Broncos-Texans matchup of the day

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The last time the Denver Broncos got an up-close-and-personal look at J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans defensive end smashed whatever plan the Broncos had for him into little pieces.

In a 31-25 Texans victory on Sept. 23, 2012, Watt played 67 snaps and made seven tackles, 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss and hit Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning three times. Or, to put it another way, Watt initiated more contact than Manning has had in some months during his career.

“Watt is a disruptive player,’’ Manning said Wednesday. “Not many guys have that much ability with that high of a motor. I think that’s kind of what separates him, and he’s certainly a handful.’’

Things have changed, at least from the Texans' perspective in the months, since. On Sunday, the Broncos will face a 2-12 Texans team that has already fired its coach, Gary Kubiak, a team that is facing many more changes in the coming offseason.

But from the Broncos’ perspective, Watt remains Job 1, and if they don’t handle him any better than they did last season, Manning will be in harm’s way at a time when the postseason is fast approaching.

Watt has 9.5 sacks this season, well below the pace he kept last season when he finished with 20.5. But Houston interim coach Wade Phillips says that’s far more a factor of the attention Watt is getting from opposing offenses than dip in his performance.

So much so that Watt currently leads the league in hits on the quarterback, Phillips said Wednesday.

“He’s probably the best defensive lineman in the league, so I wouldn’t be critical of him at all,’’ Phillips said, adding, “He gets the center, the guard or somebody extra on him most of the time. He still makes plays in the backfield, he still makes plays hitting the quarterback. People say [his] sacks are down because he’s not playing as well, but that’s not true at all.’’

The difficulty Watt presents to an offensive line is what Manning touched on. Athletically, Watt has the short-area quickness of a much smaller player, with explosiveness and power. That alone would win him plenty of matchups. But he also plays with a never-stop ferocity that enables him to sack a quarterback well into the play, even if he has been slowed down initially.

The Broncos had some issues against a 3-4 front in their loss to the Chargers last Thursday night; defensive end Corey Liuget repeatedly found room to work, finding success in the gap between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. Liuget flushed Manning from the pocket, leading to a Chargers sack, and also rushed and hit Manning’s arm to force an interception.

The Broncos may be forced into some additional two-tight-end looks to give some help up front. It could mean the running backs have to take a look at how things are going in pass protection before they release into the pattern.

In the end, the Broncos will have to think long and hard about just how often they want to line up in their preferred three-wide set and risk letting Watt work against a far more open formation to get at Manning.