ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The greatest threat for a Texans upset of the Broncos is one who already has experience in singlehandedly dismantling Denver's offense from the inside out.
It was Week 3 last season, when Peyton Manning and his new teammates were just beginning to find the harmony that has created some symphonic performances and threatens records. But when Houston and J.J. Watt visited, the Broncos offense was nothing but a cacophony for the first three quarters of the game.
Watt accounted for 2.5 sacks, had another potential sack prevented only when he was held by Manny Ramirez, and wreaked havoc on the Broncos' pass protection, particularly on the right side of the offensive line, then comprised of tackle Orlando Franklin and guard Manny Ramirez.
No pass rush has been more consistent at disrupting the Broncos' passing game since that day, which is part of the reason why this matchup appeared to be a highlight of the Broncos' 2013 schedule when it was released eight months ago. For the offensive line, it's a measuring-stick game to reveal their progress.
"At least they've gone against him so they know what to expect," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "That group knows they've got a tough matchup."
And although Watt's raw sack total is down from 20.5 last year to 9.5 this year, he is on pace to finish with more quarterback hits, needing just one more to match his 2012 total of 43. The decline in sacks is not a focal point to the Broncos.
"I'm looking at 42 quarterback hits," said Gase, whose rapid-fire response and recitation of that number offered an indication of how much time and concentration he has devoted to trying to defuse the electric Watt.
Thanks to Watt, the Texans are fourth in the league in the rate of quarterback hurries, averaging one every 2.81 pass plays, based on ProFootballFocus.com's hurry measurements, and first in quarterback hits, with one every 6.97 pass plays, per Pro Football Focus. But a relatively low number of these pressures turn into sacks, which is why Houston's sack ratio of one every 14.63 pass plays is 14th in the league.
The offensive line, tight ends and running backs will take note of Watt's location prior to each snap. Watt's ability to mount pressure even when he's well-blocked is obvious; one of his sacks of Manning last year came when Ramirez had successfully blocked Watt into a cluster of linemen, only to see Watt bounce off, rapidly accelerate and get to Manning for the sack.
Normally, Broncos running backs would be more cognizant of linebackers and safeties on the blitz than a 3-4 defensive end like Watt. But their focus on him is testament to his massive production and the reputation it has created.
"He's just that dominant," said running back Montee Ball, who was Watt's teammate at the University of Wisconsin in 2009-10. "But for us we just have to focus on what we can control -- which is executing, establishing the run game and, obviously, putting the ball in the air. But we're going to have an eye on him on defense."
It might be a game in which Manning goes short and takes what's there. Big plays have been relatively tough to come by against Houston.
The Texans have allowed just one gain of 20 or more yards every 19.98 plays, sixth-best in the league. (The league averaged is one every 16.65 plays.) For pass plays, Houston has allowed one 20-plus gain every 15.14 plays, fifth in the league. Denver is fifth in the league with one 20-plus gain every 9.66 pass plays and is seventh with one gain of at least 20 yards every 14.68 total plays.
First downs have also been relatively infrequent at the expense of the Texans' defense, which has allowed the chains to move on 24.79 percent of the plays run against it.
So where does Houston's defense break down? Takeaways. The 10 the Texans have coaxed from opponents is the fewest in the league. Houston's ratio of one interception every 73.2 pass plays is also the league's worst, and way off the league-average ratio of one every 39.6 pass plays. (Manning, by comparison, is intercepted once every 59.6 pass plays.)
Given the giveaway issues by Houston's offense, the Texans are saddled with a minus-15 turnover margin that has undermined almost everything else they've done this year, and is the primary cause of their 2-12 record.