When the Houston Texans came into the Mile High City this week, Denver fans were looking at several factors that might not show up on the scoreboard. Perhaps the biggest issue with the Texans was whether their head coach, former Broncos backup quarterback and offensive coordinator Gary ‘Kubes’ Kubiak, would be returning to Dove Valley as Denver's next head coach. While Pat Bowlen tends to honor prior relationships with coaches, most fans so far seem opposed to the idea. The reason is easy to spot: Houston has had but one winning season under Kubiak, and their freefall this year (while outpaced by Denver’s) doesn’t give much reason for fan excitement at the idea of returning coach Kubiak to the Broncos' fold. A quick look can help Denver fans understand the situation with Kubes and get a clearer picture of the Houston team at the same time.
Houston has now lost 8 of its last 9 games, with the lone win coming at home against Tennessee. To find Houston’s last road win, you’d have to go back to October 3, when they beat Oakland 31-24. Denver’s last win had been on November 14 against KC by 49-29. Neither team had covered itself in glory this season.
It wasn’t a game for the faint of heart. There were a couple of boo-bird sightings, protesting weak ball handing - four fumbles, and yet, oddly, none of them lost. One was dropped by Lance Ball and bounced right back up into his hands. There was only one giveaway by Denver, an interception by Tim Tebow on their opening drive. On Houston's last possession a barely-tipped ball went right to Syd’Quan Thompson. Pat Bowlen had noted that this year, everything seemed to bounce the wrong way - but Sunday was different. This day was going to the Broncos.
There’s an element of luck involved in even the best of victories. For this one day, and especially in the second half, the bounces tended to go in Denver’s direction. It was a great change of pace, but this game wasn’t just won on good bounces, bad clock management by Gary Kubiak (although that helped) and good fortune. It was won by passion on both sides of the ball, a refusal to admit defeat, and a series of great plays by several Broncos on offense, defense, and special teams.
Brian Dawkins, still the heart of the defense even if his skills are starting to wane, had been listed as questionable for the game. As far as his return to the lineup, he listed some players that he particularly wanted to be out there with: Champ Bailey, Mario Haggan, DJ Williams and Andre’ Goodman. All of them are veterans, and all of them are still fighting hard. It showed. Dawkins, their emotional leader was back, and I thought that changed the whole chronicle of the 4th quarter. He led the Broncos once again with 9 tackles, 8 of them solo.
His total was matched, however, by Wesley Woodyard, also with 8-1 tackles, filling in at ILB for Joe Mays and letting Haggan swing back to the outside linebacker slot that he seems to be most effective in. I have to say - Woodyard was all over the field. He hits folks with all he has, and it’s good to see him opening up and just playing the part a little more. It’s almost as if having nothing to play for has given him a chance to show just how good he is when used right. It’s a persuasive argument and one that his continued leadership of the team on special teams (which have improved over 2009) makes especially interesting. If Woodyard can play like this week in and week out, he’s probably due to replace DJ and see how he and Mays play together in the 3-4 - if Denver doesn’t add someone else in the offseason.
As far as the return game goes, Eric Decker and next year Demaryius Thomas will probably be handling kickoffs, and Eddie Royal can stick with punts if it makes him happy. I love watching his returns when he gets that line through the field, and he holds his center as bodies are thrown his way and players want to hold him down to the ground in protest that he’s beating them over and again.
By the way, playing next to Wes Woodyard and his 9 tackles, DJ finished in a 3-way tie for 4th-best at 4 tackles, along with Jamal Williams and Andre’ Goodman. Whatever the reasons, WW outplayed DJ by quite a bit. It’s worth keeping in mind.
Moving WW to ILB and Haggan back to his best position - OLB - also created a situation where Jason Hunter and Robert Ayers switched off on the opposite side. Ayers is obviously still recovering from his foot injury - Hunter went after Texans QB Matt Schaub several times, and while he didn’t sack him, he showed the value of hurries. Marcus Thomas hasn’t been mentioned much, but when I was watching film, he really stood out. Great game for the big, versatile guy.
It was very much a game of two halves. I noted on the third Denver drive of the day (3 plays, 1 yard) that Tim Tebow pulled down the ball early. He was trying to avoid the rush, but he’s quick to think pass, pass, run run! He needed to let his receivers get open and/or check down, but he wants to run and it shows. It’s a different game in the NFL. Over the course of the game, he apparently saw that (probably through coaches and overhead snapshots) and fixed it, at least for the second half.
The second half was very different. The first really important play of the game by Tebow was the 50-yard pass to Jabar Gaffney - sitting in the pocket and hurling it. Gaffney had to make a heck of a catch to pull it in, but that’s within his job description, and he did it well. Big play - unexpected by the Texans who bit on the play fake, and a big momentum changer. From that point on, Denver was in the game.
On the second drive of the third quarter, Brandon Lloyd was unstoppable, especially on that second catch in which he leaped in perfect timing to snatch the ball out of the hands of the receiver. It’s great to see that Lloyd is the same with either QB - his game has risen geometrically this year, and shows no signs of diminishing. Somewhere, Josh McDaniels is smiling. He put the nucleus of this team together. Lloyd was unreal, although his stat line of 5 receptions for 111 yards doesn’t tell half the story. He was a pounder on his blocks, never quit on a play and brought in two incredible catches. Small wonder that he’s still leading the league with 1,375 receiving yards (on 72 catches for a 19.1-yard average). His first-down percentage, as you’d expect, is 93.1%. Denver has themselves a player, and Jabar Gaffney was right behind him with 4 grabs for 90 yards Sunday.
Just a note - after Steven Hauschka's 27-yard FG, David Veikune ran down on the kickoff, and he looked powerful and fast - he also hits hard. Good abilities on special teams, and he’s big enough for either a 3-4 or 4-3 system. What will he turn into next year? Cleveland didn’t care for him, despite his second-round-pick status, but he’s quickly turning into one of Denver’s best special teams players. He’ll be competing for a starting slot come the next training camp.
Congratulations to Tebow for his first 300-yard passing game. After his INT on the first drive, he shook it off and came back ready to go in the second half. Nice. He had a good run for a first down. And, he showed a key reason why Denver’s screen passes haven’t been working, and how they can.
The screen pass that Correll Buckhalter turned into a TD with 10:55 to go in the 4th quarter was indicative of what Denver can do with that type of play. Ted Bartlett did a nice job of talking abut this, and I’m not going to chew it over again. To keep it short, when you look back to the New England/Chicago snow bowl from Week 14, that screen was a frequently-used weapon. It always is for the Pats and Tom Brady - it was under Matt Cassel, too. In fact, consider that with his group of screen plays front and center of establishing offensive dominance, Brady has thrown 319 passes with 24 TDs and zero INTs in his past 10 games. You don’t throw a string like that unless it starts with a QB who plays mistake-free football. In this case, Brady is starting with the bread-and-butter plays that the other team can’t stop. New England has long used the screen to establish that, and Denver probably will, too.
Denver’s inability to run it well hasn’t changed how effective it can be when played properly. On his final drive, Tebow took a long 5-step drop, skipped back a bit more (I thought it was a 7-step drop for a moment) and let the pass rush come to him. That left Buckhalter, who had chipped his man, open in the center of the field - just under the LOS and Tebow arched it over the rushers to complete the pass. A couple of key blocks and a pair of broken tackles later, Denver had a nice first down. Big props to Correll on using the blockers to maximize his run, and also to Zane Beadles and Daniel Graham on their clean, powerful blocks that helped to free him.
During the second half, the player who’d been gashing Denver the most, Arian Foster, was nowhere to be seen. Was he injured? Unable to go? He was only in for 5 plays, and Houston elected to go pass as much as possible. Clock management and play calling were poor,and that’s something that has haunted Kubiak. When the final pass was deflected by Justin Bannan, who had another good day, Syd’Quan Thompson was there to receive it. Dawk has said that Syd’ has always seemed to him to be a player, and his presence of mind in catching the INT and getting down showed that. Another young guy, developing into a player.
Michael Lombardi loves to write on the intricacies of clock management for head coaches, and he should have a field day with Gary Kubiak. Two plays in particular helped Denver to survive a game that came down to three or four plays. Denver fans will recognize the error easily - they’ve seen it enough.
His clock management via his playcalling was a big part of that. Denver has lost their share recently on similar problems. It doesn’t matter now, though. I’ll cheerfully take it - and so will every other Broncos fan. Consider this from Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle:
Foster is the Texans’ best player, their most consistent player...And Kubiak iced him in the second half. Foster gained 21 yards on his first two carries, then got it only three more times. Some NFL people believe defensive-minded coaches make the best head coaches because they understand clock management better than offensive coaches...Why not pound the ball, eat up the clock, do what the Texans do best?...“We just kind of found another way to get beat today,” Kubiak said. “We don’t deserve to win."
As Broncos fans have learned, there is no shortage of coaches who go to the pass when they’re trying to bleed the clock. It’s worth considering that if Kubiak had managed to work the clock so that Denver got just one less possession, Houston would probably have won the game. It’s tough to do a coulda-shoulda, but that’s what it generally comes down to. Small wonder that both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have come to their teams at the end of the 1st quarter and begun to slow the game down in order to protect a lead - at times, one as frail as a single TD. Kubiak hasn’t really learned that yet, and I doubt it’s due to being an offensive-minded coach. It’s about not doing the job right.
Tebow’s run at 3:02 left for the winning TD was a broken play - a QB draw that had nowhere to go. This is a hard thing to teach any player who runs with the ball - just driving into a pile and hoping for yards isn’t creating them. Creating them requires seeing the field, and Tebow did that very well in the second half Sunday. No INTs in the 2nd half and over 300 passing yards for the day is a solid contribution.
Was it Tim Tebow Day? Sure, why not? He had a great run for that last TD. Texans DE Antoine Smith lost contain as Ryan Clady shoved him past Tebow and nearly to the far sideline, and with a 4-3 defense, that’s deadly. The key to the play was Tebow’s vision of the field. He saw that nothing was doing with the play that was called, saw Clady clearing his way and took off, outrunning the linebackers. Perfect.
By the way, Veikune was there again on the next kickoff. Other than Decker’s fumble, the ST had a good day. The Broncos did drive enough to pin Houston back in their end on their punts, which were excellent - accurate, and deep in the Texans' end of the field.
There were, according to the DP, 5,700 unused tickets to the game. Those folks lost out on a great nailbiter. It shows you how easily fans can turn fickle, but it was their loss - and one more for the Texans, of course. Their response to the loss was predictable - you’ve heard it all from the Denver fans and media:
"We can't figure out how to put two halves together," defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. "We're finding ways to lose every close game (Tebow) did some good things out there, threw some nice screens and ran around a little. We knew what they wanted to do. They did exactly what we thought they'd do. But we couldn't find a way to stop it. It doesn't matter whether (we're facing) a rookie or a 13-year veteran."
It’s worth noting that a bad performance against Jacksonville when they head to Houston this week could set an all-time NFL record for futility against the pass by the Texans. It’s fair to say that Denver, and Tim Tebow, benefited from that. It’s also fair to note that they fought hard for this victory, and they deserved it.
The coming week will bring the San Diego Chargers, and a much stronger defense headed by potential coaching acquisition Ron Rivera, who has done well with the team. San Diego is out of the running for the playoffs this year, but they are still a dangerous team that scores through the air and runs for balance. Rookie RB Ryan Mathews is playing well, but has been hampered with injuries. As Denver found out to their dismay, fullback Mike Tolbert is a major load when he runs the ball, and he can both block and catch as well. Philip Rivers is third in the league in total yards, and has 30 TDs to 12 INTs, with a QB rating of 103.9, second only to Brady. In other words, Denver is about to have a handful. Even so - from Matt Bowen:
Sunday’s loss at Cincy is another example of why the Chargers aren’t playoff ready. No question they have the talent (on both sides of the ball), but something is missing when Carson Palmer and the Bengals—minus T.O. and Ochocinco—beat you up in a game you have to win.
My reply: Yes, losing to an inferior team on the road is usually an example of not being playoff-ready. I’m glad to congratulate the Kansas City Chiefs on winning the AFC West, as unexpected as it is to me. It’s nice to see someone other than San Diego winning the division, and it’s great to see someone not winning it by default. I suspect that Denver will be pushing up against them in the next two years, but they’ve earned the berth in the playoffs. More power to them. It’s a good example of cellar to celebrate, and one that Denver can potentially repeat.
Sunday’s will be a contest worth watching. Which Denver team will show up? For that matter, which SD team will? It’s a perfect chance for Denver to steal a win, draft status or not. Tebow got the ball out quicker this week, and is showing signs of the development that Josh McDaniels saw in him.
By the way, there’s one other question to answer, from IAOFM reader chibronx: “By the way, I’m waiting for the article that credits the coach for drafting Tebow and for hitting on his first 6 draft picks this year. Can you link to that somewhere?”
Right here, CB. Josh McDaniels deserves credit for seeing both Tebow’s potential and the exact work TT would need to put in (guided by both McDaniels boys) to achieve his goals in the NFL. I’ll even go you a step further - at this point, it looks like McDaniels hit on as many as 7 of 9 draft picks.
Perrish Cox may spend some time in jail, but the pick was very good, even if the player couldn’t keep his nose clean. Eric Olsen may or may not work out (mid-round draft picks often take a year to develop on the O-Line) and Jammie Kirlew didn’t make it past training camp, but when you look at the rest of the draft, it was, in early reviews, perhaps the best that Denver has had in many years. Josh McDaniels put the offense together including multiple OL players, multiple receivers, a top RB (who has, admittedly, some tendency to injury), a starting QB, and most of the young and improving defensive secondary. In a single draft, Demaryius Thomas, Tebow, Zane Beadles, JD Walton and Perrish Cox is a very good haul. Adding Syd’Quan Thompson, a guy who always seems to be around the ball and who has 2 INTs this season in limited play was worth trading a future 6th - in fact, he’s worth more than that right now. When you look at this game alone, 5 of those guys were involved in helping to create the win. How simple can it be?
That the Texans are struggling doesn’t take away from anyone who was on the field or holding a clipboard in the Broncos’ win on Sunday - it was a great, gritty performance for all of them. There were good special teams plays, an unusually stingy defense, and a fun performance by Tebow. His friends on the OL held a little bit better, but they’ve got a ways to go. Other than a foolish penalty, Richard Quinn turned in another good supporting performance, and his number was all over the field. It’s good to see him developing in the wake of Dan Gronkowski’s injury: he’s been coming on all season, to give him credit.
And as much as anyone, mostly unsung in the wake of so many good stories from the game, I’d like to give my praise to the blocking by the wide receivers within the screen game. One reason it worked more often than not is that the wideouts joined in with the rest of the OL and TEs in hitting and keeping Houston's cornerbacks - and even safeties on occasion - engaged. You know, they were mostly doing it better and better as they played together this season, and if Denver can maintain some continuity and make a few upgrades successfully, there’s a puncher’s chance that they can run a good team on offense next year. The OL needs time to merge, and that will come with continuity, a factor that’s been conspicuously absent for a long time.
Backup guard Stanley Daniels is back on the active team - Cleveland wanted to poach him from the practice squad, where he’d languished for a few weeks. Daniels had his agent call the Broncos to make them aware of the move, and Denver responded by putting him on the 53-man roster. Now he’ll end the season a Bronco, and being that much in GM-in-waiting Brian Xanders’ good graces may earn him a legitimate shot next training camp.
And so another option falls into place. I watched the Boise State Broncos the week before this game, and it was a nice change to hear 'Broncos' and ‘Win’ together. It got me ready for the Houston game. Watching Denver putting its nucleus together is just as much fun. Sure, it’s been a hard year. That’s the price we sometimes pay, but looking at the way the team is developing, it’s good to see some signs of progress moving into the new year.
May your New Year be kind and gentle to you. All the best,