Even with the attention sure to focus squarely on current Houston (and former Denver) quarterback Brock Osweiler, the most pressing concern for the Broncos in advance of their showdown with the Texans on Monday night is regaining the momentum that carried them through an undefeated start by Week 4.
The league went from moderately surprised to wholly accepting of the Broncos’ quick dash from the starting gate, simultaneously stunned by how well Trevor Siemian performed in his first few weeks as a starting quarterback in the NFL while reverential toward a defense that continued to pound opponents into submission in a manner matching that from last season’s run to the Super Bowl championship.
But consecutive losses to the Falcons at home and the Chargers on the road in a five-day span wiped a bit of the shine off the Broncos (4-2). Almost as hastily as observers acknowledged the Broncos’ power following their 27-7 win over the Buccaneers on Oct. 2, the tables have turned to point out their chinks in the armor.
“The last two games for us looked a lot alike unfortunately,” said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who is back following a one-game illness hiatus. “Very slow starting football games. We corrected ourselves. Defensively played well in the second half. Offensively we’ve been really struggling up front. We’ve got to play better.”
As is to be expected of a team with a championship pedigree, the Broncos have focused their attention of self-improvement, discussing accountability and communication as the pillars for reconstructing a winning ship. From a technical standpoint the Broncos could stand to do a better job of running the ball, something they did with expertise while beating the Panthers and Colts to open the season.
The Broncos amassed 282 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in recording those opening two victories. In the four contests since they’ve misplaced that efficiency, going from 4.7 yards per carry in Weeks 1 and 2 to just 3.3 yards per carry in the four subsequent games, totaling 309 yards and one score on 95 rushes.
C.J. Anderson, the Broncos’ leading rusher with 330 yards and three touchdowns on 94 carries, and the offensive line will have an opportunity to rediscover their stride against the Texans, who feature the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
“The last four weeks, you definitely don’t want to put what we put on tape — especially the last two weeks,” Anderson said. “It’s a collective thing.
“Us as playmakers, we have to find a way to make more plays. Myself, … I have to find a way to step out of more tackles just to make those big plays.”
Of course Osweiler will serve as the main attraction at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Osweiler attempted 30 passes over three seasons off the Broncos bench before finally earning playing time last season, parlaying a 5-2 record as a starter into $37 million guaranteed from the Texans as a free agent this past offseason.
Statistically, Osweiler has been inferior to Siemian, who ultimately won the job that was giftwrapped for Osweiler once Peyton Manning retired. And, like the Broncos, the Texans are leaning on the running game to stabilize a shaky offense.
Running back Lamar Miller who, like Osweiler, signed with the Texans as a free agent, rushed for a season-high 149 yards and a touchdown against the Colts last Sunday night. He is third in the AFC in rushing with 520 yards and cemented his standing as the focal point for the Texans with his breakthrough performance in their 26-23 overtime win.
“We had eight plays over 10 yards — a couple of them that got called back, too,” Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey said. “When you’re in space and you get past that first level, making that next defender miss. He did that quite a few times. Some of those big plays over 15 yards were not only just the receivers downfield but also him creating some extra lanes there to get a few more extra yards.”
But no matter the contributions of Anderson or Miller or the respective run defenses, all eyes will focus on Osweiler. No amount of deflection will change that.
“Bottom line I’m going to treat this game no different than any other game,” Osweiler said. “I’m going to prepare the same way, I’m going to prepare extremely hard. I’m going to go out and have a great week of practice and I’m going to understand the challenge ahead of us, but I’ll look forward to that challenge.”