ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s not as if the Denver Broncos don’t know what’s coming Sunday.
After all, the roots of the Houston Texans' run game, with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison calling the plays in a playbook drawn up by now former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, reach all the way back to Denver. Kubiak and Dennison were both long-time Broncos assistants on Mike Shanahan’s staff during Shanahan's 14-year tenure with the team.
The Texans' zone-run game, with its signature stretch play and plenty of cut blocks to go around, will be something the Broncos have to deal with Sunday and deal with it well if the Broncos' defense is going to have a better outing than it did last Thursday night against the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers shoved the Broncos' defense around enough for 177 yards rushing, 127 yards from running back Ryan Mathews. Mathews is the first running back of the season to top 100 yards rushing against the Broncos, and the Chargers held the ball for almost 40 minutes in the game.
The Broncos must flow to the ball against the Texans and try to find the gaps between the linemen to get to the running back. And the Broncos' defensive linemen and linebackers spent plenty of practice time this week working on keeping the blockers away from their legs in anticipation of the Texans’ cut blocks.
The Broncos are fortunate to have a quality resource on the hand in assistant coach Alex Gibbs, who was on Shanahan’s staff in Denver with both Kubiak and Dennison. Gibbs is considered by many in the league to be the foremost authority on the zone-run game.
But the Texans figure to try to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and keep the Broncos’ offense on the sideline by holding the ball. That’s even with their third-string running back in the lineup with both Arian Foster and Ben Tate now on injured reserve -- Tate was added to IR this week.
“One thing we know about this offensive approach is they’ve had a lot of great runners come out of nowhere, so it’s a good design,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Good players, good line up front, good tight ends and fullbacks and so they’re the ones that open up the holes and then there are a lot of talented running backs out there. We don’t underestimate anybody. We’re getting ourselves ready to make sure we can take care of business.”
San Diego’s 44 carries were a season high for an opposing offense against the Broncos this season. And of the three games the Broncos' defense has faced at least 35 rushing attempts, two were against San Diego.
The Chargers found some room to run against the Broncos’ base defense in the run game as well as some of the specialty packages – Mathews’ 23-yard touchdown run came when the Broncos had five defensive backs on the field. It was a big enough concern to team officials that the Broncos added defensive end Jeremy Mincey to the roster on Tuesday.
Mincey figures to get at least some snaps against the Texans as the Broncos try to set the edge with more consistency against the Texans. The Chargers consistently pushed the Broncos’ edge players out of the play, either pushing them out wide or folding them into the pile in the middle of the field.
Rookie Dennis Johnson figures to get the start at running back for the Texans Sunday. Johnson, at 5-foot-7, 193 pounds, was cut by the Texans in August after fumbling three times in preseason and was on the Cleveland Browns' practice squad when the Texans brought him back.
He had 74 yards on 13 carries in Houston’s Nov. 24 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but had carried the ball just 10 times in the last three games combined. Because of those previous fumbling issues, however, look for the Broncos' defenders to take a few swipes at the ball as well.
“We know what needs to be done,’’ Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “We don’t want people running the ball on us, we want to get off the field and get the ball back to our offense. We know that’s a formula for success.’’