1. PASSING GAME STILL NEEDS TIME FOR REFINEMENT:
Looking past the blocking issues Sunday — for more on that, please scroll down to topic No. 2 in this piece — it was clear that the timing between Peyton Manning and his passing targets remains off.
Sometimes, everything still worked out — never more dramatically than when tight end Joel Dreessen was in the right place at the right time to catch a 6-yard touchdown pass that skipped off Eric Decker’s fingertips late in the fourth quarter. A relieved Decker said after the game, “I’m going to give him a big hug today.”
But that’s not something on which the Broncos can rely, and the Broncos’ six other clean, unforced drops — two by Decker, two by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and two by running back Lance Ball — cost the Broncos 59 yards, and that’s even if none of the targets had gained any yardage after the catch.
Had the Broncos avoided dropped passes, Manning’s completion percentage would have risen above the 60 percent barometer — to 61.5 percent, to be exact — and his quarterback rating would have risen 14.4 points, from 83.0 to 97.4.
The only wide receiver targeted who didn’t miss on a pass sent his way? That was Brandon Stokley, who caught all six of the passes in his direction. Of course, his 2003-06 tenure with the Indianapolis Colts means that he has more experience with Manning than any other Bronco.
It’s his experience that reminds him of how much time getting proper rhythm with Manning requires.
“You just keep on plugging away, keep on working hard,” Stokley said. “It’s the third week of the season. Nothing is written in stone yet. We’ve still got the rest of the season left. So, learn from this, put it behind us and get to work next week.”
The rest of the season might work better if the Broncos fully embrace the no-huddle; when the Broncos went into hurry-up mode, the offense clicked, just as it did in the previous home game against Pittsburgh. Whether that becomes a full-time attack or not remains to be seen. But if Manning wants it to be, it will happen.
“(No.) 18′s a leader and what he wants to do, we’re going to do,” said Decker. “It’s just a matter of execution.”
2. NO ANSWER FOR J.J. WATT.
The setup of what was to come began before many fans had taken the first bite of their hot dogs.
Watt began to overwhelm the right side of the Broncos’ line on the third play of the game, when he took an inside charge on right tackle Orlando Franklin, kept moving while right guard Manny Ramirez pulled right, and dove for running back Willis McGahee two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Watt didn’t bring down McGahee, but he guided him back into traffic, which kept the gain to a measly two yards. One play later, Watt stunted all the way to the left side of the Broncos line, running past Zane Beadles. He had a shot on Manning, but actually came in too fast, couldn’t overcome his momentum and sailed by the quarterback as he threw incomplete for Jacob Tamme.
By the end of the first quarter, Watt had part of his first sack — at the expense of Ramirez. So it began, as the Texans used Watt and Connor Barwin to attack and break down the right flank of the offensive line.
“That guy’s a machine; he really is. He’s unblockable at times,” said Dreessen.
The Broncos have missed Chris Kuper’s steadiness, but never was that more apparent than Sunday, when the right flank of the offensive line steadily declined, then completely collapsed in the second half. With McGahee injured and the Broncos in comeback mode, they often didn’t keep their running backs in to help the linemen out with Watt, but it’s doubtful they could have made much of a difference against a budding force of nature like the second-year left defensive end.
3. SOLVING THE THIRD-DOWN PROBLEM:
Only two teams have allowed a higher percentage of third downs than the Broncos’ 50 percent to be converted, and being behind the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons puts the Broncos in good company, and certainly reflects the statistic as one that is not make-or-break for a team’s hopes — at least not so far this year.
But after allowing a third-and-5 conversion from the opponent’s 25-yard-line in the final three minutes of the game for a second consecutive game, you couldn’t blame the Broncos for being frustrated — even though the successful conversion by the Texans required a perfectly placed Matt Schaub pass to Andre Johnson that managed to beat Champ Bailey’s coverage.
Sometimes, you just get beat — not that it was any solace after a loss was basically sealed in a similar manner to last week’s.
“I was right there. It was just two good players making a play. His quarterback put it right where I couldn’t get it,” Bailey said.
Houston only needed to gain an average of 6.29 yards on its third downs; the Broncos needed an average of 8.47 yards. As a result, the Texans could run on 28.6 percent of their third downs, while the Broncos only ran on 11.8 percent of their third downs. The shorter the third down, the harder it is to defend, which is why defenders commonly point to the efforts on first and second down as impacting the third.