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Texans-Colts Review: Shallow Thoughts

Matt Weston takes a look at the end of a nine game winning streak.

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

—This week in don’t run the ball against the Houston Texans. The Colts’ running backs. Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines combined to run the ball 17 times for 34 yards. 2.0 yards a carry. Don’t run the ball at the Houston Texans! Nothing good comes from it. Do something, anything else, whatever it is, you’ll be better off doing that. Punting on third down, sure, squishing neighborhood cats under your tires because of an Arian Foster tweet, go for it, show up late to a concert and cut to the front, do it, it’s all better than running the ball at Houston.

In this edition it was a lot of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney being football good, but not box score good. Together they combined for 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, and 2 quarterback hits, and everything aside from 2 tackles was attributed to Watt. Clowney won’t show up in the box score, but he constantly moved the line of scrimmage and made it impossible to pick up anything on the ground.

I always love when teams run counter or power at Clowney. Rather than pull at him, which is like trying to punch a tidal wave, the Colts attempt to block Clowney with their third tight end. He swims over him, and drives him deep into the backfield. Quenton Nelson’s pull is affected. Marlon Mack is six yards deep before he can run vertically.

This is some more football good. Clowney bludgeons Eric Ebron with his punch. There isn’t a tight end out there who can block Clowney on his own. Angelo Blackson has great leverage and clogs Anthony Castonzo. Indy is trying to pin Blackson and pull Nelson to Justin Reid. Instead it’s two spats of penetration, and no space for Nelson to move. Justin Reid plays the run perfectly. He, and other members of the defense, have had problems not fitting the correct gap. Rather than sit in the ‘B’ gap, Reid correctly reads Clowney and gets outside to stop the run.

The Colts’ offense was unstoppable when they were throwing it. The insatiable thirst to run the ball was the only thing that really slowed down their offense. With 12:07 left in the second quarter they finally took their belt off and went away from the run game that doesn’t work, and when they did they took off and scored 24 points.

Clowney had a better game rushing the passer than Watt did. Matched up against Castonzo he got sooo close, but wasn’t able to full get there. Luck understands time and space better than Turnstile. I audibly UGHED when watching this play. Clowney has a great rip around the edge and can’t take down the swamp beast with an outstretched arms. Luck seeps out to the left and runs for the first while Clowney hurdles the ghosts of the past in frustration.

I’m impressed by Braden Smith. I thought he was good entering this game, but now, I’m thinking he’s one of the ten best right tackles in football. Houston has opted to have Watt rush on the right side and Clowney rush from the left side, giving Watt the easier matchup on paper. Smith is better than Castonzo though, and he frustrated Watt all game.

The entire game Watt couldn’t beat him to the point of attack. Smith matched him nearly every time. Even as a wide ‘9’ Watt couldn’t get around him. Ebron gives a bit of a chip to force Watt wide, and Smith is forced to laterally run. The gate is open. Smith doesn’t have the same amount of strength blocking like this. Watt even gets into his chest when he attempts to bullrush him. The entirety of the rush is sucked up. Watt doesn’t drive him at all. Luck found Charles Rodgers to set up an easier field goal.

Watt’s one sack didn’t come against Smith. It came against Joe Haeg, who filled in as a sixth offensive lineman occasionally. The Colts have a lucky call, with each offensive lineman sliding one gap over to the left. Haeg is slow moving over. Watt is able to swim over the top, and split the two of them. Free, he forced the Colts into a 2nd and 18.

The problem for Houston’s defense is they needed Watt and Clowney to be better than football good. They needed tangible production. Something you can point to that says, there, there is disruption and lost yardage. Sure, Watt and Clowney created pressure, and constricted space for the running back, allowing every one else to clean up. But they needed Watt and Clowney to actually take Luck down, to actually make deeper tackles for a loss, to put Indy in enormous third down situations. When they play teams that can throw the ball, they need to be like Von Miller and Demarcus Ware were in their 2015 Superbowl run. That’s their only hope to stop teams that don’t the 25th best passing offense.

—Luck completed 27 of his 41 passes for 399 yards. He averaged 9.7 yards an attempt. Entering this game he was averaging 6.9 yards an attempt (29th). His three main targets were T.Y. Hilton, 9/12 199 yards (22.1 yards a catch) Eric Ebron, 5/6 68 yards (13.6 yards a catch) and Zach Pascal, 4/8 65 yards (16.3 yards a catch).

Nobody could cover Hilton this game. The only times his targets didn’t end in catches were when defensive backs came early and over the top of him to play the ball. He took advantage of every member of Houston’s secondary.

This looks like cover 4. Wright allows Hilton to release freely, and doesn’t carry him up the field, or even hinder him off the line. Tyrann Mathieu comes over from midfield, but there’s no chance for him to affect this throw. Hilton is open too quickly. Mathieu is lined up too far inside. Wright just turns the faucet on and let’s Hilton flow freely.

Max protect. Big blitz. Man coverage. Houston doesn’t get pressure. Jackson is matched up on his own against Hilton out wide. Hilton cuts to the sideline and Luck puts the ball over the top of Kareem Jackson.

Hilton started this game by beating Johnathan Joseph like how he did in their first matchup. The fear of getting beat deep led to off-man coverage. With Joseph playing seven yards off, Hilton come back to Luck for an easy reception. It never ends after the catch with Hilton. He turns inside, gets around Joseph, and scampers away from Clowney for more.

These free receptions can only be allowed for so long. Down, and trying to get the ball back to the offense late in the game, requires Joseph to play closer to the line of scrimmage. This isn’t terrible coverage from Joseph. He’s running to stop the fade, and his matching Hilton up the sideline. Since he’s turning and running he’s unable to look and find the football. Luck makes a spectacular throw and drops it right on Hilton’s outside shoulder.

Down 7-0, and having their previous drive end with a redzone interception, the Colts took a big shot on first down. They have eight blocking, and three routes leaving. Hilton gets deep and turns Justin Reid on a post route. Catching a 60 yard pass to put the Colts at Houston’s endzone.

Where did I see this before? Oh yeah, that’s right. The Colts ran a similar play in their week eleven win over Tennessee.

The Colts also used Hilton to score their second touchdown. They had Hilton and Ebron lined up wide left, and ran a scissors combination. Hilton ran a post. Ebron ran a corner. Hilton pulls Wright and Mathieu inside, and Reid can’t get back over the top to pick up Ebron. The tight end is able to catch the ball, then roll over to score.

In the first matchup, Hilton had 4 catches on 6 targets for 115 yards, including a 42 yard reception. He left the game midway through the third. Entering this game Hilton had 1,246 receiving yards on 67 catches, and averages 11.3 yards a reception. Hilton loves playing the Houston Texans.

-Indy was able to attack Shareece Wright. The Texans’ other outside cornerback had played 398 defensive snaps entering this game. He had been targeted only 28 times. Throughout the season he’d been picked on by double moves. His one saving grace had been running back after getting beat to make a play on the ball. Setting a fire then putting it out isn’t a viable long term defensive strategy. Other teams Houston has played, barely have one receiver, let alone a second one to attack Wright. The Colts finally were able to.

Pascal’s wager left Wright picking his teeth up after a vicious double move to give the Colts 21 points.

Teams like Indy, and better AFC passing offenses, will be able to exploit this mismatch. I don’t know if it’s Aaron Colvin, Kayvon Webster, or some cryogenic defender who needs to be thawed out like dinner chicken during a lunch break, but someone on this team will need to step up and take snaps away from Wright.

—Adam Vinateri needs to shave. That prickly white old man cactus beard made my skin get down on its hands and knees and slither around. It gave me body dysmorphia. I spent half time shaving my own prickly face. Now I’m a pool boy. I’m going to shiver out in the desert next weekend.

Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker are one of the better inside linebacker combinations, which really just means linebacker combination since no one plays with three linebackers anymore. Leonard is a rookie second round pick. Walker is second year undrafted free agent. Both players are 23 years old. Together they had 33 tackles, 16 solo, 1 sack, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 pass deflected, and 1 quarterback hit.

Leonard is the better of the two. He can complete every action required from him. He can play the playside of the run and take on blockers head on. He can recognize the play, chase from the backside, and dip under potential blockers to smash the back for a loss.

Indy tasked him with covering Hopkins in the slot when Houston was in the redzone. Insane. But it worked. Leonard maintained good body position, and came underneath the route to play the ball. He even pressed Hopkins at the line of scrimmage. This is a death decision for nearly every defense. Somehow it worked for the Colts.

Leonard is also a really great blitzer. He times his rushes well and comes with the power to evaporate secondary blockers. He had a sack and a quarterback hit this game. He now has seven sacks and eight quarterback hits this year.

Walker is more of a mop than a defensive driver. He chases and tackles and runs around freely. Imagine Leonard as Benardrick McKinney, and Zach Cunningham as Walker. You get the picture. I adored this tackle for a loss Walker had from a pure football perspective. Walker rushes the play, comes inside of Jordan Thomas, and runs through the engaged Juli’en Davenport to pull the plug. Time is finite. No one should wait for anything.

—Lamar Miller followed up back to back 100 yard rushing games with 33 yards on 14 carries. The Colts have the fourth ranked rushing defense by DVOA, and is severely unnoticed. If you want to know why, the best place to start is the previous section. After climbing up and grappling the second level, the Texans couldn’t get their hands on the Colts’ linebackers. If you want to go deeper, then watch Kendall Lamm. He was absolutely awful in the run game.

Jabaal Sheard looked like Jadeveon Clowney when matched up against Lamm. This punch is an Alamogordo detonation. Sheard knocks Lamm all the way back into the Miller, and then grabs the ankles from there.

Here, Lamm can’t get his head to its outside destination, let alone cover him up. He instead hits his inside shoulder. Sheard pops off it, gets lateral, and cuts down Alfred Blue.

Houston had blocked the second level well, and Lamm had been competent in the recent past, but both aspects of the offensive line were miserable against the Colts.

—I don’t have the Pro Football Focus numbers, but I’ve felt throughout the year Watson has had trouble against the blitz. The Browns were able to use it effectively last week. The Colts were able to in their first matchup. The Colts brought it back in this one.

Indy loves to blitz its defensive backs from the slot position. This one is ferocious. Moore sprints in front of Hopkins and comes after Watson. The quarterback never recognizes it. Davenport is forced to block down on the blitzing Leonard. The blitz from Moore prevents him from closing the space between him and Senio Kelemete, allowing Leonard to get past the line of scrimmage. Moore stays outside, instead of trying to chase down Watson. A missed tackle gives him a wide open rush lane. He forces Watson to remain in the pocket where Leonard can color in the sky.

On this one the Colts used the Texans propensity to chip against them. Ryan Griffin turns to help Lamm, never seeing the free blitzing Moore. It never occurs to Griffin that Moore may be coming. Moore wraps around Watson’s collar bone to force the early punt.

All game long, on third down, the Colts brought it all. They surrounded Watson, forcing him to win from the pocket. Not allowing him to get outside of the pocket. This hive covering, and good downfield coverage, led to Watson’s five sacks.

When the Colts were rushing four, the Texans did a fine job protecting Watson. The pressure was mostly the result of the coverage, and Watson spotlight scanning, finding nothing. It’s had to block for three entire seconds, let alone five.

Denico Autry being good is despicable. This is some Bill Belichick downloading new programs onto hard drives stuff. Chris Ballard has pulled off the ridiculous by turning this defense into a competent one, building it with veterans no one wanted, and undrafted free agents. Margus Hunt starting the year off like he did, and Autry putting back to back big performances out into the universe is unbelievable.

Indy has $123 million in cap space and additional New York Jets second round picks. Their biggest impending free agent is what, Matt Slauson, Clayton Geathers, Ryan Grant, Al Woods? All players expendable. The Colts are horrifying extrapolated out into the future. They’re going to win like twelve games next year.

—I really liked both of Bill O’Brien’s fourth down play calls. Finding Jordan Thomas out in the flat was brilliant, especially considering the rushing issues Houston had. I especially loved that it took an avalanche to tackle him.

The other was the one on the goal line. No quarterback sneak. No roll out. No inside zone. They faked the snap to Watson, and instead sent the ball directly to Miller, who turned zero vertical movement into a dive bomb touchdown.

—Don’’t listen to Ryan Griffin. That was a silly challenge in the second half. Houston lost a precious second half touchdown. The ball was on the three inch line. Griffin was short. Luckily, it didn’t ruin the Texans comeback attempt. Jadeveon Clowney was able to do that on his own.

Luck is great at this. I feel like he’s used telepathy to draw Clowney off a dozen times since the two have squared off. The Texans lost on this play. They didn’t lose because of it.

—Overall, the Texans offense wasn’t that much different than it has been all year. They scored 21 points. Their season average is 25. The big part missing was a non-offensive touchdown that put them over the top. Aside from the lack of run production, the offense did what it has done all season. Put together three to four scoring drives, while the rest fizzle out. This time it was only three.

They did have chances for more. Watson was unusually off throwing the ball deep. He had open men downfield, but he overthrew them. Maybe attempting only one deep pass against Washington, or three against Denver, or three against Cleveland wasn’t enough. Maybe they should have done this more often to keep Watson’s touch sharp. Play action, go deep, let’s do this more often.

Missing Will Fuller is a big reason why the deep game has disappeared, but this team still has DeAndre Hopkins. He’s really good. Demaryius Thomas, and the Jordan rookies, can all stretch the field too. Throw it deep even when the game is 14-3.

—Watson is so good when he’s actually able to get out of the pocket. The Colts really had a great game plan to keep him glued between the tackles.