Suddenly, Denver's defense has been vulnerable to big plays after giving up hardly any in its first six games. Chad Johnson had a couple of 50-yard receptions and Rudi Johnson broke a 36-yard run in Cincinnati's win over Denver two weeks ago.
Atlanta had plenty of big plays last Sunday, thanks to a huge effort from Michael Vick. That performance can be written off to catching a very athletic quarterback on the wrong day, but there are still legitimate reasons for worry.
The Broncos haven't gotten much of a pass rush without Trevor Pryce in the lineup, their secondary has been vulnerable the past few weeks and they are playing a dangerous Houston Texans team at home on Sunday. And Pryce, perhaps Denver's most valuable defensive player, is no sure thing to return for Denver's Nov. 21 game after its bye week.
Houston has had 22 passing plays gain 25 yards or more this season, so the Broncos should learn if the past two weeks were an aberration or if their defense is showing some cracks.
"Any time a team gets as many yards as Atlanta does, you go back and you know you have to tighten things up," coach Mike Shanahan said. "(Atlanta) made a bunch of plays on third downs, and it's really a credit to them."
Shanahan was troubled by how many long third-down conversions Atlanta made. Many times the Falcons faced third and long, but Denver's defense couldn't get off the field. Overall, Atlanta was 6-of-13 in third-down efficiency and converted its only fourth-down attempt, numbers that don't look good for Denver's defense.
The Broncos were excited about their defense after the first six weeks of the season. They ranked first in the NFL in total defense and their defense-minded offseason moves looked smart. Now, after the last two weeks there is a question if Denver has a defense that can carry it through a playoff run.
The Broncos hope that what has gone wrong the past two weeks is correctable.
"Heart has never been a question with this team, effort has never been a question with this team," linebacker Al Wilson said. "Everybody plays hard, everybody gives all they have. It's just the mental mistakes and the breakdowns that we're having that have cost us these two losses."
SERIES HISTORY -- 1st meeting. The Broncos have never played the Texans in the regular season. The two teams have met in the preseason in each of the past two years, with Denver winning both times.
NOTES AND QUOTES
The Broncos and Texans haven't played a regular-season game, but they are somewhat familiar with each other. The two teams have played in each of the past two preseasons, and they held joint practices in Houston for the week leading up to their preseason game last year.
The Broncos signed defensive end Patrick Chukwurah after he was released by the Texans, partially because Denver liked what they saw from him in that week of practice at Houston.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said there was some benefit for each team having played this year in the preseason, because it was in the second-to-last game when both teams did some game planning.
"I'm sure they evaluated our personnel, just like we evaluated their personnel," Shanahan said.
--The Texans will have to keep an eye on Broncos receiver Ashley Lelie on Sunday. Lelie has a touchdown catch of 30 yards ore more in four of Denver's past six games. Lelie could find himself matched up against Texans rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson for plenty of plays on Sunday.
--Houston WR Andre Johnson and Broncos LB D.J. Williams were teammates at the University of Miami and were each first-round draft picks. Johnson has established himself as one of the top receivers in the NFL in his second season, and Williams is a strong candidate to be the league's defensive rookie of the year this season.
"At some times (Williams) likes to tell a lot of jokes and things like that," Johnson said of his business-like former teammate. "I think he only does that around his teammates and people he feels pretty comfortable with. At times he can crack jokes and things like that. But when he's out of the field doing his job he's serious and real into it."
--Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer has heard criticism all around Denver after throwing five interceptions during Denver's two-game losing streak. Plummer said he reads the newspapers occasionally, but isn't fazed by what is said about him.
"I don't take anything too personally," Plummer said. "I can take the attack as long as they're not making fun of my family or my loved ones. I can weather that. I've weathered a lot of that in the past. It's all about pushing on and continuing to fight."
BY THE NUMBERS
1 -- Rod Smith needs one more reception to tie tight end Shannon Sharpe's franchise record for catches. Smith has 674 catches, Sharpe had 675. Smith tied Sharpe's franchise record of 55 touchdown receptions last week.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"You know, where we're sitting at right now, we're still in control. We just have to continue to work hard and eliminate a few bad plays here and there and get ready to get a win. It's a must-win for us." -- QB Jake Plummer on the importance of winning against Houston and going into the bye week on a positive note.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos defense won't change much with Nick Ferguson taking over as a starter for injured John Lynch. Lynch and Kenoy Kennedy were interchangeable at free and strong safety, and Ferguson has similar versatility. Ferguson is a similar player to Lynch, a great hitter that is unafraid to take on anybody. Lynch was well respected as a leader on the defense, but Ferguson is respected in the locker room as well.
Ferguson was going to be a starter this season after playing well last year, but the Broncos couldn't pass up the opportunity to sign Lynch, leaving Ferguson out of a starting job. The Broncos still have good depth at safety even without Lynch, with former starter Sam Brandon and Chris Young in reserve.
--TE Dwayne Carswell has been playing more fullback than he planned. With Reuben Droughns moving to tailback from fullback, the Broncos have little-used Kyle Johnson as their only true fullback on the roster so the Broncos have used tight ends as H-backs as lead blockers for Droughns.
--CB Roc Alexander could be a dangerous kickoff returner for the Broncos if he is kept in that spot the rest of the season. Alexander averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return at the University of Washington, and that average is third best in Huskies history. Alexander is very fast and could break some big plays.
--CB Kelly Herndon had played well when Denver got off to a good start this season, but had some problems against Peerless Price last Sunday. Price scored two touchdowns, but in Herndon's defense Michael Vick made some perfect passes on those big plays.
--WR Rod Smith went back to being the team's punt returner against Atlanta. Mike Shanahan has said he'd rather not expose Smith to injury returning punts, but he has to determine if the team can afford to use a roster spot on receiver Triandos Luke simply to return punts on a week-to-week basis.
--DT Luther Elliss is still in a reserve role for the Broncos. He started slow because of a partially torn pectoral muscle, and now plays mostly in passing situations for Denver's defense.
For the Broncos to get past a dangerous Texans team, they probably can't afford to get behind early or get into a shootout. Denver has shown in its last two games that it is much better off when it controls the clock with the running game, doesn't put Jake Plummer in positions to make mistakes and lets the defense keep it close.
The Broncos ditched their run game against Atlanta after falling behind last week, something that forced Plummer into bad positions. The Texans have 11 interceptions this year and would love to see the Broncos put into obvious passing situations.
Defensively, the Broncos have to find a way to get pressure on David Carr. Without Trevor Pryce in the lineup, Denver doesn't have a defensive lineman that can consistently beat a lineman and get to the quarterback, and blitzing has opened up the Broncos to big passing plays.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Denver CB Champ Bailey vs. Houston WR Andre Johnson. Bailey didn't have a great game a couple weeks ago against Chad Johnson, his first big test as a Bronco. Against Andre Johnson this week, Bailey will be challenged again. Johnson is big and fast and can make plays downfield. Denver can't afford to offer much safety help considering the rest of the Texans' receivers can make plays, so how well Bailey plays will be a big factor in Sunday's game.
Denver's offensive line vs. Houston's 3-4 defense. The Broncos struggled against San Diego's 3-4 front earlier this year, and their line is coming off a pair of games that weren't their best. Denver needs to neutralize powerful nose tackle Seth Payne to have success running the ball.
--S John Lynch might only miss one game with a stress fracture near his tailbone. With Denver's bye coming up next week, Lynch will be out this week and get the bye to rest, but the Broncos are unlikely to rush him back and risk setting him back. Lynch was listed as doubtful and not out on the injury report, but there's very little chance he plays Sunday.
--DE Trevor Pryce will miss at least one more game as he recovers from back surgery. Pryce has already gone past the four-to-six week recovery time the Broncos initially set for him, and the team isn't positive he'll be back after the bye week for a Nov. 21 game at New Orleans. Pryce will be re-evaluated on Friday to determine when he can return.
--RB Tatum Bell will be evaluated as the week goes on to determine his availability for Sunday's game. Bell's injured hamstring is improved, but the rookie has already missed a lot of practice time and the Broncos don't want to put him in a position where he re-injures himself.
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