and keep the Broncos from controlling the ball on the ground with a lead. Forced to chase and throw the ball, the Broncos could be in some trouble.
The Future is Now
The Texans benefited this week from a decision to go younger at wide receiver. Since draft weekend a few months ago when Elway drafted both Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton, it was clear that veterans Emmanuel Sanders and/or Demaryius Thomas weren't long for Denver. It was just a matter of when the Broncos would move either, or both, of their two veteran star receivers. Not surprisingly, one move came this week when Elway traded Thomas to the Texans, which now allows those two rookies to get more opportunities starting Sunday.
Sutton is a lot like Thomas - great size, similar route tree usage and one heck of an athlete. His ability to "go up and get it" on throws downfield is a concern for the Texans defensive backs, while Hamilton does work with sublime route running. He can get open in a phone booth and his route running acumen was evident when I studied him at the Senior Bowl. Those two complement each other well and now have the stage to themselves in addition the Broncos OG at receiver, Sanders, one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 135.7 ypg (29th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 237.5 ypg (11th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 373.2 ypg (22nd)
Turnovers generated - 13 (8 INT, 5 Fumbles recovered)
Broncos starting defense last Sunday vs. Kansas City
OLB - Von Miller
DE - Derek Wolfe
NT - Domata Peko
DE - Adam Gotsis
OLB - BRADLEY CHUBB (Rookie)
ILB - Todd Davis
ILB - JOSEY JEWELL (Rookie)
CB - Bradley Roby
S - Will Parks
S - Justin Simmons
CB - Chris Harris
Other Key Defensive pieces
DE/OLB - Shaquil Barrett
DE - Zach Kerr
LB - Brandon Marshall
Nickel - TRAMAINE BROCK
S - Dymonte Thomas
**All Caps indicates a 2018 off-season addition
Key to the Broncos Defense
Will the real Broncos Defense stand up?
Eminem was clear. He was the real Slim Shady but this Broncos defense is truly a different story. Although many would like to believe it's the 2015 unit reincarnated, it's not. That was a historical unit, one of the greatest that's ever laced it up on the defensive side of the ball. This group has some of the same names - Miller, Harris and Wolfe still star for this defense but it's not in the same zip code as that 2018 unit.
Take for instance, the defensive performance in New York a month ago. The Broncos were gashed on the ground for 323 yards rushing. Teams struggled to put up 323 yards on the Broncos defense IN TOTAL three years ago. Then, last week, the defense held the Chiefs to 49 net rushing yards, but Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
The week prior, the Broncos defense sacked Rams Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff five times and held the Rams without a touchdown pass. Yet, MVP candidate Todd Gurley went for over 200 on the ground and the Rams ran for 270 yards in total, 6.9 yards per carry.
Similar to the Broncos offensive line, there are tremendous moments and some look-away-it's-ugly moments. In contrast to the offensive line, though, the defense has had some good/bad moments against both pass and run, while the Broncos have consistently flourished in one area (run) and mightily struggled with the other (pass).
So, which Broncos defense will stand up on Sunday? The key for the Texans is figure that out early, either pass or run, and exploit it like the Rams (on the ground) and Chiefs (through the air) both did.
Check out some of the best shots from WR Demaryius Thomas' NFL career. Photos via AP Images.