Three Keys to Broncos-Texans

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Ask around the Broncos' locker room about why the team is 3-5, and it will not take long until you hear multiple players cite "execution."

Because they have had moments in which they have flourished -- even during their five losses -- they can point to plenty of instances in which they did what they wanted to do. This is in stark contrast to last year during the team's eight-game losing streak, when the Broncos often went awry quickly, falling into an unrecoverable spin.

During one five-game stretch last season, the Broncos led just once -- for four minutes and one second of a single game, the Week 9 loss at Philadelphia. This year, the Broncos have led at some point in all but their 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

They've figured out how to take leads. Now they need to find ways to sustain them and turn their recent losses to playoff contenders into wins.

And that's where execution comes into play.

"It's about execution, and right now, we are very inconsistent on our execution. We still are not running the defense properly," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "People can go off on Joe Woods, our [defensive coordinator], but we are not executing in the crucial moments, man, on things that we practice and things that you expect to nail in those games -- and that you've got to nail in those games.

"So we have to raise our level of execution up, do our job better, execute the defense way better and understand how teams want to attack us."

That is true on the offensive side of the ball, as well.

"Just keep plugging away every week, and it's going to happen. It's going to happen," fullback Andy Janovich said.

Do that, and the next eight games represent the opportunity for a return to their early-to-mid-2010s form -- even though five of those games are against teams that would make the postseason if it started today.

"I think all eight games are winnable," Harris said. "We can win all eight games and then have a chance to be in the playoffs. This is a huge game to start this run going in the back half of the season."

"We know who we have left these next eight games," said Janovich, "and I think we can make a run."

What are the keys to starting such a streak with a win Sunday?

Dominate on the ground

Last week saw the rarest of games -- one in which the Broncos dominated on the ground but still lost. The Chiefs became the first team to defeat Denver in a game that saw the Broncos rush for at least 180 yards while holding its opponent to 50 or fewer yards.

An aberration like that does not mean that such dominance on the ground is not a successful concept. Thus, with the Broncos leading the league in average per carry (5.3) and ranking second in first-down rate (one every 3.1 attempts), look for plenty of work from their runners.

"When you see it working, you know you don't have to keep chucking the ball later in the game because you're getting stuffed in the run, so you run the ball," Janovich said, "It's going to open up plenty of other options for us in the playbook."

Since Bill O'Brien became Houston's coach in 2014, the Texans are 1-16 when an opponent runs on more than 50 percent of its snaps and 2-14 when a foe gains eight first downs on the ground against them.

Meanwhile, the Broncos appear to have fixed the glitches that arose in their run defense during the first three weeks of October, when the Chiefs, Jets and Rams gashed the Broncos for 735 rushing yards -- more than they had allowed in their previous eight games dating back to last year.

Denver has allowed 59.0 rushing yards per game in the last two weeks, a pace far more in line with their 77.7-yard average of Weeks 1-3 than the 245-yard average of Weeks 4-6.

"It's all about adapting and being aware of situations in the moment," safety Will Parks said. "If you can do that as a team and as a cohesive unit, especially on defense, we're going to be pretty hard to beat."

Protect Case Keenum and set him up for a clean game

It should come as no surprise that Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has averaged a sack a game during their current five-game winning streak. Houston has won 11 of its last 12 games dating back to October 2015 in which Watt recorded at least one sack.

But the Texans are also 31-14 under O'Brien when they intercept at least one pass, including wins in 12 of their last 16 games with at least one interception. This exacerbates the need for Keenum to have his first giveaway-free game this season.

If Keenum can avoid turnovers, he has a chance for the kind of efficient game that has usually crushed the Texans. Under O'Brien, Houston is 1-26 when allowing a passer rating of 94.0 or better and 0-21 when they allow a passer rating of 107.0 or better. When not allowing a passer rating of 94.0 or better, they are 52-22 since 2014.

Get to Deshaun Watson

Houston's proficiency drops when its second-year quarterback is under duress. The Texans are 5-0 when he is sacked no more than one time, while they are 3-6 when he is sacked twice or more.

While Watson is capable of escaping the pocket, he also has a habit of holding onto the football and allowing his receivers to break off their routes, forcing defensive backs to maintain their coverage for longer. According to Pro Football Focus, Watson has remained in the pocket for at least 2.5 seconds more than all but one quarterback (Jacksonville's Blake Bortles) so far this season.

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