Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Texans, NFL Week 9

 

The Houston Texans came into existence in 2002 as an expansion team. Brought in to fill the hole left behind by the then Houston Oilers – who had moved to Tennessee and became the Titans – the Texans satisfied Houston's hunger for an NFL team, but not for a winner. From 2002-2006, the Texans toiled in NFL hilarity, led by now-draft bust David Carr, the team never finished with a record of .500 or better, let alone a playoff berth.

Then, in 2007, the Texans traded for Atlanta Falcons' backup QB Matt Schaub. While the results remained relatively similar, the expectations grew exponentially. Year after year, the Texans were picked as the New Hotness, the team who would finally end the Colts reign of terror in the AFC South. Year after year, the Texans would fall flat on their face.

And then it happened. In 2011, aided by Peyton Manning's head literally falling off of his neck, the Houston Texans earned their first playoff berth and their first division title. With Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster leading the way, it seemed as though the years of frustration would be washed away by the joys of a stretch of Texans' dominance.

But maybe 2011, while providing the team's first real taste of success, also provided a bit of foreshadowing. People will remember that year: the 1-13 Colts against the 10-4 Texans, Thursday Night Football, "Reggie Wayne's last home game."  And it was, as it always is when the Texans play in Indianapolis, a Colts victory.

The Texans would win the division in 2011, and again in 2012 – though just by the skin of their teeth. And now, 2 years into what was supposed to be a lifetime of memories and joy and happiness and winning, and the Texans are, well, the Texans again. At 2-5, this week – and every week hereafter – will be a must-win for the Houston Texans. Not only does a playoff berth rest on their success, so too do the jobs of HC Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub – though the latter seems to have already lost his job.

On the other side of the field, you have a different story. The Indianapolis Colts weren't supposed to be this good this fast. But here they are, 5-2, and on the cusp of doing what the Olde Colts used to do: putting away the division by the mid-way point of the season. A victory on Sunday night would all but assure the Colts – barring the most bizarre, unexpected collapse of all time – the AFC South Title. But their success won't come without a struggle: the Colts will be without their leader, WR Reggie Wayne, for the first time since his rookie year. He tore his ACL in week 7, and we've yet to see how Pep Hamilton, Andrew Luck and the offense will respond to his absence.

Two teams at a crossroads. Who's moving ahead and who's doing an awkward U-Turn at 2am? We'll find out Sunday Night.

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 21st (11th) 13th   13th (29th) 1st (13th)
Rushing 9th (2nd) 29th   10th (22nd) 28th (16th)
Total 12th (5th) 20th   8th (29th) 1st (11th)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Houston Texans Defense
13 WR TY Hilton 99 DE JJ Watt
80 TE C. Fleener 92 NT E Mitchell
74 LT A. Castonzo 94 DE A. Smith
69 LG H. Thornton 58 SLB B. Reed
64 C S. Satele 51 ILB D. Sharpton
75 RG M. McGlynn 53 ILB  J. Mays
78 RT G. Cherilus 59 WLB W. Mercilus
81 WR D. Heyward-Bey 25 LCB K. Jackson
12 QB A. Luck 36 SS DJ Swearinger
39 FB S. Havili 20 FS E. Reed
34 RB T. Richardson 24 RCB J. Joseph

 
And tell me now
How do I live without you?
I want to know,
How do I breathe without you?
If you ever go,
How do I ever, ever survive?
How do I, how do I, oh how do I live?
 
– What Andrew Luck was probably, maybe, definitely saying to Reggie Wayne the past-two weeks.
 
 
And we will run run run
til the defense takes the football away
(run run run till the defense takes the football away)
 
– Pep Hamilton's post-Reggie thoughts
 
 
What about Luck?
What about the passing game?
What about Luck?
You hand it off, and leave him nothing!
What about Luck?
He'll put you in the end (zone)
What about Luck?
Don't cut his wings and he'll be ballin'
What about Luck?
 
– Me, to Pep Hamilton, if Pep Hamilton were listening to me sing about the Colts offense, post-Reggie

 
I've spent a lot of this year writing about Pep Hamilton and the Colts offense. While there are a lot of great play designs, some really innovative concepts, and generally a lot of good things to like about what Hamilton does, there's just the 900lb elephant in the room: Hamilton's insistence on forcing the POWER RUNNING paradigm on the Colts offense is hurting them.

People who don't like to hear criticism of the Colts always fall back on the weirdest strawmen, like: "you need balance to win in the NFL, moron" or "throwing 100% of the time seems like a good way to get Luck hurt"  or "you have to be able to run sometimes, you can't just throw every down."
 
I read all of these messages in one mood: righteous confusion.

No critic of Hamilton's (and it's important to distinguish between critic and troll) has suggested the Colts throw 100% of the time. No one has suggested cutting every RB and making room for more WRs. No one has suggested the Colts shouldn't be balanced. When I read these quips, they strike me as desperate attempts by intellectually out-matched people desperate to defend Hamilton and the Colts. Because if they had actual, fact-based responses, I'd imagine they'd have used them by now.
 
The Colts should run the ball. They should have balance. They should use the running game to compliment the passing game and the passing game to compliment the running game. All of those things are key to having a truly dominant offense.

The Colts offense, however, does none of those things. They don't run the ball well. They are not a balanced team. They do not use the running game to compliment the passing game, and they do not use the passing game to compliment the running game. This is why the people who are defending Hamilton and the Colts look so silly: they are attacking the very thing they want. They are just foolish enough to believe what the Colts are selling.
 
Real offensive balance does not come by trotting out 6 OL, a TE, a FB and 1 WR on 1st-and-10 from your own 20 to run the ball. Real balance does not come from going 5-wide WR from 1st-and-goal from the opponent's 4-yard line on 3-consecutive plays.
 
Donald Brown and Trent Richardson have both shown an ability to be successful running backs when used out of passing formations. In fact, those two are like a perfect yin and yang when used together out of those formations: Brown can hit the hole fast, creating big gains before he's even touched, while Richardson, who's not nearly as quick and explosive as Brown, is able to create great yards-after-contact when he's able to get a head of steam. When used in that manner, they are a real Thunder and Lightning duo, capable of bringing balance to the force. And this offense.
 
And Andrew Luck… well, Andrew Luck has shown an ability to do amazing things when given the opportunity.
 
I hate this phrase, because I don't think it's really fair to Hamilton and the Colts, because I don't think they lack trust in Luck? But your language is so limited, so it'll have to do:
 
It's time for the Colts to take the training wheels off of Andrew Luck and the offense.
 
Reggie Wayne was their best 3rd-down weapon. He had as many 1st-downs as Hilton and DHB combined. I don't believe that Hilton and DHB will be able to replace his production. I don't believe Brazill and Whalen and Mr. Consistency Reed will be able to replace his production.
 
You know who can replace his production? Scrambling Andrew Luck. Stop telling him to not run. Stop saying it's a bad thing. The only time Andrew Luck takes big hits is when he stands behind that atrocity you call an offensive line. Stop talking about next man up and how they are gelling as a unit, etc.. They stink. I want to say that Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn are black holes, but that would suggest they are capable to keeping defensive players close to them.  The Colts offensive line is like a speed limit in the middle of nowhere: you know it's there, but it's not having any effect on you.
 
I'm afraid that Pagano and Hamilton look at Wayne's injury as an excuse to further insulate Luck with the running game. That would be a mistake. You have to put the ball in his hands. You have to let him grow and mature without Wayne. You have to let Hilton develop. You have to force DHB to grow into the player his draft status said he would be. You have to give Brazill and Whalen a chance to do their job.
 
You are Andrew Luck's Colts. Don't hide from it. Embrace it.
 

What I'm watching for, offense:

1. Who's on Third? You can't replace Reggie Wayne. Sure, he's no longer a true #1 WR. He's no longer that explosive game-breaker. He's not lightening quick, he's not super-fast. He's not going to catch 15 TDs and 1500 yards ever again. But he's the blanket to Andrew Luck's Linus. Wayne was there every time Luck needed him. Every big third down, every time the defense would get pressure, Wayne was there to relieve it. Without him, the Colts are lacking that tough, physical, over-the-middle presence who can really help Andy out in key situations. Who steps into that role? How does Pep's game plan change?  This will be the most interesting storyline for the rest of the year.

2. 1.21 GigaWATTS of Ownage – JJ Watt is the best defensive player in football. He may be the best player in football, period. If PFF's grading system were a speedometer, JJ Watt is the over-usages of NOS that spikes the needle and blows the engine. Watt can dominate a game like no other defensive player. Complicating matters is the fact that the Colts have a pretty horrific interior to their OL. The thought of Watt going against Satele, McGlynn, and Thornton isn't a pleasant one. It's going to fall on Pep Hamilton to figure out how to neutralize Watt's presence. Quick passes? Roll-outs? Screens and draws?  Double teams?  Hopefully all of the above?

Slowing Watt down will be the key to the Colts' offensive success.

3. Luck be the offense tonight – The Colts keep telling everyone they're a POWER RUNNING, RUN-FIRST team. It's not true. Here's the thing: it doesn't matter if it's true or not. All that matters is whether or not the Colts actually believe it. If they do believe that they are a POWER RUNNING, RUN-FIRST team, then they will likely respond to the Reggie Wayne injury by signing TE Weslye Saunders and relying more on T3p0 (Trent Richardson). DEAR GOD.

What the Colts should do is take a nice, long look in the mirror and have an honest chat with themselves. They may want to tell everyone that they are a balanced team. They may want everyone to believe that they don't need Andrew Luck to win them games. I want to believe I'm Superman, but I'm not going to go throwing myself off of a building just to prove it.

The Colts need to rely on Luck. They can say whatever they want, but they must put the ball in Andy's hands and let him work his magic. They can overcome Wayne's injury. They've beat the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos this year. They can beat anyone, they can win every game. If they let Andrew Luck lead them there. Honesty is the best policy, and the Colts need to start being honest with themselves.

4. Numbers don't lie, but People do – This week you'll hear about the vaunted Houston Texans' defense, NUMBER ONE IN THE LEAGUE. Throw them records out. Two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking. Etc etc etc… If you read my work with any regularity, you should know that relying on conventional stats for anything is usually a bad idea. The Houston Texans' defense IS number one in "overall defense."  They've yielded the fewest yards-per-game of any team in the NFL. 

Big whoopty do. Yards are meaningless without context. That's why it's always best to rely on advanced stats, which take various aspects of the game – situation, opponent, etc.. – into consideration.  If we look at the advanced stats, we see the following: the Texans defense ranks 11th in DVOA (13th against the pass, 16th against the run) and 19th in PFF's grades (13th against the run, 26th against the pass).  The Texans defense is good, but it's not nearly the best in the league. They have a dominant player (Watt), some good players (Jackson and Joseph) and a lot of "guys." 

I hope Pagano, Hamilton and company don't approach this defense as THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE and run from it. The Colts offense (and Andrew Luck) are good enough to dictate terms to any defense.

When the Texans have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Houston Texans Offense
90 DE C. Redding 80 WR A. Johnson
97 NT A. Franklin 76 LT D. Brown
95 DT F. Moala 74 LG W. Smith
93 OLB E. Walden 55 C C. Myers
51 ILB P. Angerer 79 RG B. Brooks
50 ILB J. Freeman 75 RT D. Newton
98 OLB R. Mathis 88 TE G. Graham
28 CB G. Toler 10 WR D. Hopkins
26 FS D. Howell 7 QB C. Keenum
41 SS A. Bethea 33 FB G. Jones
23 CB V. Davis 23 RB A. Foster

When they played the 49ers, I expected Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick to run wild. When they played the Chargers, I expected them to do enough to win. When they played the Broncos, I expected Peyton Manning to throw for 51 TDs. In the first half. The play of this year's defense has left me asking:

Will the real Colts defense please stand up?
I repeat, will the real Colts defense please stand up?
 
Are you the defense who's going to go press-man on the outside, physically attack opposing receivers, disrupting their timing? Are you the defense who's going to attack the line of scrimmage, tackling opposing running backs before they can build up a head of steam? Are you the defense who's going to go after the opposing quarterback with reckless abandon, creating chaos in the opposing pocket?

Or are you the team who is going to surrender 9-minute drives to players like Ryan Mathews and Eddie Royal? Are you the defense who succumbs to the will of Ryan Tannehill? The defense that allows Terrelle Pryor to take over the game?
 
It's hard to play at a championship level week-in and week-out. That ability is what separates the contenders from the rest of the teams. The Colts are on the verge of becoming true contenders 2 years into their "rebuild."  The next step in that journey comes Sunday night, when they answer the question: "can you perform at that high level when no one is doubting you?" 
 
But this will be about more than the Colts just deciding to play well. There are some very good players on the Texans offense:  Andre Johnson ranks 6th in PFF's WR grades (though he's a rather pedestrian 34th in DVOA), Arian Foster is 12th in PFF and 9th in DVOA, Ben Tate is a dangerous backup at RB, and while Garrett Graham is just now getting the opportunity to step out of Owen Daniels' shadow, he's a dangerous player who can make things happen after the catch.And then there's rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins, who, last month, claimed he could be better than Andre Johnson.  There's no doubting the weapons the Texans have on offense.
 
It's the person charged with utilizing those weapons that may provide the Colts with some hope. The Texans have benched Opposing-Defenses-Fantasy-Superstar-Lol-Pick-6s-QB Matt Schaub in favor of QB Case Keenum, an UDFA out of the University of Houston, which is apparently okay with having an alumnus named Case. Was the Dean of Admissions on vacation when his application came in? 
 
Keenum's NFL consists of one game – 2013 Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs – but that hasn't deterred Colts' HC Chuck Pagano, who says that Keenum's time at UoH as well as preseason games and the Chiefs game has provided them with enough tape to get a handle on Keenum's game.

Some might take that as a great testament to the Colts' scouting. I took it to mean, "haha, he sucks." 
 
I've wavered on this Colts defense all year. They should play this way, they shouldn't play that way. After watching the Broncos game, there's no more wavering. 
 
I know Andrew Johnson is the real deal. I know DeAndre Hopkins is great. I don't care. I want the secondary to get in their faces, attack them. Force Keenum to make throws into tight windows. Disrupt their timing.  I want the Colts' front to attack Keenum: stunts, twists, delayed blitzes. Get in his face. Hit him. Sack him. Make him think more about the pass on every play.
 
Keenum has attempted 25 passes this year. He's been sacked 5 times.
His QBrating against the blitz is 142.8.
His QBrating under pressure is 56.3.
When knocked down? 62.5
 
So don't blitz, get after him, and hit him. That's what our small sample size seems to tell us.
 
Sunday Night Football can be coming out parties for players. Make Keenum wait for his.

What I'm watching for, defense:

1. Put his back on the ground and keep reaching for the sacks – This is a desperate attempt to tie Case Keenum in with Casey Kasem. Are any of you actually old enough to remember Casey Kasem? I feel ancient right now. Back before the American People caught a bad case of the Ryan Seacrests, Casey Kasem used to host "American Top-40."  He was famous for the line, "keep your feet on the ground, but keep reaching for the stars."

I'm not sure what this means. I'm not sure how this relates to football.  Case Keenum was an UDFA in 2012. Wait, is Case Keenum even real? That's someone's name? Who the heck names their kid Case? COME ON PEOPLE. Give them normal names like Andy or Reggie or Greg or Gosder.

So this guy with a fake name has made ONE NFL START. Let's hit him and hit him often. Also do good things in the secondary. Like save a kitten. And get interceptions. I bet this "CASE" guy throws a lot of interceptions. Case Closed. God, I bet there's someone out there waiting to use that headline. Or they already did. I pity them.

2. Stop Arian Foster, write coherently – This entire article feels like one disjointed sentence after another. I attribute this to four things: 1) I'm wired on caffeine 2) my self-imposed twitter ban 3) eating Halloween candy before Halloween 4) I'm bad at math 5) I can't write.  Let's try to get this back on track.

The Houston Texans' offense relies on three things:  1) a powerful running attack which sets up: 2) a passing attack that uses play-action and the bootleg to create big plays and 3) pick-6s. The Colts need to find a way to stop 1 and 2 and get like 4 or 5 or even 10 of number 3. I'm not saying pick up the Colts D/ST in fantasy, because that would be stupid. But if you did, AND they had 10 pick-6s, you'd probably win your week.  They won't. Maybe. Seriously, this guy's name is Case. I'm never recovering from this.

Stop Arian Foster. The Texans will use a zone-blocking scheme that encourages the defense to "over pursue" to the play side of the field, which gives Foster, Tate, and whoever else is in the Texans backfield, the opportunity to exploit cut-back lanes. We talk about this a lot when the Colts play the Texans and the Jaguars: stay disciplined, maintain your gaps, trust your teammates to do their job. If the Colts stay disciplined, they will shut this offense down.

Keys to the game (Besides outscoring your opponent)

1. Protect Luck (For the Eighth-consecutive week!) –  We've talked about Watt. We've mentioned how bad Satele and McGlynn are. We discussed Reggie Wayne's absence. All of these things are tied together. Luck will be able to find open receivers, but he's going to need more time: none of the Colts' remaining receivers are as good at creating separation as Reggie Wayne. They'll get open… eventually. Luck needs the OL to buy him and his receivers time.

When I go through the weekly match-ups and pick winners I always end up looking at the QB match-up. The Colts win this one in a TKO. Luck is infinitely better than "CASE."  But here's the thing, JJ Watt and friends can neutralize that advantage if the OL lets them. Give Luck time, and he'll win you the game. Don't? Well, 5-3 isn't nearly as pretty as 6-2.

2. Utilize the RBs and TEs in the passing game – The Texans have a good defense. No, it's not as great as the cliche slingers would have  you believe, but still, it is good. The Texans, with Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph, rank 11th against #1 WRs and 18th against #2s. Not great, but, ya know, average, above average. Of course, the uncertainty around the Colts' WR situation only complicates matters. But the good news is, the Texans do struggle in coverage against TEs (24th) and RBs (22nd).  Luck will need time to sort through the mess at WR. Chuck Pagano said the Colts would replace Wayne by committee: Fleener, Brown and Richardson need to be a part of that committee, and properly utilizing them will help Luck sort through that mess while continuing to extend drives.

3. Run Left! Or Right! Just not Straight! – The Colts are the #1 team in the league (by DVOA) running behind either tackle. They are slightly below average running around left and right end. The Texans, who have the 16th-best rush defense in the league, are 4th-best against runs up the middle, but 13th against runs behind the LT, 16th against runs at the RT, and 31st/30th against runs around the left and right ends, respectively. The Colts want to run the ball. When they do, they should find success doing it wide.

The Colts can be a good running team if they drop the "POWER" moniker. Plenty of teams are successful running the ball. They don't require 3 TEs, and extra OL, a fullback, a declaration from the Queen, a presidential order, Alien sightings, a Blue Moon, and a magical groundhog to do it. Run out of your passing looks. Pass out of your passing looks. That's balance. GOD I HATE WRITING ABOUT THE COLTS' RUNNING GAME.

Did I mention there's someone on the Texans named "CASE" ???????

4. Win the Special Teams Battle – This is going to sound weird, but, according to DVOA, the Colts have a massive advantage in Special Teams this week. DVOA ranks the Colts 9th!!! and the Texans 30th. The Colts can't return a kick/punt to save their lives, but they've been very good on field goals (Vinatieri started slow on long kicks, but has since gone approximately 1,000,000/1,000,000 on kicks of 50-yards-or-more) and Pat McAfee's performances against the 49ers and Broncos were downright Scifres-like.

The Colts won't need big returns this week (can we please stop trying to return kicks from the 109.9 yard line?) but some nice punts and good coverage would certainly go a long way towards helping the cause. The best way to bog down an opposing offense is by giving them long fields to work with. It DOES NOT MATTER how good your QB or your offense is, if you constantly have to go 80+ yards to score touchdowns, you're not going to perform to your averages (unless you're the Jaguars).

And if your QB's name is "CASE"?!?!?!?  Seriously.

5. Play up to yourself, not down to your opponent – The Colts have had periods of domination against the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos, three of the best teams in the NFL.  They have had periods of putridity against the Raiders, Dolphins, Jaguars (the 1st quarter happened, folks) and Chargers. The thing with the Colts is, they don't perform their best until they are the underdogs. Well guys, bad news: after beating the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos, you're not going to be the underdogs against anybody. You're one of the best teams in the AFC. Prove it. Stop relying on emotional motivation and just go out there, do your jobs, and kick some butt.

This goes double for the defense, which seems as capable of shutting down a great offense as it is letting a bad one hold the ball for half the game.  The Texans' offense ranks 29th in DVOA. They are 29th in passing offense and starting a guy named "CASE."  They are 22nd in rushing offense, and while Arian Foster and Ben Tate may play, both are dealing with injuries (Foster a hamstring injury, Ben Tate has cracked ribs).

I want to see the Colts defense come out against the Texans with the same emotions and intensity they displayed against the Broncos. Get after "CASE", attack the wide receivers, punish Foster and Tate. Swarm. Use your speed, use your strength, overpower them. The Broncos are infinitely better than the Texans. You should dominate this match-up. The offense is going to struggle to score, it's on the defense to relieve the pressure. Don't put Luck in a position of having to score every time he touches the ball. If you do, JJ Watt is going to wear his head for Halloween.

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

Josh Gordy GROIN (DOUBTFUL)
Delano Howell NECK (DOUBTFUL)
Cam Johnson KNEE (PROBABLE)
Samson Satele KNEE (PROBABLE)
Greg Toler GROIN (DOUBTFUL)
Bjoern Werner FOOT (PROBABLE)


Houston Texans

Daryl Sharpton FOOT/TOE (QUESTIONABLE)
Wade Smith KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Arian Foster HAMSTRING (LIMITED WEDNESDAY)
Ben Tate RIBS (LIMITED WEDNESDAY)
Bradon Brooks TOE (PROBABLE)
Duane Brown TOE (PROBABLE)
Keshawn Martin SHOULDER (PROBABLE)
Brice McCain KNEE (PROBABLE)
Earl Mitchell KNEE (PROBABLE)
Derek Newton KNEE/ELBOW (PROBABLE)
Eddie Pleasant TOE (PROBABLE)
DeVier Posey CALF (PROBABLE)
Matt Schaub ANKLE/EGO (PROBABLE)


 

Series note and a video

  • The Colts and the Texans have met 22 times. The Colts hold an 18-4 advantage in the series.

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): NBC

Who(Visually): Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth

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

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Jim Sorgi

Is the Game on in your area? Yep

Officiating Crew:  Bill Vinovich

Prediction

Colts – 24, Texans – 20

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