- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos know what needs to be done to get everything they want heading into the postseason. They need to play the regular season to the end, they need to win in Oakland on Sunday and they certainly would like to stay as healthy as possible doing it.
If they accomplish all that, they will have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and certainly will be one of the Super Bowl favorites.
And after a long look at the video from this past Sunday’s 37-13 win over Houston, here are some thoughts on the team’s defense and special teams:
In the search for something more on defense, as well as deal with their share of injuries on that side of the depth chart, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has tried plenty of people in plenty of jobs over the past 15 games, including three players in Paris Lenon, Michael Huff and Jeremy Mincey, who were signed off the street and are now in the rotation in a variety of situations. And Sunday Del Rio took a 12-time Pro Bowl selection at cornerback, who has played the vast majority of his snaps on the outside, and put Champ Bailey in the slot. The results were good for everybody, including Bailey, who has spent much of the season trying to come back from a foot injury he suffered in the preseason. The Broncos have put Bailey on a pitch count of sorts, and the win over the Texans was just the fourth time he had been in the lineup this season. Bailey has played out of the slot plenty in his career, but usually when asked to shadow a receiver no matter where the wideout lines up. This time he played inside with Chris Harris Jr. and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the two outside spots. “Champ hasn’t played in the slot a lot, at least since I’ve been here,’’ Harris Jr. said. “But he’s Champ Bailey.’’ In all Bailey played 35 snaps against the Texans and showed the fast-twitch reaction, anticipation and strength needed to play inside. And save for a cut on the bridge of his nose, he said he came though the game well. He also showed a little more top-end speed than he did in his last game -- Dec. 1 at Kansas City, a game he left at halftime -- when was asked to track Andre Johnson on a deep ball late in the game. “I like the role I was playing,’’ Bailey said. “I didn’t play every snap, which is probably smart at this point.’’ Against a bevy of three-wide receiver looks the Broncos would see in the postseason, it also gives the team some matchup options moving forward.
The Texans were consistently able to get Johnson into some favorable matchups against a Broncos defense adding players from well off the ball to the pass rush and dropping some others off the line into coverage. Lenon found himself tracking Johnson at one point in the second quarter and later in the game Johnson had linebacker Danny Trevathan in tow as well. Overall Johnson was able to find some room to work when the Texans elected to throw against the Broncos' base defense. Johnson had a 33-yard catch in the first quarter against the base look, an 18-yarder against the base look in the second quarter and dropped what would have been a touchdown pass against the Broncos’ base defense in the third quarter. The Broncos played much of the game without Von Miller in the base defense and had already adjusted the lineup once again when they started Duke Ihenacho at safety in the base. The Broncos had used Omar Bolden in that safety spot in the previous two games.
If the Broncos are going to find a way to pressure quarterbacks in Miller’s absence there are times when a three-man grouping of Shaun Phillips, Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers will have to make it happen. The Broncos used it plenty in some of their specialty packages Sunday, dropping eight players into coverage. The three consistently found ways to affect Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. The Broncos also rushed three on more snaps against the Texans than they have against any other opponent this season, using a three-man rush on 10 defensive snaps. The Texans did score their lone touchdown against a three-man rush, but the Broncos also had one of their biggest hits of the game when linebacker Nate Irving blasted Texans running back Dennis Johnson for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter when Schaub was trying to get the ball out. For the season the Broncos rushed three on three snaps against the Cowboys and got an interception on one, rushed three on one snap against Jacksonville and got a sack and rushed three on three snaps against the Titans and got a sack on one of them.
The Broncos' first responders on special teams haven't always making the available plays of late. Texans wide receiver Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return in Sunday’s game after escaping the first Broncos player to arrive, cornerback Tony Carter, and then ran by Irving, who over-pursued slightly. It was the third time in the past four games the Broncos have allowed a return of at least 51 yards, to go with the 108-yard kickoff return for a score by the Chiefs’ Knile Davis and a 95-yard kickoff return by the Titans’ Leon Washington.
Trindon Holliday muffed his sixth kick since the loss in Indianapolis (Oct. 20). And while Holliday has put in plenty of work catching the ball going back as far as offseason workouts, a look at each of those plays, including Sunday’s, does show a bit of a trend. Often when Holliday misplays a ball, it’s when he is drifting backward as he receives the ball. It can be a kick he didn’t expect to travel as far as it did or one he doesn’t locate quickly enough off the punter’s foot. But he is far more effective, and consistent, when he doesn't put himself in a position to have to open his hips and move backward to take the ball. But the Broncos could use his explosiveness in the return game and appear to again be of a mind to take away some of his return opportunities. Eric Decker was back on a punt return for a fair catch in the fourth quarter on the next Texans’ punt after Holliday had recovered his own bobble on the previous one.