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Broncos' keys to upsetting Texans: Start fast. Avoid cliff.

Rookie Drew Lock aims to win second straight start
Posted at 10:47 AM, Dec 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-07 12:52:47-05

HOUSTON — When Drew Lock watched Brandon McManus’ field goal split the uprights as time expired last Sunday, he lost it. He ran onto the field, hugged Dalton Risner and broke his cross necklace as he tried to yanked it from underneath his shoulder pads.

The exuberance provided air freshener to the latest pungent season. The Broncos triumphed in Lock’s debut, eclipsing the Chargers and moving out of last place in the AFC West.

And yet, it was one game. The Broncos, for all their issues, have been competitive at home, posting a 3-3 record. The road remains a problem. Denver is 1-5 with contests at Houston this Sunday and Kansas City next week. So how do the Broncos avoid matching their worst record – 1-7 -- since 2017? My Denver7 keys to victory:

Starter jacket
The Broncos rank among the league’s best in the first quarter since week 5. They have outscored opponents 64-30 in the opening period. It helped produce a victory against the Chargers last week and provided the platform for a near-upset of the Vikings. Start slowly, and Denver will get squashed. (See Bills, Buffalo).

15 Minutes of Fame
The Broncos have proven they can execute offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello’s 15-play script. Then, they fall off a cliff. Since week five, no team has been worse in most offensive categories after the first quarter. I recognize football coaches see the world in a vacuum, focused on winning the game they are playing, nothing more. But it’s time to open up the offense for the greater good. The Broncos cannot bank on triumphing 17-14 in the current NFL. Scoring at least 24 points should be the goal in each of the remaining games to set the tone for next season. If that means losing 27-24 because of additional turnovers from Lock, consider it the price of development.

My dear Watson
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson would be in the MVP conversation in most seasons with his performance. He trails Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, but features similar traits. He can make plays with his feet, and few are better at untangling from sacks and sticking passes down field. Watson has 22 completions on attempts of 21 or more yards with six touchdowns. If he connects on two Sunday, the Broncos will get crushed.

Protect Yiadom
Isaac Yiadom receives the nod at the cornerback spot opposite of Chris Harris Jr. Buckle up. Harris will follow DeAndre Hopkins, and hold his own. Yiadom will be targeted when he’s in man against Will Fuller or Kenny Stills. Yiadom must be aggressive, jam at the line of scrimmage, and play tough. Coach Vic Fangio needs to protect Yiadom with doses of zone coverage and be ready to replace him with Davontae Harris if he struggles.

In Lock Step
Lock remains the story. As he should be. The Chargers did him a favor with a vanilla scheme. Look for Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to use exotic pressures to cloud the picture in the middle of the field for Lock. The Broncos answer? Screens. Running backs on choice routes. And, of course, use quick hitters – employ tight end Noah Fant over the middle, not on vertical sideline routes – and RPO reads with receivers disguised as blockers. The Texans don’t jump routes – they have six picks this year – so take some chances, especially to Courtland Sutton, who is open when he’s covered.

Running with a dream
For Lock to avoid missteps, he needs the run game to produce. Heavy doses early – as boring as it might be – remain central to setting up play action and forcing the safeties to make tough choices. Phillip Lindsay is due for a breakout game, but has had too many runs of less than 3 yards. If that changes this week, and an upset becomes realistic.

KJax is back
Broncos safety Kareem Jackson insisted with a straight face that this game isn’t personal. I don’t believe him. The Texans let him go as a free agent without making an offer. Jackson brings swag and edge. While right tackle Ja’Wuan James (knee) and Bryce Callahan (foot) have been free agent disappointments, Jackson has exceed expectations. When the Broncos won their lone game as a visitor against the Chargers, Jackson starred. They need him illuminated again to produce a turnover that keeps the game close and brings Houston’s spotty clock management into question.

Renck’s prediction: Texans 26, Broncos 17