Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Texans, NFL Week 15

"The most important game in Indianapolis Colts history!" – Kob Bravitz, the man who was wearing the Andrew Luck jersey in November of 2011, previewing Sunday's Colts – Texans match-up. (this didn't really happen, to my knowledge)

With their week 14 win over the Tennessee Titans – coupled with the Texans loss to the Patriots – the Indianapolis Colts not only put themselves on the brink of clinching a playoff berth, they also took control of their fate in the AFC South. A year after stepping down from their throne and handing the crown to the Texans, after turning over 60% of their roster, after firing their GM and head coach, and after cutting their MegaSuperGiganta star quarterback, the Indianapolis Colts have a chance to reclaim their rightful place atop the division. All that stands between them and the greatest worst-to-first turnaround in NFL history is 180 minutes of perfect football.

That 180-minute journey starts Sunday in Houston, Texas, where the Colts will square off with a Texans team looking to not only establish their dominance as the South's top dog, but to remind everyone that they're still a good team. Will the Colts be able to play their first complete game of the season and shock the NFL world? Or will the Texans realize that this is their last chance to party while the parents are out of town, and make the most of their gifted opportunity, securing an early home-exit from the playoffs? After the jump, we'll take a look a the key stats, match-ups, and injuries that will help determine the outcome of Sunday's surprisingly important AFC South divisional match-up!

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Texans measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.  

 

Indianapolis Colts

   

Houston Texans

 
  Offense Defense   Offense Defense
Passing 8th  (20th) 20th (29th)   10th (14th) 19th (4th)
Rushing 22nd (16th) 19th (31st)   8th  (15th) 2nd (4th)
Total 7th (19th) 22nd (30th)   6th (12th) 7th (3rd)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Houston Texans Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 99 DE JJ Watt
80 TE C. Fleener 95 NT S. Cody
74 LT A. Castonzo 94 DE A. Smith
76 LG J. Reitz 98 OLB C. Barwin
64  C S. Satele 52 ILB T. Dobbins
75 RG M. McGlynn 53 ILB B. James
69 RT W. Justice 59 OLB W. Mercilus
83 TE D. Allen 25 CB K. Jackson
11 WR D. Avery 38 SS D. Manning
12 QB A. Luck 29 FS G. Quin
33 RB V. Ballard 24 CB J. Joseph

The Indianapolis Colts are 3-0 in their last 3 games, with wins over the Bills, Lions, and Titans. They are averaging 27.3ppg in that stretch – which, if that were their season-long total, would be good for 5th in the league. But, if you've watched them play, you'd know that their offense has struggled to perform consistently during that stretch.

How, then, are the Colts able to put up that many points and how are they 3-0? First, 14 points have come from the defense (Cassius Vaughn's pick-6) and special teams (TY Hilton's punt return). Second, the Colts have done a 180 in one of their weakest areas: red zone scoring. Because of their struggles moving the ball, the Colts are averaging only 2.7 red zone trips per game, down from their average of 3.3 at the start of this 3-game winning streak. But, unlike earlier in the season when they were struggling to reach the end zone, the Colts are taking full advantage of their red zone opportunities, scoring a TD on a whopping 75% of their red zone trips over the last 3 games. (As an aside, imagine how the Jets and Jaguars games may have played out differently if the Colts were able to score that efficiently in the red zone)

This is the first key to the Colts success on Sunday: continuing their red zone success. I expect them to move the ball – not easily, they'll have their struggles, but they will move it – but if those drives don't end in touchdowns, the Colts don't have any chance to win.

The second key to the Colts success is stopping JJ Watt. The Texans DE, a leading candidate for DPOY honors, is a one-man wrecking crew. His numbers (we'll reference them later, I don't want to repeat myself too much) are staggering. He's dominated good offenses as easily as he dominates the bad ones. Even on Monday night, as his team was getting torched by Tom Brady and the Patriots, Watt was a force, hurrying and hitting Brady often.

The Watt match-up is bad news for a Colts team with an offensive line that can only be described as a mess. Sure, LT Anthony Castonzo is developing into a legitimate anchor, but the Colts are left with questions about strength, quickness, or injuries at every other position. The potential return of LG Joe Reitz would be a nice start, and AQ Shipley starting in place of injured C Samson Satele may be an upgrade, but what will the Colts do about the right side of their line, where Mike McGlynn and either Winston Justice or Jeff Linkenbach sit, like a Thanksgiving Turkey, waiting for Watt to devour on each and every snap?

I wish I had an answer for you. The Colts don't like to double-team defensive linemen. They don't like the screen (unless it starts with "bubble") game. They haven't developed a short and intermediate passing attack. If the Colts come out in their standard offense with their standard game plan, Luck could get sacked 6 times or more.

If the Colts can get Watt blocked, look for them to find their success against CB Kareem Jackson. Jackson is the weak link in the Texans armor, and Luck will likely utilize motion to isolate Jackson in a match-up that suits him. I also expect the Colts to take their shots down field.

Will they be successful?

Tell me if they blocked JJ Watt, and I'll let you know.

When the Texans have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Houston Texans Offense
90 DE C. Redding 80 WR A. Johnson
99 NT A. Johnson 76 LT D. Brown
91 DE R. Matthews 74 LG W. Smith
98 OLB R. Mathis 55 C C. Myers
53 ILB K. Conner 60 RG B. Jones
50 ILB J. Freeman 75 RT D. Newton
93 OLB D. Freeney 81 TE O. Daniels
32 CB C. Vaughn 83 WR K. Walter
35 FS J. Lefeged 8 QB M. Schaub
41 SS A. Bethea 86 FB J. Casey
20 CB D. Butler 23 RB A. Foster

Patience.

If the Colts defense is going to have success against the Texans offense, they are going to have to be patient. In the running game, patience means mining your gaps – staying in your assigned lane, not over pursuing – and limiting the amount of cutback yards RB Arian Foster can find in Houston's cutback-heavy system.

A lot of people expect the Colts run defense, which does poorly in all statistical categories, to get gashed by this running game. I'm not sure I'm one of them. I have no hidden stat to point to to explain this optimism, I can only tell you this: since their week 9 match-up against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts have been good against the run. The final numbers don't reflect this: 97 or more yards and 4.0ypc or higher in their games against the Patriots, Bills, Lions, and Titans.

But when you look deeper, you'll realize it's not so bad:

Opponent Yards Attempts Average Long
Patriots 115 25 4.6 47
Bills 135 23 5.9 41
Lions 138 29 4.8 67
Titans 97 24 4.0 32

Altogether, the Colts gave up 455 yards on 187 carries, or 4.5ypc, definitely below average. But if you look at the "Long" category, you'll see that the Colts gave up 187 yards – 41% of the 4-game total – on those 4 carries. If you remove those 4 carries, the Colts numbers look like this: 97 for 268 (2.8ypc). Now, you can't just wish carries away, but the point is this: the Colts are doing a good job against the run on a vast majority of snaps. If they can have that kind of success on Sunday, they will put the Texans in down-and-distances that they aren't comfortable in – situations in which Matt Schaub struggles – and they can force mistakes and get off the field.

In the passing game, the Colts must be patient and recognize and react well to the Texans bootleg play-action. This has killed the Colts in the past, and is honestly my biggest worry on Sunday, as I imagine Schaub finding Johnson and Daniels wide open down the middle of the field. If the Colts have success against Foster and the running game, staying patient against the bootleg pass is easier – DBs and LBs will stay disciplined, rather than trying to overcompensate to stop the running game. If the Colts don't have success against Foster and the Texans offense gets the bootleg action going, it's going to be a long day, and a lot of points against, for the Colts.

Key Match-ups

1. RT Winston Justice vs DE JJ Watt – JJ Watt may be the scariest defensive lineman the Colts have faced all year, and yes, I'm including that Suh guy from Detroit. He has 16.5 sacks on the year, 2 forced fumbles, 15 defensed passes (WTF dude?), 14 "stuffeds" and 64 total tackles. In short, he's a great all-around player, and is capable of beating the best tackles in the game.

"And then he said, 'Winston Justice!'" and the customers around the bar began to howl with laughter.

Justice had been one of the Colts better offensive lineman until a series of injuries have caused a severe decrease in performance. Now, facing one of the best defensive lineman in the game, Bruce Arians and the Colts coaching staff must seriously consider how they are going to deal with Watt: double teams? Chip blocks? Bootlegs? Screens? Just leave him in one-on-one situations and hope for the best (this is the early favorite in Vegas, btw)? A lot of thought will go into this situation this week, and the Colts must react correctly. If they don't Andrew Luck, who's take a beating in recent weeks, will be under duress – or worse – all game.

2. RG Mike McGlynn vs DE JJ Watt - And when he's not facing Winston Justice, the Texans are great about stunting Watt inside on interior linemen, allowing him to use his speed and quickness to overwhelm slower guards and centers. I know I already used my "Winston Justice is a bad match-up joke", so I can't really go back to that well, so let me just say: as bad a match-up for the Colts as Justice vs Watt may be, Watt v McGlynn is worse. Sure, McGlynn as apparently given up 0 sacks on the year, but he's given up an alarmingly high number of pressures, hurries, and hits (Jacob Crocker has his numbers at 15 hits, 28 pressures, and 79.7% successful blocks. For comparison, LG Joe Reitz graded out: 8 hits, 4 pressures, and 88.6% successful blocks). Look for the Texans to allow Watt to feast on the Colts interior early and often on Sunday.

3. C Samson Satele vs DE JJ Watt – Hey, JJ Watt is good!  Okay, this is just my long-winded (and hopefully funny) way of saying that the Colts offensive hopes won't hinge on the running game or the play-action pass, or the WRs ability to get separation, it will come down to their ability to block JJ Watt (and, to a lesser degree, Connor Barwin). It's simple. If they can, the Colts offense -will- have success moving the ball and scoring points. If they can't, the Colts may get shut out.

4. Colts LBs vs RB Arian Foster – The Houston Texans' offense revolves around Arian Foster and the running game. Yes, they love to throw the ball to WR Andre Johnson, and yes, they love the play-action bootleg, but even those pass plays are predicated on the success of the Texans rushing attack. If the Colts are going to have any hope of slowing them down and keeping the game close, it's going to have to have success against the run.

Historically, this seems like a long shot. Arian Foster has rushed for 491 yards on just 71 carries against the Colts. Even current stats would suggest that the Colts will struggle: they rank near the bottom of the league in rush defense in both standard and advanced stats. With all that said, I'm not convinced the Colts rush defense is all that bad. Since their week 9 game against Jacksonville, the Colts rush defense has been good at forcing opposing rushing attacks to become very boom/bust – that is, carries going for either very little gain, or a big gain.

While this isn't great – you'd like to limit big plays entirely – it does allow them to force shorter drives and a few three-and-outs. And if they can shut down Foster and the rushing attack on 1st- and 2nd-down, and create some 3rd-and-long situations, Schaub has shown in recent weeks that he's not able to consistently keep the chains moving.

One final thought to keep in mind: in years past, Kubiak has shown an unwillingness to stay patient against the Colts, having Schaub force balls down field into tight coverage. If this trend holds up, the Colts will have a couple of opportunities – and they MUST take advantage of them – to create turnovers and get the ball back for Luck and the offense.

5. Andrew Luck vs CB Kareem Jackson – If the Indianapolis Colts are going to win on Sunday, their offense is going to have to score a lot of points. That won't be easy, as Houston has one of the best overall defenses in the league, rating highly against both the run and the pass, and featuring the kind of pass rush that can disrupt all but the most elite offenses. So the Colts best hope lies in finding a weakness and exploiting it. Luckily for the Colts, the Texans have such a weakness: CB Kareem Jackson.

The Texans are the 5th best team at stopping opposing #1 WRs, they are 11th against #3/#4 WRs, #4 against stopping TEs, and #7 against running backs (in the passing game). Against #2s (Kareem Jackson's responsibility), the Texans are 27th. So, like opposing teams have done to the Colts all year, finding Cassius Vaughn and throwing his way early and often, Andrew Luck would do well to find Kareem Jackson, and throw at his man as often as possible.

The injury reports

NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.

Indianapolis Colts

WR Donnie Avery RIBS (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Delone Carter ANKLE (OUT)
ILB Kavell Conner HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
S Tom Zbikowski KNEE (OUT)
LG Joe Reitz CONCUSSION (QUESTIONABLE)
RT Winston Justice BICEP (QUESTIONABLE)
OLB Dwight Freeney REST (PROBABLE)
TE Coby Fleener ANKLE (PROBABLE)
QB Andrew Luck KNEE (PROBABLE)
C Samson Satele ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)

Houston Texans

DB Alan Ball FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
DT Shaun Cody RIBS/BACK (QUESTIONABLE)
DE Jared Crick NECK (PROBABLE)
TE Owen Daniels BACK (PROBABLE)
LB Tim Dobbins SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Justin Forsett KNEE (PROBABLE)
TE Garrett Graham CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)
ILB Bradie James KNEE (PROBABLE)
WR Lestar Jean KNEE/BACK (PROBABLE)
P Donnie Jones KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Jonathan Joseph GROIN (PROBABLE)
LB Whitney Mercilus KNEE (PROBABLE)
NT Earl Mitchell SHOULDER (PROBABLE)
OLB Jesse Nading FOOT (PROBABLE)
OT Derek Newton KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
OLB Brooks Reed GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
ILB Daryl Sharpton TOE (QUESTIONABLE)
OG Wade Smith KNEE/RIBS (QUESTIONABLE)
DE Antonio Smith ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Ben Tate HAMSTRING/FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
QB TJ Yates ELBOW (PROBABLE)


 

Series notes

  • The Colts and Texans have squared off 20 times in NFL history, wit hthe Colts holding a 17-3 advantage in the series.
  • Andrew Luck, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have never faced the Texans. Yatta, yatta, yatta.
  • Reggie Wayne has faced the Texans 20 times in his career. He's caught 117 passes for 1523 yards and 12 TDs in those games.
  • OLBs Dwight Freeney (15.5) and Robert Mathis (14.5) have combined for 30 sacks against the Texans in their careers.
  • QB Matt Schaub has faced the Colts 6 times in his career. He's 138 of 197 (70.1%) for 1359 yards, 7 TDs and 10 INTs in those games.
  • WR Andre Johnson has faced the Colts 15 times in his career, catching 82 passes for 983 yards and 5 TDs in those games.
  • RB Arian Foster has 71 carries for 491 yards (6.92ypc) and 5 TDs in 3 career games vs. the Colts
  • TE Owen Daniels has 23 catches for 222 yards and a TD in 9 games against the Colts.

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts (FOR THE THIRD WEEK IN A ROW! What will they screw up this week? Tune in to find out!)

Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford 

Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at The506 will be able to tell you.

Officiating Crew:  Jeff Triplette. I would make a joke here about avoiding Walt Coleman and Ron Winter, but did you SEE the Pete Morelli hatchet job in the Titans game? We're not safe. We'll never be safe. Run. RUN. RUN FOR YOUR LIVES.

A Quick Word on Donald Brown

One mistake on a huge stage can leave an indelible mark on a career. Donald Brown is, at worst, an average pass blocker. He's a good running back whose ability to avoid negative runs saved the Colts offense on more than one occasion the past 2 seasons. He was never gifted with a dominant OL or placed in an offensive system that allowed him to catch a ton of passes in space. In other words, he was never in a position best-suited for his talents, but he still put up "average" statistics for a running back. Donald Brown isn't bad, he's not a bust, and if you think he "underperformed" his draft position, you don't understand what kind of production is normal from late 1st-round picks.

I've also seen a lot of negativity hurled his way post-IR news this week, mostly from people putting Brown down while exhalting Ballard. I even saw one commenter make fun of Brown by saying, "well, Ballard seems to be able to perform behind this bad OL!"  This commenter later followed the chief lemming off the cliff. More on that later.

I like Vick Ballard. I think he deserves an opportunity to win the starting job next off-season. Please don't take anything I'm about to say as some sort of personal attack against Vick Ballard, these are stats and facts, those are, by nature, emotionless.

Vick Ballard has gained 3.8ypc. He's gained 9.5 yards-per-catch, catching 15 of 22 targets. He has 1 rushing TD on the year. He has 2 fumbles.

Donald Brown gained 3.9ypc. He gained 10.3 yards-per-catch, catching 9 of 13 targets. He had 1 rushing TD on the year. He had 0 fumbles. Brown was also able to come back from a knee injury after missing only 2 weeks. He played, and performed well, while below 100% (After returning in week 8, Brown was on the injury report for his knee injury every week).

If Brown was bad this year, what does that make Ballard?

And if Brown has consistenty underperformed his draft position, what is Fleener doing?

Donald Brown is a good player whose Indianapolis Career will be defined both by a backlash towards the man who drafted him and the everlasting sound of "God Damn it, Donald". He deserves better. I hope he finds it wherever he plays next year.

Prediction

Texans – 34, Colts -13

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