Houston Texans vs Indianapolis Colts: In Depth Wildcard breakdown

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Dec 30, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) runs off the field following the game after his team defeated the Tennessee Titansat Nissan Stadium. Indianapolis won 33-17. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts come into this game with the #10 scoring defense in the NFL, allowing only 21.5 points/game. Their red-hot offense is #5 in the NFL, dropping 27.1 points/game.

Houston on the other hand, gives up a paltry 19.8 points/game, ranking them 4th in the NFL.  While the offense is 11th in the NFL, putting 25.1 points on the scoreboard on average.
 

If you go by scoring rankings, these teams are both very good on either side of the ball and should be a great game, correct? Well, let’s dive a little more into this game, and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

Houston’s offense is predicated on two things: running the ball and letting Watson to Hopkins kill you on play action passing. The Texans rely heavily on the combo of Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, and Deshaun Watson.  This trio has a combined 459 attempts for 2033 yards on the ground.  With Miller back and healthy, expect more from him as the primary back, as he averages 4.6 YPC.  Watson, although he is a QB, is dangerous when scrambling.  When he decides to tuck and run, he is dynamic, averaging 5.6 YPC, and has the speed to break off big runs if a defense does not have someone spying him at all times.     

Leonard and Walker do great here, as each are very good at reading the action in front of them and taking the right angle’s of pursuit.  With Indy being #6 in YPC allowed in the NFL, they have proven all year that this front 7 will be up to the task.  Watson is the wildcard in the run game though.  3rd and long, even if you have all the receivers locked down, he can take off and move the sticks. It will be important for Indy to hold the edges, and not let Watson outside the tackles, that is when he can make big plays happen. Indy needs to keep their front 7 always watching the run.  No matter if it is a back who gets the hand-off, or Watson keeping it.  A QB spy would work well here.   

Speaking of Watson, he is a very strong-armed QB.  When he is not running the ball, he is always looking for his #1 big playmaker in DeAndre Hopkins.  Earlier in the season, Watson had his second WR threat in Will Fuller, lost for the season with a torn ACL. Also, they lost Demaryius Thomas to an Achilles injury. The up and coming Keke Coutee has been sidelined with a hamstring injury for the past few weeks.  It is unknown if Coutee will play this weekend, but if he can not, Hopkins is the only real receiving threat the Colts will have to worry about.  That being said, Hopkins is a top 5 WR in the NFL.  He is #3 in the NFL in receptions with 115,  #2 in yards with 1572, and #5 in TD’s with 11. 

With the Texans depleted at receiver, Indy can focus their secondary on shutting down Hopkins and make Watson use other receivers beat them.  The Colts did this last time they met, keeping a CB, (And sometimes Darius Leonard!) underneath Hopkins, while having the athletic Malik Hooker covering over the top.  Indy allowed Hopkins only 4 catches for 36 yards.  With the decimated receiving corps of the Texans, I just can’t see Indy giving up too much through the air in this game.  Especially since Watson’s offensive line is the worst in the NFL.  They have given up an astonishing 62 sacks and 126 hits, both most in the NFL.  Now, some of these come from Watson holding the ball, trying to extend plays. But this O-line will have it’s hands full with the Colts front 7, that have four different players with at least 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss on the season.   

The Colts ground game starts with Marlon Mack.  He is 7th in the NFL in rushing yards /game with 76, and averages 4.7 YPC.  He is a patient runner who waits for his new improved O-line to fully set their blocks before one-cutting into the hole and bursting up field.  Wilkins, who was put on the shelf a few weeks ago after putting the ball on the ground, I believe has regained being the primary breather for Mack in the ground game.  Last week he was used instead of Hines to spell Mack.  Wilkins on the year has shown great vision and slipperiness, averaging 5.6 YPC.  Hines is the 3rd RB in this stable, but I will speak more of him in the passing game. 

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The key to this Colts running game is the O-line.  They are powerful, athletic, and can get to the second level to get blocks on the linebackers to spring RB’s for chunk plays when they are healthy.  This group, even missing key piece Ryan Kelly, last week broke open lanes in the Titans front 7. The stable had 29 carries for the tune of 141 yards.  Kelly is questionable right now for this Saturday’s game.  Texans will make life difficult for any Colts RB to do anything on the ground.  They are the #1 run defense in the NFL.  This front 7 with the likes of Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, and McKinney have held teams to only 3.4 yards / carry this year.  They are very stout and disciplined in their run gaps.  I do not expect this to change any time during the upcoming game. 

However, it is imperative Indy sticks with the run to keep this defense honest.  If they are even able to average out 3.5-4 YPC in this game, this will keep them from dropping into coverage, and allow Andrew Luck and the receivers more room to get open.  If Kelly plays, I think Indy has a good shot of at least accomplishing that, if not slightly more.    Andrew Luck has had such a comeback season.  He’s back to being that guy who can get out of bad situations, extend plays, and make chain-moving throws and runs.  All the while he has been more accurate, completing 67% of his passes, and making quicker decisions, only 2.63 seconds from snap to throw. 

His receiving corps, who were dropping passes left and right during the first 6 games of the year, has been much better down the stretch. T.Y. Hilton has been dealing with an ankle injury the past month, but has not let that effect his performance. Even though he has not practiced in nearly a month, with the injury,  he has 473 yards in the past 4 games, dating back to the last match-up with the Texans.  But he is not alone, Inman, Ebron, and RB Hines all have been quality go-to targets for Luck since the week 7 turn-around.  On passing downs, RB Nyheim Hines makes it difficult on defenses.  His speed and hands make it nearly impossible for a linebacker to cover.  And if he splits out wide, and a linebacker stays with him, that spells disaster for the other team.  But if a CB moves over to him, that is one less DB the defense has to double T.Y. or Ebron. 

The Texans DB’s are also pretty good.  However, Johnathan Joseph has been burned by T.Y. on both occasions this year for a total of 314 yards in 2 games.  I expect them to play T.Y., similarly to how the Colts should play Hopkins, by having Justin Reid or Tyrann Mathieu over the top to give Joseph help this time around.  But if they do this, I expect a huge day from Eric Ebron.  None of the Texans LB’rs are athletic enough to cover him one-on-one in the open field.  Nor can they keep up with Hines.  To help with this, I expect DC Romeo Crennel to dial up a lot of pressure from the front 7 to make Luck uncomfortable, and make bad decisions.  This defense is one of the best in the NFL in doing this, ranking 11th, with 43 sacks on the year.    

My expectation of this game is that the Colts will bottle the run most of the game, and force Watson to find a new go-to target other than Hopkins.  I don’t think he’ll be able to do this with the blitz packages Matt Eberflus is going to throw at him.  I figure this to be one of the Texans worst offensive game this year.  If Houston breaks 270 yards of total offense, I will be surprised.  The only way they get more than 14 points in this game is if the Colts offense turn the ball over for a touchdown. (which with the Texans pass rush, it is not out of the question). 

Don’t expect Indy’s run game to look like they did Vs. the Titans last week.  I expect modest runs. 15-20 total carries, maybe 80 yards.  But I do think it will be enough to keep the Texans defensive front 7 on the line of scrimmage and allow Luck to find his receivers running with enough open field, to throw them open, and on the run.  The Colts O-line should provide adequate protection, enough for Luck to have a good day to either T.Y. or Ebron, depending on whom the Texans deem more dangerous and decide to double.
The Colts go into Houston and leave with the win.  27-13

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