After trading wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Texans this week, in time for him to join Houston and play against the Broncos on Sunday, Denver is faced with pulling off a transition in their receivers corps in the middle of the season. Veteran holdover Emmanuel Sanders steps into the leadership role for the Broncos and ascends to the No. 1 spot in Denver’s receiver cadre. Rookie Courtland Sutton moves into the starting lineup in place of Thomas after showing promise and big-play capability as a reserve. Tim Patrick, who made the roster out of training camp after spending last year on the practice squad, also figures to see a lot more playing time as the Broncos reconfigure their receiver corps. Another young receiver, DaeSean Hamilton, has been slowed this week by a knee injury.
Coach Vance Joseph said he appreciated all that Thomas did for the Broncos in his eight years with the team but he also believes in his young, up-and-coming group.
“Courtland can be special,” Joseph said. “We’ve all watched him during training camp and through the first two months of the season. He’s got special ability. Now, he has got to prove it, along with Daesean Hamilton and along with Tim Patrick. We’ve got some young guys that we think are capable. It speaks to our receiver room. It’s a young room, but it’s talented.”
Sanders said he’s lending his support and insight to his younger counterparts.
“We’ve got a great room,” Sanders said. “Those young guys are hungry as well. The only thing I do is hold them accountable and just try and help as much as I can.”
Quarterback Case Keenum said while he’ll miss Thomas, he has faith in all of his receivers.
“Obviously , as a quarterback, when you look to the left and right, just what kind of feelings do you get,” Keenum said. “It’s an unspoken kind of chemistry, non-verbal. You can call it a lot of things, but I feel that way about all of those guys. I’ve got trust in all of those guys.”
How they do will be on full display Sunday as will the play of Thomas as he makes his debut for the Texans.
The Texans and Broncos are meeting for the seventh time in the regular season. Denver leads the series 4-2 and has won three of the four games played in Denver. The teams last met on Oct. 24, 2016, a 27-9 victory for the Broncos in Denver.
Notes & Quotes
--Broncos quarterback Case Keenum broke into the NFL in 2012 as an undrafted free agent out of Houston, spending time on the Texans’ practice squad before moving on to the St. Louis Rams, back to the Texans. He spent last season with Minnesota before joining Denver over the winter as a free agent. In his recently published biography, Keenum wrote that Texans coach Bill O’Brien once told him he’d never be more than a third-string quarterback. O’Brien has denied making that remark, though Keenum says he has used it as a motivating factor in advancing his career.
--Running back Royce Freeman missed last week’s game against Kansas City with an ankle injury and he remains iffy for Sunday’s game against the Texans after missing practice time again this week. Devontae Booker and rookie Phillip Lindsay shared the load at running back in Freeman’s absence.
--Safety Darian Stewart continues to deal with a neck injury that sidelined him last week. He again missed practice time and his status for Sunday’s game against the Texans remains in question.
--After being inactive last week because of ankle and wrist injuries, linebacker Shane Ray returned to practice this week in limited fashion and may be able to return to the field of play on Sunday against the Texans.
--Right tackle Jared Veldheer, who has been sidelined the past month by a knee injury, returned to practice this week in a limited fashion. His possible return could help stave off the Texans’ fierce pass rush led by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Billy Turner has filled in at right tackle in the absence of Veldheer, who was injured Week 4 against Kansas City.
--The Broncos are getting production from a trio of young players. Rookies Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman and Courtland Sutton have combined for 1,321 yards from scrimmage this season. It is the fifth most by a trio of rookies since through eight games since 1970 NFL merger.
--Linebacker Bradley Chubb, the Broncos’ top draft pick, has come on strong after slow start. He leads all rookies with seven sacks. He had a three-sack game against the Rams in Week 6, tying the Broncos’ single-game record for rookie.
--Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is one pass defensed shy of tying Steve Atwater (78) and Tyrone Braxton (78) for third most passes defensed by a member of the Broncos since the statistic began to be kept in 1994.
BY THE NUMBERS
Despite its youth and inexperience, the running back corps for the Broncos has emerged as one of the team’s greatest strengths. Denver’s rushers are collectively averaging 5.3 yards per carry, tops in the league. Overall, the Broncos’ rushing attack ranks seventh in the 32-team league, averaging 133.1 yards per game. Rookie running back Royce Freeman has been bothered by an ankle injury that sidelined him last week and his status remains questionable for Sunday’s game against the Texans. But fellow rookie Phillip Lindsay and third-year pro Devontae Booker have continued the productive rushing trend for the Denver.
Rookie wide receiver Courtland Sutton will be under a great deal of scrutiny as he takes his first step in filling the shoes of star wideout Demaryius Thomas, who was traded by Denver to the Texans earlier this week and will on the field for Houston Sunday playing against his former team. Sutton, a second-round pick out of Southern Methodist, has shown promise and his big-play capability was a factor in the Broncos’ willingness to part ways with Thomas. Sutton has 17 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns in eight games with one start. He is averaging 19.1 yards per reception and has shown an ability to get open downfield for the big gainer. But the time has come for him to show he can be productive on a down after down basis.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
LT Garett Bolles and either RT Billy Turner or Jared Veldheer vs Texans LBs J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney: The Broncos offense has been stalled at times by some ill-timed holding calls, especially on the edges where Denver’s tackles will again be under pressure to fend off high-profile pass rushers Watt and Clowney. Broncos quarterback Case Keenum’s consistency has been affected by ragged pass protection, but when he has had time, he has hit his targets. If Bolles and either Turner or Veldheer (who possibly could return from injury this week) can stay with the Texans’ pass rushing duo, the Broncos’ offense should be able to put together some consistent drives.
CBs Chris Harris Jr. and either Bradley Roby or Tramaine Brock vs WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas: Covering Hopkins in and of itsef is a formidable challenge but with the Texans’ acquisition from Denver of the play-making Thomas, opposing teams won’t be able to simply roll their coverage toward Hopkins all the time. They’re going to have keep an eye on Thomas as well. Harris, Roby and Brock have familiarity with Thomas, having practiced against in training camp and most of this season and that will help them, especially in situations where they have to have man to man coverage. Hopkins is fleet with sure hands and defenders can’t miss with their jams near the line of scrimmage or he’ll be by them in a flash to hook up with DeShaun Watson for a big play. Roby missed practice time this week with an ankle injury and Brock could see more playing time because of that.
The Broncos are hoping to get more consistency in pass protection from their offensive line, especially from tackles Garett Bolles and either Billy Turner or Jared Veldheer. Quarterback Case Keenum was sacked five times in last week’s loss to Kansas City in addition to throwing an interception and losing a fumble. But if he can get time, the Broncos can open up the playbook in their passing game, and get the ball downfield to their cadre of receivers.
The Texans’ passing game is drawing a lot of attention but the Broncos can’t overlook their running attack, spearheaded by Lamar Miller. He had a season high 133 yards rushing in the Texans’ win over Miami last week after running for 100 yards the week before. He’s the first Texans’ running back to run for 100 yards in back to back games since Arian Foster did it in Weeks 7-8 in 2014. Inside linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall will have the primary responsibility of shadowing Miller and limiting his impact on game day.