Colts at Texans: How we see it

Indianapolis Colts

NRG Stadium is seen with the roof open prior to an NFL football game in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Texans in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

Playoff picture

The good news: the Colts still are in very good position to earn a playoff berth. The bad news: that positioning would have been exponentially better had they taken care of business last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.

As it stands, Indy’s 7-4 record is good for the No. 7 seed in the seven-team AFC playoff chase. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Colts’ chances of reaching the postseason rest at 55% as they head to Houston. With a win over the Texans, those odds rise to 73%. They balloon to 91% if they’re able to win at Houston and again next week against the Raiders in Las Vegas. But with a loss to the Texans, those odds dip to 33%.

So, yes, another consequential Sunday.

The safest avenue forward? Win, beginning Sunday in Houston.

No Castonzo

The Colts will be without four starters: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, linebacker Bobby Okereke, punter Rigoberto Sanchez and safety Khari Willis. With all due respects to the other three, it’s Castonzo’s absence that’s most concerning. Remember, the Colts are 2-11 when he’s missed a start with an injury and the offense went in the tank after he exited the Titans loss with the sprained MCL in his right knee early in the second quarter.

Coach Frank Reich didn’t rule out flipping right tackle Braden Smith to the left side, but we’re not thrilled with that option since that means messing with two positions. We’re expecting the Colts to stick with Le’Raven Clark at left tackle and give him constant help with a tight end or frequent chip-blocks by a running back. The balancing act is the more help Clark requires, the more it takes an option out of the passing game. But that’s the price to be paid for keeping quarterback Philip Rivers out of harm’s way as much as possible.

The threat to Rivers primarily comes from J.J. Watt, although Whitney Mercilus shares the team lead with 4 sacks. Watt and Lawrence Taylor are the NFL’s only three-time Defensive Player of the Year recipients. Teams that don’t account for Watt’s presence generally pay the price. He has 100 career sacks and 274 QB hits, and owns franchise records with 25 forced fumbles and 16 fumble recoveries. He’s also piled up 61 passes defensed – 4th-most in franchise history – and has two pick-6s, the latest coming last Sunday at Detroit.

The fact Watt moves all along the line is the primary reason we’re in favor of leaving Clark at left tackle. Wherever the Colts line him up, Watt will find him.

Remain on the offensive

Even with Watt’s ability to turn a game with a sack or forced fumble, it’s imperative the Colts still go about their business on offense. Account for him, but don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by his presence.

Rivers generally has done a good job of neutralizing the pass rush with shorter drops and quick passes while mixing in an occasional deep shot. He’s been sacked just 10 times despite ranking 9th in the league with 391 attempts.

This would be an ideal occasion to — finally! – get the run game untracked. It’s tied-21st in yards per game (101.9) and 31st in yards per attempt (3.7), but Houston counters with an atrocious run defense: 31st in yards per game (154.7), 32nd in yards per attempt (4.9).

Rookie Jonathan Taylor returns after missing the Titans game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list and it would behoove Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni to test the strength (weakness) of the Texans run defense. It has allowed at least 162 rushing yards in six of 11 games and six backs have reached the 100-yard mark. In a 10-7 loss at Cleveland, the Browns had two: Nick Chubb (126 on 19 carries) and Kareem Hunt (104 on 19).

We’re not saying run the ball 40 times, but run it enough to slow down Watt in the pass game and keep the Deshaun Watson-led offense on the sideline.

T.Y.’s time?

We only mention this because, you know, it’s the Texans and the game’s in Houston. T.Y. Hilton’s career numbers in 17 games against the Texans are stunning: 90 receptions, 1,622 yards, 10 TDs. They’re ridiculous in nine appearances in Houston: 49 catches, 1,036 yards, seven TDs.

The four-time Pro Bowl wideout is in the midst of a quiet season – 33 catches, 408 yards, one TD – but showed signs of coming out of it last week against the Titans with four catches, 81 yards and his first TD.

And it’s worth pointing out the Texans will be without top cornerback Bradley Roby, who has been suspended six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. Roby signed a three-year, $31.5 million free-agent contract in March and responded with 37 tackles and one interception in 10 games.

With Roby out, Houston’s top corners are Vernon Hargreaves and Phillip Gaines. One of its top options heading into the season – Gareon Conley – has been on IR all season.

The Texans’ defense hasn’t been as bad against the pass as the run, but neither has it distinguished itself. It has given up 20 touchdowns while coming up with a league-low interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 105.4 passer rating, 2nd-highest in the league (Jacksonville, 106.3).

Contain Watson

Easy for us to say. While Watt can be an absolute game-wrecker on defense, Deshaun Watson can take over a game with his legs and right arm. In any other season – the Texans have won three of their last four, but still are 4-7 – he’d be a serious MVP candidate. The evidence includes 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions and a 112.5 passer rating. Only Aaron Rodgers (117.6) and Patrick Mahomes (115.5) have posted better ratings. Watson has had a rating of at least 100 in eight of his last nine starts, including season-best 150.4 in the 41-25 win at Detroit when he passed for 318 yards and four TDs.

Watson’s threat is twofold. Along with possessing a lively arm, he uses his agility to buy time in the pocket and athleticism to make defenses pay if they lose containment. He’s Houston’s second-leading rusher with 293 yards on 62 attempts.

What will be interesting is to see how Watson and the Texans compensate for the loss of leading receiver Will Fuller V. Like Roby, he was suspended six games for a PED violation. Fuller had 53 receptions, 879 yards and eight TDs, all career highs. The Texans already were without Randall Cobb, who’s on IR with a toe injury.

The Colts have a cornerback issue with Rock Ya-Sin, who essentially was benched in favor of T.J. Carrie against the Titans, and safety issue with Khari Willis being ruled out with back and quad injuries. It’s essential the front seven pressures Watson and keeps him from getting loose for big yardage with his legs, and for the back end to hold up.

The defensive front will benefit from the return of tackle DeForest Buckner and end Denico Autry from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

And the winner is:

Colts 24, Texans 23. We’ll keep this brief. If the Colts are the playoff team we believe them to be, they’ll find a way to keep Watson and Watt from doing too much damage. This is the type of game a playoff-caliber team, even one missing a handful of front-liner players, figures out a way to win. Period.

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