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Burning Questions: Broncos at Texans

HOUSTON — Before last week's game, conversations about the Broncos almost exclusively focused on Drew Lock and if he would make his first start.

He did more than just that, as he led a pair of go-ahead fourth-quarter drives and helped the Broncos to a 23-20 win over their division rival.

Now that Lock has played and won his debut, another question persists.

Can he do it again?

The rookie quarterback will lead the Broncos against the AFC South-leading Houston Texans on Sunday, and he'll aim to take another step forward in his young career.

If he can deliver, the Broncos would earn their first win against a team poised to make the playoffs. They would also tally just their second two-game win streak of the season and start the final quarter of the season with a win.

Lock, of course, isn't the only factor in Sunday's game.

These are the questions that will define whether Denver can earn its second road win of the season.

HOW DOES DREW LOCK PLAY IN HIS FOLLOW-UP PERFORMANCE?

Drew Lock has played in NRG Stadium before, as Missouri played Texas in the 2017 Texas Bowl.

He'll return Sunday as he makes his first road start — and he'll try to build off a win in his debut.

"For one, going back to the pick, just learning not to force anything," said Lock on Wednesday of what he could learn from his first game. "In college, I might have been able to get away with a couple decisions like that, but these guys are quicker, these guys are faster and these guys are smarter. I'm not going to be able to get away with things as much as I did in college. Where being able to take the things that they give me 24/7, that'll just help us move down the field better. [It's a] you-can't-go-broke-if-you're-taking-a-profit-type deal, so take what they give you. Being able to realize the little decisions throughout the game can really affect the big picture of the game, that was one of the big takeaways."

If Lock is to become just the third Broncos quarterback to win his first two starts as a rookie, he'll need to make the same big throws he did against the Chargers and add just a bit more consistency.

The statistics reflect that he may have the chance to do just that.

Despite their 8-4 record, the Texans rank 32nd in third-down defense, 31st in red zone defense, 28th in passing defense and interceptions and 26th in sacks.

Lock could, though, expect to see both pressure and disguised coverages from Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

"Probably, yeah," said Fangio on Friday when asked if he thinks Crennel will be aggressive. "He'll probably be aggressive with [Lock]. I think you're alluding to pressuring, but I do think he can possibly be aggressive too with coverage changeups that aren't pressures."

Can Lock stare down that pressure and put together another high-quality performance that pushes the Broncos above 24 points for the first time since a Week 8 game in Arizona last season?

If so, the Broncos could have the chance to pull the upset.

CAN THE BRONCOS' GUARD HOUSTON'S DYNAMIC RECEIVING CORPS?

Some teams have one dynamic receiver. Some have two.

The Texans have three, as DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V and Kenny Stills are all capable of sneaking behind the defense and catching a deep touchdown pass.

"They're really good," Fangio said Wednesday. "Three high-quality guys. Everybody knows about Hopkins. Great catcher of the ball, great catch radius, very athletic and a great runner after the catch. Fuller, really good speed. He's improved his route-running since the last time I saw him. Stills is a good receiver with good speed. They're really good."

Against the Chargers, the Broncos allowed four passes of at least 30 yards — and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Houston's 10th-ranked scoring offense will be looking for more chunk plays.

"Yeah, you have to cover for a long time with this guy," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. of Watson on Tuesday. "As soon as he does [scramble], it's just like him and Hopkins have great timing because he just runs deep right after. They have great connection with that. That's what he's looking for. He's looking for the home-run ball."

Hopkins, who ranks second in the league in receptions, is just 6-foot-1. When he comes off the line of scrimmage, though, he plays like a much bigger player.

"[He has] really good toughness to where he just fights for the ball," Fangio said Thursday. "He's got tremendous hands. If he doesn't have the best hands in the league, he's second or third behind whoever. They have a good rapport going. He's a guy that you can throw it to if you're the quarterback, even if you have tight coverage because he outfights a lot of guys for the ball. He's got those strong hands, big catch radius and he's a good runner after the catch. I think he's best attributes are his — obviously, his hands — and then his toughness."

Fangio said the Broncos' cornerbacks must match Hopkins' toughness — but they may also need some help from safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson.

Simmons could set a single-season career high if he records another interception, and Jackson will look to make a statement as he returns to play his former team for the first time.

If the cornerbacks and safeties can handle the Texans' top three receiving threats, the defensive task becomes at least a little bit easier.

Of course, if Von Miller can return to the field, that would only help the back end of the defense. Miller missed the team's Week 13 game with a knee injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday. If he plays this week, he could provide necessary pressure on Watson that could turn those deep touchdowns into game-changing interceptions.

ARE THE BRONCOS' SECOND-HALF STRUGGLES BEHIND THEM?

In a script that's not unusual to the Broncos this season, the team scored a pair of touchdowns early against the Chargers. First, Drew Lock tossed a 26-yard touchdown to Courtland Sutton, and then Lock found Sutton again after a Dre'Mont Jones interception gave the Broncos the ball in the red zone. During the first quarter in Week 13, the Broncos converted 5-of-6 third downs and tallied 107 yards of offense.

During the rest of the game, Denver gained just 111 more yards. The third quarter was particularly tough on Denver's offense, as the team went 0-of-3 on third down, ran just nine plays and Lock completed 3-of-4 passes for 3 yards.

The Broncos' problems, according to both players and coaches, can largely be attributed to taking advantage of opportunities. The struggles aren't the result of a lack of aggressiveness, but rather a small breakdown at a critical moment.

"I think it's more about execution," Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said Thursday. "It's not an aggressiveness issue. You look at the play calls, as the second half, we threw it more than we ran it. I think we were 10 pass [plays], nine run [plays]. In the end, you've just got to stay on the field on third down. You've got to be tighter with your execution, and the reality of it is, we're young. When [G] Ron [Leary] went down in that game, we were looking out there and [T Garett] Bolles was the senior player on that field. Every single guy is a first- or second-year player. We've got rookies everywhere, including the quarterback. It's just what we are. The cool thing about it is that we've got a great foundation, they're going to get better and better the longer we do this together. They'll gain confidence. They've had to adapt to different quarterbacks and all kinds of different things. The free agents we signed and things, they've been hurt. New guys have emerged, and that's exciting. We're young, we have to get better and we have to be better at our execution."

Particularly on third down, Denver must be better. After starting 5-of-6, the team finished 7-of-15 — and the Broncos' failed to convert a pair of third-and-shorts as they scored just three points combined in the second and third quarters. Denver ranks 30th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage.

"I think third down is a big part of it, obviously," Fangio said Friday. "Eventually, if you're moving the ball, you're going to get to a third down and then you have to convert to keep the ball. I do think that's part of it. We've got to keep varying the calls as we go."

The Broncos have given up double-digit leads in four games this season, although they regained the lead against the Chargers on Sunday. If Denver is going to knock off its first opponent with a winning record, the offense must maintain its efficiency for four quarters.

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