HOUSTON --A look back at how the Three Things to Watch from prior to Saturday's 14-10 win over the Houston Texans transpired.
1. PEYTON MANNING'S FIRST GAME IN THE NEW SCHEME.
If you needed a reminder that this offense will meld concepts of the Broncos' recent offenses with ideas from Head Coach Gary Kubiak's offenses in Houston and Baltimore, you got it on the first play from scrimmage.
The Broncos lined up in a shotgun with C.J. Anderson and James Casey among the four targets split out wide -- and called a bubble screen to Demaryius Thomas. It gained just two yards after Kareem Jackson shot through a block attempt by Anderson, but it hammered home a key point: some bread-and-butter aspects of the Broncos' attack -- like the bubble screen -- will remain a part of Denver's attack. The offense then underscored this by immediately going no-huddle.
"We can mix it up," Anderson said. "We can still be effective on the ground with the run game, which is great, and just us playing up-tempo, it helps us out, and it gets defenses tired; they don't get a chance to switch personnel, because all of our guys can play at any spot, any personnel.
Added Manning: "I thought we executed that pretty well as far as communication -- a lot of guys doing it for the first time and it was certainly a different offense. So that was a good thing. There were no real communciation errors. Obviously the execution can always be better."
Manning finished 8-of-14 for 52 yards, and all four of his drives ended in punts. But the offense was defused by two dropped passes and two penalties.
"I thought he was fine," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said on the TV broadcast. "We hurt him; we dropped two big third downs, and had a couple of penalties that stalled drives, but as far as him, he looked fine."
The offensive line did not have to face Houston's J.J. Watt, as the Texans gave the All-Pro defensive end the night off. The line kept Manning upright and flourished in the running game, allowing Broncos running backs to average 6.0 yards on their 13 first-half carries.
But in the second quarter, the mistakes that were absent last week bubbled to the surface. On Brock Osweiler's first series at quarterback, LT Ty Sambrailo was whistled for clipping, wiping out a 6-yard Ronnie Hillman run, and Ryan Harris committed a false-start penalty. A defensive holding penalty one snap after Harris' infraction wiped clean Harris' infraction.
"We're going to have some growing pains, but we just want to watch them continue to get better," Kubiak said. "I'll go take a look [at the game video], but I think we did some things better tonight and obviously probably got a lot of things we need to improve upon."
Aside from 80 percent of the offensive line, the first team didn't have the chance to finish the job, although Brock Osweiler cleaned up nicely with a 57-yard strike to Andre Caldwell to give the Broncos a 7-0 lead. But Anderson, Manning, Thomas and others can make up for it next week in the home preseason opener against San Francisco.
"I know when I got comfortable, and I was getting ready to keep pushing, I got the plug pulled, and Peyton said he felt good and he wished he could have stayed out there longer," Anderson said. "But we'll get a lot more reps next week -- we'll get all the reps we want."
- FORCING THE ISSUE ON DEFENSE.**
Last week, pressure from up front harassed the Seahawks into mistakes from the second play onward. In Houston, the Texans' mistakes were not as plentiful, but the defense was equally effective, shutting down the Texans and keeping their offense of the end zone for the entire game.
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips dialed up blitzes from start to finish. He blitzed inside linebackers Todd Davis and Steven Johnson. He also experimented with his outside linebackers in coverage, which resulted in mixed results, including one play where Shane Ray was beaten to the outside.
Phillips moved T.J. Ward around, lining him up in the box and in the slot while using Darian Stewart and David Bruton Jr. as the deep safeties in dime packages. Brandon Marshall was also active in his first game back from foot surgery, finishing with three tackles and a team-leading two passes defensed in one quarter of work.
The aggression did not stop when the third-teamer went to work in the final quarter. On the fourth-and-goal stop with 9:23 remaining, Phillips rushed six defenders at Houston QB Tom Savage, leaving cornerback Tevrin Brandon in one-on-one coverage against EZ Nwachukwu. Brandon provided enough obstruction to force an incompletion that kept the Broncos within three points.
And Shaquil Barrett had another disruptive night, capped by a blindside sack of Savage on the final series that jarred loose the football. Houston recovered, but its attempt at a comeback drive never got back on track.
In two games, the defense has allowed just one touchdown to an opposing offense -- Seattle's fourth-quarter score last week. The Broncos have 12 sacks from 11 different players. They're surrendering just 3.6 yards per play. It is a defense that looks like it can be among the league's best -- and Marshall, for one, thinks it can be the best.
"Definitely. That's our aim. We don't want anything less than that, and I think we can do it," he said. "We've had two great games so far, and I think the more comfortable we get in this defense -- because we're all used to playing with each other -- so the more comfortable we get, it's just going to skyrocket."
The Broncos and Texans are battling it out in a low-scoring first half with the only score a 57-yard TD pass from Osweiler to Caldwell. (All photos by Eric Bakke unless otherwise noted)
- SPECIAL TEAMS STOCK WATCH.**
Coordinator Joe DeCamillis wanted to see improvement on kickoff coverage, he got it, with the aid of two blasts by Brandon McManus. One of his three kickoffs sailed 74 yards for a touchback; the second traveled 73 yards before an ill-advised return that the Broncos' coverage team stopped at the Denver 14-yard-line, and the third was a blast out of the end zone. McManus averaged 4.36 seconds of hang time on his three kickoffs.
Punters Britton Colquitt and Spencer Lanning were busy as the offense struggled to mount sustained drives.
Lanning did not kick off, but he handled second-half punts, finishing with gross and net averages of 50.0 and 40.0 yards, respectively, on his two kicks. Collquitt averaged 43.8 yards per punt, but his net average was 41.0 yards.
The Broncos gave training-camp pickup Corbin Louks a long look on kickoffs, and he averaged 26.0 yards on his two returns. Isaiah Burse also returned one punt for seven yards and one kickoff for 25.
The Broncos didn't have any explosive returns, but they didn't have any fumbles, either, and the overall performance in the third phase was one of the most promising aspects of Saturday's win.