Weekly Matchup: Indianapolis Colts vs. Houston Texans

  This past week has been like the end of a relationship with the woman you love:  lots of he-said-she-said, tons of uncertainty, that indescribable feeling in the pit of your stomach that your world is about to be flipped upside down, and then ultimately…your world is flipped upside down.  With Peyton Manning undergoing his 3rd neck procedure in 19 months, scheduled to miss most (if not all) of the 2011 NFL season, we are all grieving.  Manning won't be under center on Sunday.  He may not be under center all season.  Kerry Collins is the Colts' starting QB.  But just like the bad breakup – the quicker we accept this and move past it, the better off we'll be.  With that behind us, I'm looking forward to Sunday's week 1 matchup with the Houston Texans. This is the first of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, with a breakdown of the Colts' upcoming matchup.  I'll take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups.  Overview:  The Indianapolis Colts are 16-2 all-time against the Houston Texans, but the two teams split last season's meetings.  On opening day in Houston last year, the Texans ran for a franchise record 257 yards, thanks in large part to Arian Foster (33 carries, 231 yards, 3 TD's).   Peyton Manning attempted to pull off some late game heroics, throwing for 2 TD's in the final 6:00, but it was too little, too late.   The teams met again in week 8, this time in Indianapolis for Monday Night Football.  Despite injuries to Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai (among others), the Colts handed the Texans a 30-17 defeat to take control of the AFC South.  Manning and the offense had their usual productive night: 366 total yards and 23 points, but the defense set the tone early, and ultimately forced 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an INT returned for a TD (K. Hayden). As we head into 2011, the Houston Texans are once again trying to overcome the Indianapolis Colts for AFC South supremacy.  For Colts fans, Sunday will bring a depressing sight: Colts football without Peyton Manning.  Life goes on, with or without Peyton, and the Colts will be forced to rally behind Kerry Collins.  The Texans star, Arian Foster, is also questionably for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury.  The two teams will meet again week 16 in Indianapolis. Houston Texans: Strengths:  

  • Running game.  Arian Foster burst onto the NFL scene last year with his opening day performance against the Colts.  He led the entire NFL with 1,616 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.  The Texans as a team ranked 7th in the league in total rushing – and were the highest ranked team that finished with a losing record (6-10).  Whether or not Foster is able to play on Sunday, the Texans will look to establish the run.  If Foster can't play, expect to see Ben Tate (2009 2nd round selection) and Derrick Ward (50 carries, 315 yards in 2010) split the duties.
  • Passing game.  It would've been easy enough to list the Texans' offense as a strength, but I wanted to breakdown the running game and passing game separately.  Matt Schaub is an excellent quarterback, and has the privilege of throwing to one of the NFL's most complete wide receivers: Andre Johnson.  Schaub has thrown for more than 9,000 yards and 50 TD's the past 2 seasons, and Johnson has caught 187 passes, nearly 2,800 receiving yards, and 17 TD's.  The Texans lack WR depth behind Andre Johnson, as 5th year player Jacoby Jones has yet to prove himself as a reliable #2 WR.  Tight end Owen Daniels is 100% healthy heading into 2011, after playing in just 19 games over the past 2 seasons because of a torn ACL.
  • Wade Phillips.  Although he's a terrible head coach, Wade is known around the league as a defensive genius.  He's spent the offseason transitioning the Houston Texans from a base 4-3 defense, to a 3-4 defense.  The move will push former defensive end Mario Williams to outside linebacker, but expect his only responsibility to rush the passer.  The Texans spent their first 5 picks in April's draft trying to improve their defense – DE J.J. Watt, OLB Brooks Reed, CB's Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael, and S Shiloh Keo – and signed 2 key free agents – CB Johnathan Joseph and S Daniel Manning to bolster their defensive personnel.
  • All of that being said about Wade Philips and the Texans' defense, their secondary was historically bad last season – surrendering the 5th most passing yards in NFL history.  While the new additions to the secondary will help, namely Joseph and Manning, the unit still has a lot to improve upon.  They will undoubtedly be "better" against the pass, but don't confuse that with being good.
  • Receiving depth.  As mentioned earlier, the Texans lack a true #2 receiver to lineup opposite of Andre Johnson.  People are still waiting for Jacoby Jones to take the next step, but it just hasn't happened.  Kevin Walter has been a solid NFL contributor, but he doesn't exactly strike fear into opposing defenses.  If (and it's a big if) teams can find a way to blanket Andre Johnson, the Texans will struggle – the team was just 2-5 last year when Johnson failed to eclipse 100 yards.
  • Playmakers on defense.  And this is a puzzling one.  The Texans have big-name defenders in Mario Williams, Brian Cushing (2009 DROY), and DeMeco Ryans, but the team struggled to make big plays – the Texans registered just 13 INT's and 30 sacks (the 43 combined sacks/INT's was tied for the 4th lowest in the league).  Turnovers will be a key statistic in Sunday's game.
Indianapolis Colts:
  • The biggest strength for the Colts won't be playing on Sunday: Peyton Manning.  That being said, it's time for the skill position players to step up.  Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, and Joseph Addai all must play at an elite level to help ease Kerry Collins' 3-week transformation from retirement to starting QB.   Although Collins is far from elite, he's surrounded by the strongest supporting cast that he's played with in his 17-year career – and that supporting cast must make him look good on Sunday.
  • Pass rush.  Anytime you line up 2 Pro Bowl defensive ends, your pass rush is going to be elite.  Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis form the best pass-rushing ends in the NFL by a pretty wide margin.  The Colts figure to rotate bigger defense ends Tyler Brayton and Jamaal Anderson into the game during obvious running situations, which should keep Freeney and Mathis fresh throughout the game.  The 2 lethal defensive ends must constantly harass Texans' QB Matt Schaub, and force hurried passes, sacks, and turnover opportunities.
  • Without Peyton Manning, the Colts will be playing with their backs against the wall.  They've been hearing all week that the Colts don't stand a chance against Houston without their star QB, and this is their chance to prove them wrong.  Even though the defense has been merely average during the Manning era, they seem to respond well to criticism with their backs against the wall (stopping the run in the 2006 playoffs after surrendering 375 rushing yards to Jacksonville, the 4th & 2 stop against New England in 2009, and the 2010 rematch against the Texans after being embarrassed week 1).  With Peyton Manning out, expect the defense to try and shoulder the load:  I expect 8 men in the box, a variety of blitz packages, and an overall more aggressive gameplan: It's do or die time for this unit.
  • Stopping the run.  It's been well documented, but I'll throw the stat out there one more time just to prove a point:  The Texans ran for 257 yards against the Colts in last season's opener.  The Colts ranked just 25th against the run – which was by far the lowest of any playoff team – Green Bay was next at 18th (I don't consider Seattle a playoff team).  The Colts surrendered 4.6 ypc last season, a number they must improve upon in 2011.
  • Offensive Line.  I'm hesitant to list them as a weakness since I have a lot of hope for this unit this season.  But besides Jeff Saturday, the other 4 lineman have just 12 combined starts at their respective positions (Diem: 9, Linkenbach: 3).  With Anthony Castonzo, Ben Ijalana, and Joe Reitz, there's no doubt that the line is more talented than in years' past.  But I do expect there to be significant growing pains.  With the heavy-footed Kerry Collins as the team's starting QB, it's imperative that the offensive line afford him enough time to remain comfortable in the pocket.  I just don't expect it to happen.
  • Injuries.  Besides Peyton Manning's status, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, Blair White, and Antoine Bethea are all questionable for Sunday's matchup.  While that list seems monumentally smaller than our regular injury report from last year, consider the consequences of these players missing time:  Collie, Gonzalez, and White are the only 3 active WR's behind Wayne and Garcon; and undrafted rookie Joe Lefeged is Bethea's backup.  Things could get ugly if the Colts don't have a healthy roster (without Manning).
  • Timing.  Things could be worse (slightly): we could be the Jaguars – who decided to release their starting QB, David Garrard, just 4 days before the season opener.  But Kerry Collins has had just over 2 weeks to learn the playbook, take practice reps, and develop timing with his WR's (Collie, Gonzalez, and White haven't even been able to practice with Collins because of their injuries).  There's no doubt in my mind that Collins is a better option than Curtis Painter, but expect to see some real timing and communication issues between Collins and his WR's.
What to Watch For:
  • 1st quarter score – It's imperative for the Indianapolis Colts to remain competitive well into the 1st half.  This is a team, defensively, that is built to play with a lead.  Although Manning has been one of the NFL's best at 4th quarter comebacks, don't expect the same bailout from Kerry Collins.  If the Texans are able to establish an early lead, it will play directly into their strength – running the football, and directly away from the Colts' biggest strength – pass rush.  The Colts must come out of the gates ready to play.
  • Mario Williams vs. Anthony Castonzo – In last season's opener, Mario Williams killed the Colts with 4 tackles, 1 sack, 5 QB hits, and many more pressures.  Then again, he was lined up against Charlie Johnson, who is now getting beaten badly for the Minnesota Vikings.  Castonzo, the Colts 1st-round draft selection, is a significant talent upgrade from Charlie Johnson, but has zero career starts – 54 fewer than CJ.  Despite a solid preseason, Castonzo has the daunting task of blocking Mario Williams, one of the league's most feared pass rushers.  How he fares could largely determine the outcome of the game.
  • Reggie Wayne vs. Johnathan Joseph- I don't know if Joseph will shadow Wayne all game, but the two figure to see plenty of each other on Sunday.  In order for Kerry Collins to be effective, Wayne must win the majority of his matchups.  With Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon (and hopefully Austin Collie) healthy, the Texans can't afford to roll safety help over the top of Wayne for 60 minutes on Sunday.  The last time #87 was on the field, he was shut down in embarrassing fashion by Darrelle Revis (1 catch, 0 yards), so he'll have plenty of motivation to prove his status as an elite WR.  Look for Collins to target Wayne early and often.
  • Texans' Offensive Line vs. Colts' Defensive Line – According to Yahoo! Sports, the Houston Texans sport the 6th best offensive line in the league, and it's been well documented how poorly the Colts' defensive line has been over the years.  There is reason for optimism though, as the Colts have added rookie defensive tackle Drake Nevis and veteran free agent ends T. Brayton and J. Anderson.  As noted earlier, the 2 ends figure to rotate in for Freeney and Mathis during early down running situations.  Nevis is currently listed as Fili Moala's backup at UT, but he's arguably the team's best interior lineman.  If the Texans continue to win at the point of attack like they did in last season's opener, the Colts are in serious trouble.
  • The Texans' FB situation – Last year, the Texans fielded the best blocking fullback in the league in Vonta Leach.  I don't mean to overemphasize the impact that a fullback can have in the NFL, but Leach absolutely killed the Colts linebackers last season, particularly in the opener.  Arian Foster and the offensive line are great in their own rights, but Leach truly brought the Texans' running game to another level.  Luckily for Colts' fans, Leach is now in Baltimore; while the Texans signed Lawrence Vickers (who is no slouch) to compete with James Casey for blocking duties.   While Vickers and Casey may form an impressive duo, they are certainly a downgrade from Leach.  Let's see if duo can have a similar impact on Sunday.
  • Indianapolis Colts play calling – With Kerry Collins under center, the Colts will surely scale down their playbook.  But just how much remains to be seen, as does their play calling philosophy.  They will surely focus more on running the football with Joseph Addai and Delone Carter, especially considering they just signed a bruising FB – Chris Gronkowski.  In last season's opener against the Texans, the Colts ran the ball just 10 times compared to 57 pass attempts.  That number will have to balance out for the Colts to remain competitive.  I also expect to see a lot of quick passes to ensure that Collins remains upright.  Expect a number of quick screens to Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, and a few short passes over the middle to Dallas Clark and Austin Collie.
Final Thoughts:  It's time to move on from Peyton Manning, at least for this season.  It remains to be seen how the Colts will rally around Kerry Collins, and if other players will step up their play in Manning's absence.  The Texans are the popular pick – not only for week 1, but to win the AFC South – and I can't really argue with it.  Win or lose, we will learn a lot about our Indianapolis Colts.  Expect them to play inspired football early on, and to compete for 60 minutes.  Let's hope that's enough to steal a "W" in Houston.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.