Eyes in the Backfield: Texans

12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts Texans Game

This is the scariest thing you'll see all year.

Last week, the Colts fell down on the road against the Bengals. This week, they get a visit from the worst team in football, the Houston Texans. Oddly enough, that fact does little to quell the nervousness that is percolating around the city. The Colts haven't been playing good football in awhile, but they have a chance to right the ship. Here's what to watch for…

1. Watch the rhythm. With playoff seeding all but locked up, Indy has a chance to experiment over the final three games. The offense has moved in fits and spurts for a gaggle of fortnights now. Gaggle, of course, being the official herd designation for the wild fortnight. Fortnights in captivity are called a quell. The great thing about things that don't matter is that you can be creative and make them into whatever you want. That's the joy of creativity and of locking up your playoff spot with three weeks to go in the season. If the Colts want to treat these games like preseason affairs to get Da'Rick Rodgers and LaVon Brazill integrated into the offense, they can with little fear of repercussion. Or they could just hand the ball off a bunch. Either way.

2. Watch the watching. When the Texans parted ways with Gary Kubiak, part of the issue was his dogged insistence on playing Matt Schaub over Case Keenum. Of course, just 18 months ago, the Texans gave Schaub a huge extension, but Rick Smith has decided he's done. Now, Schaub may well be washed up, but Keenum is not a starting-caliber quarterback. For whatever reason, the Texans are dead set on watching him for a few games to see. So in the mean time, they keep losing games, and we can watch the watching.

3. Watch the irony. The Texans have never won in Indianapolis. In 2011, arguably their all-time best team lost to the Colts worst team in 15 years. Now, one of the worst Texans teams ever comes in to play a playoff-bound Colts team, and everyone is a little nervous. For reasons I can't fully articulate, keeping the streak of Houston losses in Indy feels like a big deal. There's nothing better than an aura of invincibility around your home field when it comes to playing a division rival.

4. Watch the Ring. Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson will go into the Ring of Honor at half time of the game. I've said it before, but I still think Bill Polian's biggest mistake was not keeping Faulk and dealing the Edge James pick for the New Orleans haul, bringing Champ Bailey to the Indy defense. Faulk was one of the great players I've ever seen. Dickerson for all his a-holishness was certainly dominant in his first few seasons in blue. Two of the ten best running backs in history (and you could argue two of the five best) are going to be in town Sunday. Watch them.

5. Watch the mismatch. Andre Johnson owns Vontae Davis the way I own DVD and VHF copies of UHF. That is to say, they are among my most cherished possessions, and I wear them out through constant use. Davis has been soundly abused by Johnson in their recent matchups, so look for the Colts to come up with some other way to limit him. If he's not doubled on every snap, he will break loose and punish them deep.

6. Watch the non-controversy. The last time I did an Eyes on the Texans, people took umbridge that I declared J.J. Watt the best defender since Lawrence Taylor. That chart at the top of the page? That's J.J. Watt's game chart. See how the bar graphs actually break through the top of the graph? Yeah. That's how good he is. He's equally good against the run and the pass. To put his grade in perspective, he's like three times higher than Peyton Manning. He's a freak. The Colts can't block him. Their only hope is to try and Andrew Luck out alive. So to everyone who questioned my statement before: shut it. He's awesome.

7. Watch the celebration. Robert Mathis needs 1.5 sacks to break Dwight Freeney's franchise record. He's getting there on Sunday. WIth three more sacks, he'll leap into the top 20 all time. He needs two more Pro Bowl-level seasons to make it into Hall of Fame range. 130 sacks and six Pro Bowls will likely be enough. Of course, Defensive Player of the Year award would help. He'll need five or six sacks over the final three games to get that, though.

8. Watch for tremors. Let's not pretend all is well over at West 56th. I'm not telling tales out of school to say that Mr. Irsay looks unhealthy. Given his bold statements after a loss to Buffalo in the preseason, there's no way he's all copacetic with the Colts dumping games in December. If the Colts were to lose to Houston, play poorly in the final two games AND drop a playoff game in embarrassing fashion…It has to be at least possible that he reacts, well, "decisively". I'm not saying there will be changes. I'm not entirely sure there should be at this point. I'm just saying that an 8-8 finish and a bad loss in the playoffs will not sit well. That's all. In that scenario, no one should feel safe that they'll have a job next year.

9. Watch for the Grim Reaper. Wade Phillips is the angel of death for a head coach. He's taken over jobs from his dad, Dan Reeves, and now Gary Kubiak. If you want to be sure to get fired half-way through the season, bring in Wade. Little known fact, he was originally Vice President of the US for a brief time back in 1997, but Bill Clinton replaced him with Al Gore just before the impeachment hearings. Needless to say, he managed to stay in office. After a brief stint in Atlanta, he moved to Baghdad to set up defenses for Iraq in the months preceding the US invasion. Per his typical M.O. he got troop performance up temporarily, then they all folded and Sadaam lost power. There is no truth to the rumor that he's being considered for the defensive coordinator job for the Colts next.

10. Watch the scramble. The Colts most effective offensive weapon is Andrew Luck running with the football. It's also their most terrifying. Luck has taken an absolutely beating in the pocket this year, so as much as no one wants to see him taking on linebackers in the open field, at least then he'll have a chance to avoid a hit or two. As the playoffs approach, look for the Colts to move the pocket and get Luck loose at little. Nothing can be worse than letting sit back and get blasted.

11. Watch for too little, too late. The Texans waited and waited to draft a second receiver to pair with Andre Johnson. When they finally landed DeAndre Hopkins, they did well enough. The rookie is having a nice enough year, and with a strong closing kick could even challenge the 1,000 yard mark. It really does make you wonder what would have happened in 2012, however, had they taken Alshon Jeffery in the first round. They instead went for Whitney Mercilus who has been a bit of a liability. His six sacks don't betray how much he's struggled to generate a consistent rush on the passer. Jeffery, meanwhile is already over 1,100 yards receiving and looks like the next be star. In the mean time, Matt Schaub's confidence is gone, and the team is stuck with Case Keenum. Wide out was the biggest need in 2012, and the team ignored it to their own peril. It's a cautionary tale to be sure.

12. Watch for relief. I've gone back and forth on this game. That really tells you all you need to know. The Colts can't be counted on to beat the worst team in football in Indianapolis. Yes, things really are that bad. Still, I can't bring myself to imagine the Texans celebrating on Indy's homefield. Colts 23 Texans 20

Eyes in the Backfield: Texans

12 Things to Watch for in Sunday's Colts-Texans Game

What does this have to do with anything?

It has been a couple of weeks since the Colts stunned the world with a brilliant win over the Broncos, and the NFL is going to make us wait just a few extra hours for their return. They return to prime time with a key divisional matchup against the Houston Texans. Here's what to watch for.

1. Watch for the Case. In one of the worst coaching moves in recent history, Gary Kubiak has decided to go with Case Keenum as his starting quarterback over an ostensibly healthy Matt Schaub. It's a total panic move and evidence that Kubiak is shaky coach at best. 14 months ago, the Texans invested ridiculous money in Schaub. Since last Thanksgiving, he's inexplicably become terrible. An injury opened the door for Keenum, and something in his play convinced the head coach to start him against the Colts. What that is, I have no idea. In the second half of the game, he completed six passes and took five sacks. His raw numbers weren't bad against Kansas City, but they were also inflated by a few long gains on short passes. Six of his completions went for more than 25 yards each and made up 201 of his 277 yards passing.  There's no indication that he's the present or the future of anything. Starting Keenum is a complete panic move by Kubiak and illustrates that the 2013 Texans are going nowhere.

2. Watch for the birthright. With only brief interruptions, the Colts have dominated the AFC South since its inception, winning seven of 11 possible titles. For the last two seasons the Texans have hung the banner. However with their cap situation bleak once again, and injuries mounting to key players, the Colts can reclaim the title. The Texans were Super Bowl contenders as late as Week 17 of last year, but the window has slammed shut. Houston has an aging roster, cap concerns, instability at quarterback and an increasingly disgruntled fan base. This is a good test for a young Colts team looking to build credibility. Beating Seattle, San Francisco and Denver was awesome, but when you can go on the road in the division and stomp the life out of the defending champion's season, that's when you know you've arrived in the NFL.

3. Watch the best defensive player of your lifetime. If you were born after 1990, J.J. Watt is the best defensive player of your lifetime. Lawrence Taylor, the best defender of my lifetime, had his final Pro Bowl season in 1990. Since then several players have been great, but Watt is an unprecedented force. He is simultaneously the best run defender and the best pass defender in football. Last season, he destroyed the Colts' offensive line in the first game, though they played better in the second. Whether you like the classic eye test or are more statistically inclined, Watt is just a freak of nature. PFF grades him at +44.5. How good is that? Peyton Manning gets a +22.3. That's how good he is. No matter how good you think he is, he's better.

4. Watch the force to be reckoned with. Andre Johnson has 1,275 yards in his career against the Colts in 17 games. It feels like double that. Just last year alone he put up 292 yards and 23 catches in the two contests. In the first game against Houston, he put a complete clown suit on Vontae Davis. Injuries and playing for a bad team have kept fans from realizing how great this guy is, but his best career comp is Larry Fitzgerald. Davis has been stellar this year, but taking down Johnson will be a new level of accomplishment.

5. Watch the big question. I've saved this one for point five because you all knew it was coming. What are the Colts going to do without Reggie Wayne? It has been the primary discussion point for two weeks now, so I'm not going to belabor it here. The Colts will win the division without Wayne. They could win 12 games this year without Wayne in half of them. They aren't going far in the playoffs, however, unless they figure out a way to generate his production from the passing game. The fact is that by not taking a wideout in the first round this year, the front office left the team vulnerable. The Colts knew that Wayne couldn't play forever, and not only did they ignore the position in the draft, but they traded away their best hope to get one in the next draft for a running back. So the future has become the present, and the coaching staff had better come up with answer quick.

6. Watch the run-based offense. No, for once I'm not talking about the Colts. I'm talking about their philosophical Doppelganger the Texans. Houston's run-based attack relies heavily on two players who are seriously compromised. Arian Foster has spent all week nursing a hamstring and Ben Tate has cracked ribs. Both are going to be late, even game-time, decisions. Houston offense is similar to Indy's in the passing routes, but their run blocking scheme is totally different, depending on a zone technique. It hasn't been good this year in general, so that's a plus for an Indy defense that still doesn't stop the run well.

7. Watch the whiniest fans in the division. Texans fans are the most oversensitive fans I dealt with in my time covering the AFC. Jaguars fans are insular and defensive, though it's hard to blame them. Titans fans were the most pessimistic. Indy fans were by far the most irrationally exuberant about their team. But no one topped the Texans fans' ability to take offense at anything remotely negative about their squad. At first I thought it was just me, but then watching the way they turned on Schaub, I suspect it's a weird Texas thing. Houston fans have unreasonable expectations for their team. They don't take kindly to anyone pointing out real flaws. Then they freak when it turns out the squad isn't quite as good as they thought. I found our interactions distasteful. Now I have to put in the obligatory disclaimer that not all fans are any one way and there are all types of people and this is just a broad generalization blah blah blah. You'd think all that would be obvious. Then why do I have to say that? Because I've dealt with Texans fans before.

8. Watch for the judgment. I've been a little critical of the Trent Richardson trade. I admit it. No, the early returns haven't been good. Still, after the bye week, he's had six weeks with the team. That's longer than training camp and the preseason. Whatever he's going to be for the Colts in 2013, he's going to be starting now. There can be no more excuses about how "he doesn't know the offense". He's had time. Even his biggest defenders have to grant that by now we should begin to see "the real Trent Richardson". Personally, I don't feel comfortable entering 2014 with Richardson as the starting running back. I don't think he's a quality player. He's got nine games to prove me wrong. A fair standard of production would be 585 yards and a 4.0 YPC, a success rate of 50 percent and a zero DVOA. Those aren't fantastic numbers, but they would assuage my worst fears.

9. Watch for the soft gooey middle. Remember the brutal mid-season stretch that would make or break the Colts? Well, the Colts aren't quite through gauntlet yet, but suddenly things look a lot softer schedule-wise. Not only are the Texans potentially terrible, but Indy has the easiest schedule in football over the final nine weeks.There are a lot of games like this Houston game against teams that the Colts should be able to take, assuming they really are one of the best teams in the NFL. Remember the Manning-era Colts: the wins over the weaker teams don't always have to be pretty, but as long as they win, all is well. It would be nice to see the Colts play dominant football, but this is a young team that has to learn to keep focus and take care of business week in and week out. There is no reason they should finish with fewer than 11 wins at this point.

10. Watch for Battle Red Day Presented by Halliburton. Presented without comment. Ok, one comment: I always try to throw a joke or two into Eyes in the Backfield, right? Well, I couldn't write a Houston joke better than that one. Oh, and to explain the picture above… I find Case Keenum's name impossible to deal with. It's a cross between Stoney Case and Kasey Kasem. All I can remember about it is that it's Case or Casey or brief case. I think "Houston's QB" and all that comes to mind is a detective. But not a real detective like Sherlock Holmes. No, more of a folksy wise-cracking down home guy like Jim Rockford. I hear Case Keeneum and my mind goes blank, flooded with the theme song of the Rockford Files. Gotta tell you, it's not entirely unpleasant. I hope he keeps the job for years to come. Now if you'll excuse me..whee woo, wee woo wee-ee–ee-ooo…

11. Watch the watch. With Andrew Luck vaulting up the MVP charts after Indy's big win, keep in mind the Colts play a brutal run of pass defenses down the stretch. Luck may yet win big hardware before his career is over, but his MVP odds are basically nil for 2013. This is the opposite of 2008 when eight weeks in, people laughed at the idea that Peyton Manning could win the MVP. You could see it coming a mile away, however, because of who the Colts were playing. The 2013 Colts will win a lot of games, but without Wayne, there's little chance Luck puts up the big numbers necessary to get the prize.

12. Watch for the stranglehold. This game has "San Diego debacle" written all over it. This feels like the kind of game the Colts should lose if Houston has any life in them at all. My head says the Colts are the better team by a wide margin. My heart senses danger. My head goes back to point one and picks Indianapolis. Colts 19 Texans 13

Eyes in the Backfield: Texans

12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-Texans Game

They don't so much "parade" as much as they "stand around waiting for J.J. Watt to do something."

Last week the Colts pulled off their ninth win of the season. As a result they are right back in the hunt for a division title. All it will take is three more wins, two of which have to come against the team with the best record in the NFL. So you know, no big thing. Here's watch to watch for this week.

1. Watch for a beating. Andrew Luck has been taking a pounding in recent weeks as the health and consistency of the offensive line has gradually deteriorated. At this points, it's a wonder when Luck goes an entire series without taking a big hit. This game is going to come down to Indy's ability to manage J.J. Watt off the right side of the Colts' line. To say the right side is being held together with bailing wire and chewing gum would be an insult to Bazooka Joe himself. Keeping Luck upright is key, and frankly I have no answers for how they are going to do it.

2. Watch the hamstring. Johnathan Joseph is not overrated, but you'd think he was if you saw the Texans' losses to the Packers and Patriots. Joseph is elite when healthy, but in both prime time beatings, he was hobbble with groin and hamstring injuries. Any corner is going to have a difficult time if his legs aren't right. His health is a big key for the Texans going forward. If he's not right, that pass defense has serious issues.

3. Watch for the uniforms. The Texans want to own the division and nothing about the Colts' sudden resurgence makes them feel good. They used to roll out the Battle Red uniforms as a way to fire up fans for this occasion but times have changed. This year they will take the field in their normal gameday attire. I'm not prone to buy into superstition but given the importance of this game they may have wished to save Battle Red Day for a game with huge playoff implications.

4. Watch for early Christmas presents. The Colts aren't exactly a team likely to win the turnover battle, especially on the road. In five of their six road games so far they've turned the ball over multiple times. This starts with protecting Luck and requires the team to stay close until the end. Otherwise Santa might have to appoint Andrew Luck his "special helper" for being so generous.

5. Watch for the unlikely band of heroes. It would be nice to believe the Indianapolis Hobbits could simply walk into Mordor and win. Actaully, Houston is more like the dead marshes. No, the fact is that if Peter Jackson has taught us anything, it's that even magical creatures are no match for a badass sword. The Colts have the magic, but the Texans are swinging the big steel. The Colts have been remarkably consistent at taking down Gollum-sized foes. The Texans are more Troll sized. In Indy's favor is that they stayed up late recently having an inane conversation with the Pats, so who knows? Maybe they'll turn to stone in the daylight.

6. Watch for Avery. The Texans are pretty good against everybody in the receiving department EXCEPT #2 wide receivers. Of course, I'm not sure how Reggie Wayne lining up wherever the heck he wants fits in with that. Nevertheless, the Colts are going to need a big day through the air to keep this one close. In order for that to happen, they'll need Donnie Avery to take advantage of opportunities to make plays down the field, instead of dropping perfect throws in the endzone. 

7. Watch for tension. The Texans fans have been irrationally exuberant about their team all season. After a big loss, they are justifiably shaken up. Should the Colts hang close, the crowd will start to get restless. They've already gotten uncomfortable several times this season during games in which they felt the team should be playing better. There's a lot of pressure on the Texans, and if the Colts keep it close, that could break hard in Indianapolis's favor.

8. Watch for earned money. I've been hard on Vontae Davis all year, because despite some obvious talent, his actual production has been mediocre at best. He's probably no better than the second or third best corner on a good defense, but he's all Indy has right now. He has to take on Andre Johnson, at least when Johnson lines up on his side of the field this week. Johnson is the Texans' passing offense, so if Davis can contain him, he'll have gone a long way to proving he was worth the price he paid. If the Texans keep Johnson away from Davis, and he locks down Kevin Walter, fans will praise Davis, but it won't be deserved.

9. Watch for Wade Philips. The Texans haven't been the kind of dominating defense that strikes fear in hearts but they're very good, certainly among the best three or four in the league. They don't have many weaknesses. They're great at getting off the field, allowing conversion on less than one-third of all attempts. They're not great in the red zone nor against the run in 3rd-and-short scenarios. Overall they're the kind of defense that keeps their regressing offense in games, giving them a chance to get the ball back and explode. If Luck finds success against this defense the Texans should not only fear losing the division but question their hopes at winning a title.

10. Watch for the hangover.  Yes, this applies to a Houston team that played on Monday night and was beaten up pretty bad. But it also applies to the Colts, who have managed to pull off two unlikely comebacks in a row. Now they travel to Houston to play a team that is leagues better on paper, and they play them on the road, where Andrew Luck, and the entire team, has struggled all season. 

11. Watch for more improvement. Vick Ballard wasn't particularly impressive to start the year, but has come into his own during the last two weeks. The Colts need to establish some sort of threat on the ground if they don't want Andrew Luck to lose a limb, and Ballard is the only option right now with the other healthy running backs including Deji Kareem and Mewelde Moore. Ballard has improved week-to-week this year, and it will be interesting to see what he can do against a good defense (No, I do not count Detroit and Tennessee as good). 

12. Watch for the prequel. Prequels are big business at the box office, but they often fail to live up to the grandeur of the main story. After all, if the prequel story was all that interesting, someone would have have told it first. The Colts and Texans will likely have some epic battles in the coming year, but this one has a definite Epsiode 1 feel about it. Houston 35 Colts 17

Eyes in the Backfield-Texans

6 Things To Watch For In Thursday’s Colts Texans Game

Time to say farewell to some great Colts.

Last week, the Colts finally broke through with a win. This week, they take on division rivals the Texans in the final home game of the year. Here’s what to watch for tonight…

1. Watch for tears. There is potentially a long list of Colts greats playing their final home game in blue tonight. Whether that list stops with Reggie Wayne and Gary Brackett, I don’t know, but the odds are strong that Dallas Clark, Manning, Brackett, Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis, and even Dwight Freeney may not be back in 2012. It’s going to be an emotional night, even if Reggie is the only Colt to go (and that seems inevitable at this point). Head out to the Luke tonight. Tickets are cheap, and you may not get another chance to see some of these men in blue and white until their Ring of Honor ceremonies.

2. Watch for nonsense. I’ll take the bait. Kravitz wrote calling for the dismissal of the Polians today. This is from the same guy who called not playing Dan Orlovsky “tanking”. Kravitz’s piece contains phrases like, “The record this year hasn’t been kind. The numbers are there. The mistakes are manifold. We don’t really have to lay them all out here, do we?”. In other words, if I don’t actually point to specifics but talk in generalities, it looks like I have a case. Mostly, his piece is filled with innuendo and complaints about how the team deals with the media. He tries to tie it all in with Caldwell and the coaching staff, who are unquestionably a big part of the problem. He asks who would want to come and work in Indianapolis, and I would point to someone like Jeff Fisher who would be a massive improvement over Kravitz’s suggestion of Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. In the end, there was nothing new to see here. Just the same old stuff repackaged in a new disguise.

3. Watch the division winners. The Texans have had an incredible defensive turnaround this season under Wade Phillips. The good news is they won the AFC South. The bad for them is that they may not win another game this year, and the ‘Wade effect’ basically vanishes after a year. The Texans won their first three games with T.J. Yates, but as their own injuries pile up, some of that magic is likely to wear off. I think the Texans have hit their peak, and will finish 10-6 before losing in the first round of the playoffs.

4. Watch for No O. Dan Orlvosky didn’t throw a pass after the 9 minute mark of the 3rd quarter on Sunday, and that’s exactly why the Colts won. He was terrible in the first half, managing just one first down throw (which Garcon fumbled away), and spraying the ball all over the place. Once the Colts took the lead, they went to the offense I’ve been begging for since week 1: they just ran the ball. The fewer times Orlovsky throws, the better it is for the Colts. The coaching staff’s inability to mask the horrid play of the QBs this year has been the single biggest fail possible. Instead of hiding Collins, Painter, and Orlovsky, the Colts coaches put them on full display 30-40 times a game. It looks like they’ve finally learned their lesson. Too little. Too late.

5. Watch the improvement. The Colts defense has looked more coherent in the last couple of games, and when you look at the numbers even for the season, you see some interesting things. By DVOA, the Colts defense is just about on par with the Patriots defense. Hardly suprirsing, but look who else is in the bottom 8. The Packers. The Saints. The Colts method of building an entire team around the quarterback is being mimiced around the league. Those teams have amazing offenses, but almost no defense. The fact is that for all the Colts defensive problems this year, they aren’t that much worse than some of the major Super Bowl contenders this year. They lack a playmaker in the secondary, but over all getting rid of Larry Coyer was the first step toward repairing what should have merely been a bad defense, not a ‘worst defense in the leauge’ defense.

6. Watch for angst. I think the Colts win tonight and get people seriously worried about the #1 overall pick, as they should be. I actually think Indy will win the final three games and wind up with the #3 overall pick. I think now that the coaches have figured out that they need to run and do it with Don Brown, the corner will be turned. The whole narrative on this season is about to change. Colts 17 Texans 7.

Eyes in the Backfield-Texans

5 Things to Watch for During Sunday’s Colts/Texans Game

Manning? Manning?

The new year of Eyes in the Backfield kicks off today, and a familiar face is absent from the Colts roll call. Even without Peyton, the boys in blue still have horseshoes on their helmets, and that means I’ll be there cheering them on. This Sunday, the Colts take on division rival Houston with Kerry Collins taking snaps. What can fans expect from Collins? Make sure that you keep your eyes on these things:

1. Watch the protection. The Colts line is facing one of the league’s best pass rushers in Mario Williams. Meanwhile, they’ve switched from protecting the never-sacked Peyton Manning to the oft-sacked Kerry Collins. Keeping Collins upright will be a challenge. I’m not saying Collins is a statue, but his middle name is David*. The Colts can try and protect Collins by limiting his throws and keeping two tight ends in the game. In fact, the Colts offense takes on a fascinating dynamic when Tamme and Clark play together. It’s entirely possible that the two of them together could create matchup difficulty for the Texans defense while also affording an extra blocker to stymie the Texans pass rush. If the Colts can keep Collins from taking more than a sack or two, they may be able to keep the game close.

*Ok, it’s Michael, but that’s not nearly as good a line, so I lied. On the bright side, I made you picture Kerry Collins naked**, so you’re welcome. 

**Ok, so you didn’t picture Collins naked when I called him David, but you did once I mentioned it. Gotch ya’.


2. Watch the ground and pound. We know Houston will run the ball on Indy, but the Colts will look to do the same to the Texans. The Colts obviously want to limit Collins’ throws seeing as how he has only been running the offense for two weeks. That means plenty of Joe Addai and Delone Carter. Addai always has excellent games against his hometown team. In 9 games against Houston, Addai has averaged 70 yards a game, 4.6 yards a carry, 3 catches, and 1 TD a game. With the defensive changes the Texans have undergone, the Colts could choose to pound the ball right at Mario Williams. Williams is a good run player, but will be working out of a new position in Wade Phillips defense. The Texans have a lot of tape on the Colts, but probably nothing could prepare them for a smash-mouth attack. Of course, that strategy might work a little better if the Colts had actually practiced it during the preseason.

3. Watch for ball security. The Texans enter this game as heavy favorites, not only on Sunday but to take the AFC South crown for the first time. In all honestly, they are likely the better team. One of the best ways for a superior football team to blow a game is turnovers. The Colts defense was awful in forcing turnovers in 2010 (28th in NFL). The best player suiting up for Indy on Sunday is Dwight Freeney. If there is anyone who can alter the course of a game it’s Freeney and Mathis. Houston did turn the ball over 3 times in last year’s games, but was excellent on the season finishing fourth in fewest turnovers (2nd in lost fumbles). The Colts cannot win a straight fight with the Texans offense. They are going to have generate short fields and defensive scores. Look for the Texans to protect the football, knowing that a conservative game plan against the Colts could well pay off.

4. Watch for nervous expectation. The Texans have a short, but wonderful history of choking against the Colts. Now they get to open the season knowing that if they put Indy down 14 points, the Colts aren’t going to come roaring back. Houston has had many second half leads against Indy, but only twice have they ever posted a victory. Head coach Gary Kubiak knows that if his team can’t win the division this year, he’ll never coach again in the NFL. The Texans’ fans know this is a game they should win, and win handily. They are likely to be exuberant if the Texans jump off to an early lead, but if the Colts can somehow hang around, the Texans might crack. This is an absolute must-win for Houston, and all the pressure is on them.

If only emotion made any difference. If only choking was something I even believed in.

5. Watch for a blowout. I love the Colts. I will root hard for them. Kerry Collins on two weeks prep behind a makeshift offensive line is not my idea of a winning formula, however. Houston 38 Indianapolis 10.

Eyes in the Backfield-Texans

18 Things to Watch in Sunday’s Colts/Texans Game

How scary could any team be that is quarterbacked by this?

Eyes in the Backfield is back for a record fourth season.  Each week, we’ll bring you 18 things to keep an eye on during the upcoming game.  This week, the Colts take on the Houston Texans who are vying to take the AFC South Crown away from the champs.  As you tune in, be sure to watch for:

1. Watch the starting LINEup. We have no idea what the Colts’ line is going to look like on Sunday.  If Saturday and CJ play, the line should look mostly familiar.  However, CJ has been gimpy all week, and while Saturday might be sandbagging, we can’t be sure what kind of shape he’ll be in.  Peyton could be running for his life.  He’s slow, too.  That doesn’t bode well for his life.

2. Watch for two tight ends. When the Colts won it all in 2006, they primarily used two tight ends.  The problem is that they’ve been searching for a good fit at second TE ever since.  Brody Eldrige would seem to be that guy.  Given the uncertainty around the line, it’s quite possible that the Colts will line Eldrige up by the left tackle to help with both run and pass blocking.  This could be a VERY good thing.

3. Watch for fumbled punts. There’ve been a lot of questions this week about the Colts’ plan to have Gonzo field punts.  Frankly no one is sure how it will work out.  He could be dynamic, but if he turns one over fingers will have to be pointed at the Colts’ coaching staff who never asked him to return a kick in the preseason.

4. Watch for answers. Speaking of Gonzo, we are all wondering how the Colts will use him.  We can pretty safely bet he’s not the second receiver right now, but could he be the third?  Will the Colts run four wide?  Will they run two TE so much that the slot rarely sees the field?  Answers are coming on Sunday, we hope.

5.  Watch for the best wideout in football.  For my money, Andre Johnson is the best wideout in the game right now.  He is big and physical and impossible to cover.  I’ve seen the Colts blanket him, and he still made a ton of catches.  He’s led the NFL in receiving the last two years.  Just because he has a big game, it doesn’t mean the secondary didn’t do its job.  He’s just that good.

6. Watch for the Zombie. Bob is back.  I’m just giddy about it.  Someone is going to get lit up.  Seriously though, Sanders gives the Colts big play potential out the secondary.  That’s something that is missing when he doesn’t play.  He’s going to do something to help change the game for the Colts.

7. Watch the pocket.  The consequence of having a patchwork line is that Peyton will have to move a lot.  My favorite play is when the pressure comes from the outside, but Saturday clears out the middle giving Peyton a place to step up.  It always seems like something good happens.  As long as only one lineman screws up per play, Peyton can usually figure something out.  If two blow it on the same play, down goes Manning.  The only way to stop either QB in this game is to get pressure, so the pocket will be the key.

8. Watch the blitz.  Last year, the Colts were among the least blitzing teams in football, and mostly saved their blitzes for inside the red zone (a strategy I endorse).  Now, with Bob Sanders back, Larry Coyer has yet another rushing option available to him.  You all know I’m not a blitz lover, but Sanders charging Matt Schaub would be delightful.  Let’s just keep Gary Brackett back in coverage, please.

9.  Watch for “all in”.  The Texans have built everything this season on this game with the Colts.  They know that if they are ever going to be seen as a legitimate power in the AFC, they’ll have to beat the Colts.  This is their chance.  If they can pop the Colts in the mouth early, Indy could be playing catch-up for several weeks.  The Colts know it’s a marathon not a sprint.  If they lose, they’ll be ok. If the Texans lose, you have to wonder how they bounce back.

10.  Watch for the unanswered points.  The last several games at Houston have had wild swings.  In each of the last two games, the teams went on scoring binges.  Two years ago, the Colts ripped off 10 points, followed by a barrage of scoring from the Texans.  The Colts then posted three touchdowns in the final few minutes to steal the win.  Last year saw the Texans get up big before the Colts finally responded.  No lead is safe on Sunday for either team.

11.  Watch for recycled jokes.  Luke and I have been doing Eyes for four years.  With the division teams, it’s getting hard to come up with original snarky things to say about them.  Of course, in looking over past entries, I realize I’ve rarely joke about the Texans at all.  Hmmm.  Maybe if they ever do anything important I’ll find a way to mock them.

12. Watch for Dierdorf. It’s been more than 20 years since thousands of Colts’ fans donned his mask on October 31st, 1988, but he’s still going strong.  Just make sure that if you are playing the “football cliche drinking game” with Dan-o doing color that you bookmark 18to88.com.  You’ll need to check the page once you finally wake up from your stupor so you can find out who won.

13.  Watch the owner of the Houston Texans.  His name is not Bob McNair, it’s Peyton Manning. There are some cities where Manning is not respected.  They hate him in Boston.  The revile him in Jacksonville.  In Houston, the only name they call him is “Daddy”.  Manning has led the Colts to 15 wins in 16 games against the Texans, and he’s thrown more touchdowns against them than David Carr had for them. Well not really.  But it’s close (59 to 37).

14.  Watch Cushing’s replacement.  The Texans Rookie of the Year linebacker won’t be playing on Sunday.  He’s too busy being suspended.  They’ll go with second year man Xavier Adibibi.  Cushing was the heart and soul of the Texans defense last year, though the Texans linebackers had fits trying to cover Dallas Clark who had two massive games.

15.  Watch the rookie. Charlie Johnson is listed as questionable, which means that undrafted rookie Jeff Linkenbach could get the start.  While this is cause for concern, the truth is that it could be a blessing in disguise.  Not only is CJ not an elite left tackle, he may be one of the five worst left tackles in the NFL.  Maybe giving someone else a shot couldn’t hurt.  Then again, an undrafted rookie trying to protect Manning from Mario Williams is basically the plot of my worst nightmare.

16.  Watch the snap. There are two reasons for this.  First is that Saturday may or may not play. The second is because it will be our first chance to see Manning interact with the new official placement rules since the debacle in Green Bay.  Manning usually gets a key first down a game by quick snapping, so if the official doesn’t get in position quickly, it could cost the Colts five yards instead of giving them five.  In a close game, that could be the difference.

17.  Watch the deep ball. Pierre Garcon’s real value in the Colts’ offense is as a deep threat.  However, if the line is in shambles and Manning doesn’t have the time to look long, will Garcon still be productive at other depths?  In the end, the health of the line could end up affecting which wideout best fits the Colts offense.  The long ball is an important weapon, but only if you have time to throw it.

18.  Watch for a bad start. I’ve gone back and forth on this game for months.  When the schedule first came out, I had it as a loss for the Colts.  As little as a week ago, I felt confident about Indy’s ability to dominate.  Now, with so much uncertainty on the line, I have no faith in the Indy offense.  I think the Texans squeak out a close, low scoring game 17-13 as the offense struggles to sustain drives.

Eyes in the Backfield-Texans (full)

18 Things to watch for during Sunday’s Colts/Texans game

The Horse has been unkind to the Texans

Last week’s game was closer than we would have guessed, but a win is a win.  This week the Colts face a stiff test from division rival Houston.  The Texans come in hot, having won three in a row and four out of five games.  With two games still left to play with the Texans, Houston could jump back into the division race with an upset in Indy.  That makes this Sunday’s game a monster.  Be watching for:

1.  Watch for a flip flop.  Matt Schaub has 115 more yards and one more TD on the year than Peyton Manning (in one more game).  Schaub’s health this season is a major reason the Texans have a winning record.  His play has been stellar since week one.  Still, expect 18 to close those gaps this week and top Schaub in both categories as FO has the Texans at 27th in pass defense and Indy at 5th.

2.  Watch for the After-MASH.  We know that Indy had a brutal week injury-wise, but note that the Colts didn’t lose anyone nearly as important as the Texans did.  The loss of Owen Daniels to the Texans offense is devastating.  To put it in context, he has more catches and touchdowns than Dallas Clark on the season.  Having to replace his production from one week to the next is a tall order for Houston. Indy, on the other hand, only has to replace one ‘new’ player this week, Tyjuan Hagler.  All the Colts’ other injuries have been lingering all season.  The team that replaces its parts best will have the edge in this one.

3.  Watch for confusion. The Texans have no idea who their running back is.  Steve Slaton was the RB de jour around fantasy leagues before the season started, but Gary Kubiak has tried everything to replace him. Of course a 3.1 YPC and 7 fumbles certainly provided him with good motivation to do so. First he relied on Chris Brown, but he wasn’t much better at running or hanging on to the football.  Last week Ryan Moats jumped up with a big game against the Buffalo run defense (32nd in the NFL per FO).  Kubiak is rumored to want to split carries, but until someone proves himself, anything is possible.

4.  Watch the best WRs in the game.  Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne will make the top four of any list of best WRs you can find right now.  Johnson is a big, physical player who tortured the Colts in Houston last year to the tune of 9 catches 131 yards and a TD (against pretty good coverage).  Reggie Wayne has elevated his game to an incredible level.  If you like flanker play, these two are as good as it gets.  Considering that they are one and two in the NFL in yards and represent around 30% of their team’s passing offense, it’s a good bet that whoever comes out on top in this matchup will be on the winning side.

5.  Watch for the wild card. The Texans have a prolific passing offense, a suspect defense, no running game, and a white hot QB.  Despite their five wins, there are serious questions as to how good this team really is.  The Texans’ remaining schedule is all over the board.  They have the Titans, Seahawks, Jags, and Rams, but also play Indy twice and New England.  This team probably needs to split with Indy to get to ten wins and jump into the wild card hunt.  This game couldn’t be any bigger for the Titans.

6.  Watch for a reversal of fortunes.  When last they met, Mario Williams destroyed Charlie Johnson on his way to 12 sacks and a Pro Bowl.  CJ was on his way to left guard.  Now, more than a year later, Williams is struggling to get to the opposing QB (only 3 sacks in 8 games), and Johnson is firmly entrenched as the left tackle.  This is a major test for Johnson.  Williams made him look totally out of place in Houston last year, and if CJ can hold his own on Sunday, whatever lingering doubts about his ability to protect Manning will have been answered.

7. Watch for slippage.  Whenever there are injuries the first place you notice is on the coverage units.  The Colts have been excellent covering kicks and punts (thank you very much, Pat McAfee) coming in at 3rd and 8th in the league (via FO).  The Texans have had a good return game this year (6th in the league) with Jacoby Jones post good numbers and a touchdown.  Don’t be surprised to see a long return on Sunday and remember that it’s the natural consequence of injuries to the defense.

8.  Watch the upright. Last week Matt Stover went 4-4 on field goals, but a couple just barely slid home.  Glass half full says, “He hit four field goals!”.  Glass half empty says, “yeah, but the longest was only 40 yards, and a couple just barely went through”.  Stover got the job done, but did nothing to inspire great confidence with his performance.  He need to keep hitting the short kicks, because at his age, he’s unlikely to redeem himself by hitting a long one.

9.  Watch the outlet pass. One of the big reasons the Colts’ offense suffered last week was that Joseph Addai had to stay in the whole game to block.  That takes a big weapon away from Manning.  The Colts have to protect Manning with the front 5 so as to allow Clark and Addai the freedom to go out into patterns.  If Addai has to spend most of his day blocking, the Colts may well struggle to put up 20 points.

10.  Watch right guard. Mike Pollack was a mess in pass protection last week, giving up two huge sacks.  Kyle DeVan rotated in and looked bad on a key run play.  The position has been a problem for the Colts ever since Jake Scott left, and you have to believe that Howard Mudd has been giving it his full attention.  The Colts need to find a permanent answer at the position to stabilize the line.  So far, neither player has laid claim to the spot.

11.  Watch for the burst.  Don Brown will hopefully be back from a shoulder injury this week.  He did show up on the injury report yesterday, but everyone is expecting him to play.  The Colts need Brown to be healthy and contribute.  Two back offenses are better than one back Os, and not having Brown on the field puts Addai at greater risk of injury.  Brown adds a quick strike dimension to the offense that is crucial, and his return should signal more points.

12.  Watch the deep ball.  Manning looked long a lot last week with little success.  The Colts’ struggle to run the ball, which makes scoring via long distance all the more important.  Look for Peyton to hit at least two passes of 30 yards or more (in the air) this week.  His YPA has been declining steadily in recent weeks as teams have tried to keep Indy from going long.  Manning needs to hit the long ball to Garcon or Wayne in order to keep the offense clicking.

13.  Watch DZ bash his face against his desk.  The game is being called by the legendary team of Wilcots and Harlen again this week.  Their performance two weeks ago in the Rams game was horrible.  Nothing drives Deshawn as crazy as bad announcing. It makes him feel all stabby.  Seeing as how he’s thousands of miles away from the booth, he’ll probably just seek relief by concussing himself into oblivion.  Remember the final shot of Twin Peaks?  Oh, wait.  That show was on like 20 years ago. No one remembers the final shot of Twin Peaks.  Never mind.  Forget I brought it up.

14.  Watch for the loose ball. Houston has recovered 14 of 20 fumbles (O and D combined) this year, which says they have been lucky (fumble recovery rate is basically 50%).  Schaub has been sacked 14 times, which says the Colts can get to him with Freeney and Mathis.  Don’t be surprised to see the ball bounce free of a Texans player more than once on Sunday.  The Colts will be looking to strip sack Schaub and pound Slaton into giving up the rock.

15.  Watch the catch rate for Pierre Garcon. He’s only hauling in about 50% of the passes thrown to him, which is especially low considering the number of screens he receives.  I’ve been critical of Garcon’s performance most of the year, because it’s been so spotty.  With Gonzo out for another month, Garcon has to start making a bigger contribution.  Since making a good contribution against the Seahawks, Frenchy has posted 8 catches for 83 yards in his last three games.  Considering how often Manning has thrown his way, that’s terrible production.  He’s also had two more penalties in that span.  He’s been battling an ankle injury this week, and we really don’t want to see Hank Baskett on the field if it can be avoided.

16.  Watch for bad luck. The Outsiders track the ‘luck factor’ in special teams.  It’s the things that can’t be stopped like opponent’s field goal % and opponent’s punting and kickoff distance. The Colts and Texans rank 31st and 30th in the NFL in the ‘luck’ category.  Neither team has been able to catch many breaks this year.  Oddly enough, both teams could actually have an equally bad ‘luck’ day. If everyone hits all their FGs, and the kickers boom all their kicks, both teams will continue to kick the black cat who keeps walking in front of them.

17.  Watch for the warning signs.  This is it.  Four straight games against good passing teams.  How the Colts play in the next four weeks will go a long way to determining what kind of season this will be.  The rookie corners, Lacey and Powers, have been huge hits early, but now they will be tested by three QBs all with ratings of 95 or better.  They’ll face Johnson and Moss and Welker.  If they have a tough time handling the Texans tomorrow, it could be a long month.

18.  Watch for 14-1.  The Colts have never lost to the Texans in Indianapolis.  They are 13-1 all time against them.  This matchup is as lopsided as it gets in the NFL.  Houston is better this year than they’ve ever been, and they may well topple the Colts in Houston.  I’m not going to pick them to do it in Indy until it actually happens, however.  DZ says Colts 27 Texans 20.  Demond likes the Colts to win 30 to 24.