INGLEWOOD, CA – AUGUST 19: Houston Texas cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. looks on before the NFL preseason game between the Houston Texas and the Los Angeles Rams on August 19, 2022, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
After starting the season with a tie against Indianapolis, the Texans are hoping to avoid their first defeat at Denver. As they approach Sunday’s game against the Broncos, here are five plot lines that could figure in the outcom
1-RUNNING GAME MUST HELP CONTROL THE CLOCK
A perennial problem reared its ugly head in the 20-20 tie against the Colts. The Texans couldn’t run the ball, which may change against the Broncos because coach Lovie Smith said rookie Dameon Pierce would get more carries.
After finishing last in rushing in 2021, the Texans ran for only 77 yards and averaged 2.8 a carry against the Colts. Their longest run was 8 yards. Pierce carried 11 times for 33 yards. Rex Burkhead came off the bench for 14 carries and 40 yards, a 2.9-yard average.
In their 17-16 loss at Seattle, the Broncos limited the Seahawks to 76 yards rushing, including 4 a carry.
To help bolster the running game, it’s time for offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to insert rookie left guard Kenyon Green into the starting lineup. Green is a physical run blocker who should contribute to a running game that has to surpass 100 yards if the Texans are going to have a prayer of upsetting the Broncos.
2-IT’S ESSENTIAL FOR RUN DEFENSE TO IMPROVE
The Texans couldn’t run against the Colts, and they couldn’t stop the run, either. Indianapolis ran 38 times for 177 yards and averaged 4.7 a carry. Jonathan Taylor pounded the Texans for 161 yards on 31 carries, a 5.2-yard average.
In their first season under Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos don’t have a Jonathan Taylor-type runner, but they do employ a two-headed monster in Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. In their one-point loss to the Seahawks, the Broncos ran 20 times for 103 yards, a 5.2 average per carry.
Gordon (12 for 58) and Williams (7 for 43) combined for 19 carries for 101 yards, a 5.3 average. Quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s mobile and can run for yards when he can’t locate a receiver, had one carry for 2 yards, but he’s a threat the Texans have to contain when he takes off.
In their tie against the Colts, the defense was on the field for 92 snaps. Now the Texans are playing in high altitude. The defensive backs had to make too many tackles against the Colts because Taylor spent too much time in the secondary. That’s got to stop against Denver.
3-HUGHES, GREENARD MUST SET THE EDGE
Defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Jonathan Greenard played well against the Colts, and they’ll have more responsibilities against the Broncos. In his first game with the Texans, Hughes had two sacks and the second interception of his career. Greenard had a team-best two tackles for losses, both in clutch situations.
Going against quarterback Russell Wilson, Hughes and Greenard know they can’t just charge up the field on passing downs and try to get Wilson in the pocket. One of Wilson’s strengths is his ability to spin left or right out of the pocket and find receivers on the move. And he’s just as adept going to his left as his right.
If Hughes and Greenard play with discipline, they’ll be in Wilson’s way when he bails from the pocket to either side. That’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s a necessity for defensive ends going against Wilson.
4-STINGLEY MUST SHUT DOWN JEUDY
In 2019, when LSU was on its way to a 15-0 record and a national championship, freshman cornerback Derek Singley Jr. was one of the nation’s best defensive players. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy was one of the country’s best receivers.
Stingley and Jeudy go against each other again in Denver. When they met in 2019, Jeudy caught five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, but Stingley helped the Tigers win 46-41.
Jeudy was a first-round pick in 2020. Stingley was the third overall pick in this year’s draft, one of the highest-drafted cornerbacks in NFL history. He played 92 snaps in the tie with the Colts.
Although Stingley won’t be assigned to Jeudy on a full-time basis, he’ll get a lot of opportunities to cover him. How well Stingley plays against Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, the Broncos’ other terrific receiver, will have an impact on the defensive performance.
5-BRONCOS MAY TARGET GRUGIER-HILL
Outside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill led the Texans with 18 tackles, including 14 unassisted, against the Colts. Quarterback Matt Ryan targeted Grugier-Hill on coverage, especially in the second half. Russell Wilson should attempt to do the same thing when he tries to find receivers covered by the linebacker.
In Denver’s loss at Seattle, running back Javonte Williams caught 11 passes for 65 yards. Whether it’s a running back or a tight end, it’ll be interesting to see if Wilson goes after Grugier-Hill the way Ryan did and what the results will be.
(John McClain can be heard on Sports Radio 610 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and on Texans Radio on Monday and Thursday. He also can be read on SportsRadio610.com)