Make the leaves change color. Turn that yellow light into gold. Cover my skin in pumpkin butter and stick those leaves of different colors—red, yellow, orange, goldenrod, maroon, burgundy—across my budding winter gut. Flip the CLOSED signs to OPEN at the vacant Blockbusters and K-Marts across the country, to make room for transient employees huffing fog machines and peddling cheap fabric and novelty plastic to transfigure goblins into nurses and blue aliens from a movie that came out ten years ago. Pump me full of cinnamon and pumpkin coffee. Kiss my neck. Take me to that exotic place, the Wegman’s. Let me pick out a pumpkin beer sampler, make my brain sharp, my body numb, my guts twisted. Stare at the falling sun. Listen to the cackling crows. Where did they all come from? It’s coming back again.
Fall football is the best football. Baseball is dying. Hockey and basketball are budding. Football reaches past its infancy, and knocks off games five through nine. This is the best part of the season. Teams have figured themselves out. Made up their personnel with in season adjustments to make the necessary corrections. Performance is substantially better. It isn’t as vital as December football is, when games can determine playoff fates, and seeding, but December football doesn’t have the same level of mystery and intrigue. At that point we got it. Things are settled except for some bits here and there. It’s the last turn before the postseason. No. The football played in swift wind and under cornucopias is the best one, and this weekend we are in for a great one.
1. OH MY GOD
The Colts have the best offensive line in football. Woooo. That’s a hot one. Anthony Castonzo has improved as a run blocker and has morphed from commendable and adequate to really good—the Colts love to run the ball off him and rank first in left tackle adjusted line yards. Quenton Nelson. Ryan Kelly makes ridiculous turns from the first level to the second level, and blocks at angles you wouldn’t think are possible. Mark Glowiniski is the worst player along it, but he’s perfectly fine and this is an off-hand compliment. And Braden Smith, moving from a college guard to tackle, has done things like lock down J.J. Watt in the past.
Indy is an exceptional run blocking team. The Colts’ run offense is averaging 2.1 yards before contact, and 2.4 yards after contact. That being said, Mack is a monumental reason for the Colts’ great rush offense. Their running back yards are .42 yards better than their adjusted line yards, and the Colts are 10th and 6th in second level and open field adjusted line yards. Mack has broken 17 run tackles, is tied for 11th, while being 8th in rush attempts.
The talent has never been a question. While everyone else was buying booze, pressing suits, picking up cocktail dresses and ignoring goose bumps, or watching football that mattered, we, because we just looooove the Houston Texans watched a T.J. Yates team play the Colts in week 17, to finish last in the AFC South. Mack casually stiff armed Jadeveon Clowney in that one, and then broke two more tackles after that.
Since that play, and since that game, I’ve waited for Mack to be something more than a member of a backfield, and this season he’s their concrete #1 back.
Aside from pure athletic talent and bone breaking stiff arms, Mack has great vision that the Colts utilize with scheming. This is wonderful play design. The Colts are blocking the inside zone to the left side. The tight end is pulling to the backside to seal the edge defender. The cutback here is designed. Get everyone flowing left, then pillage through the opposite side.
This run is successful because of Mack’s vision. The Chiefs utilize a 6-2 defensive front. Because of the presnap alignment the Colts can’t get to the playside inside linebacker. Mack doesn’t cut wide, or inside, instead he follows Braden Smith and allows him to complete operation human shield to block the unblocked defender and pick up the first down.
Many of the Colts’ run plays end up in a space than how they’re drawn or they should go based on the blocking scheme. Sometimes it’s intentional. Other times Mack can do things like turn an inside zone play into a long gain by cutting it wide and taking advantage of the wide receiver’s block.
And even when the run blocking isn’t there, he can jump cut around defenders, and joust his way to first downs.
The Texans’ run defense is good, but it’s not an all-time great one like last season’s that carried them to the postseason. Last season their run defense DVOA was -30.1% (1st) and they allowed 3.4 yards a carry (1st). This season they’re 11th in run defense DVOA at -14.9% and are allowing 4.4 yards a carry, which is 20th.
Houston isn’t making the negative plays they used to make. This season they’ve made only 19 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is tied for 30th. Most of their run tackles come from D.J. Reader tying up multiple blockers, chewing them up, and regurgitating the play into the chirping mouths of Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham.
They miss Kareem Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney. Justin Reid and Tashaun Gipson are fine janitors, the last line of defense, but they aren’t going to diagnose the play and send the unbuckled ball carrier through the windshield. Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett can set the edge fine, but they aren’t going to do absurd things like swim across the tackle, blow up the puller, and send him into the ball carrier.
As long as you don’t block Mercilus with a fullback, tight end, or wide receiver, you don’t have to worry about him turning a run play into an unsuccessful one.
I don’t know if it’s a coaching decision or what, but J.J. Watt only has five solo run tackles—they’ve gained an average of 5.8 yards—and has only one tackle for zero yards or less. He’s really selling out to stop the pass. This would be as good of a week as any for Watt to start making run stops again.
To stop run against the Colts they’ll have to sit in their gaps, hold their ground, and tackle well. The key matchup is going to come on the interior. If D.J. Reader, Brandon Dunn (Reader is primarily a 3-4 DE now, and Dunn is the NT), and DeAngelo Blackson can tie up Nelson, Kelly, and Glowinski, and allow Cunningham and McKinney to run unhindered, they should be able to play alright. But if either one gets chewed up and moved to the second level, it’s going to be a fast game.
They can also be aggressive and blitz McKinney and Cunningham, but they run the risk of Mack breaking tackes, cutting back, and picking up more than he ever should have. The problem is it puts pressure on their secondary. The Texans are 28th in missed tackle rate at 12.8%. These misses have primarily been in the secondary. They’ve missed 55 tackles, and the secondary has accounted for 37 of them.
It’s going to take a group effort to limit the Colts’ rushing attack. They run a variety of plays, and can because of the offensive line they have. Mack has panoramic vision and makes correct cuts and picks the perfect path, and they do a great job scheming to take advantage of this. It isn’t all interior. The entire field can be attacked by their rushing attack. Everyone on Houston’s defense has to be ready.
2. PAST THE CONFINES OF THE SCREEN
Jacoby Brisset lined up under center. Four down linemen. Two linebackers. Three cornerbacks. The most important players are unable to be seen from the broadcast view you and I will have during the game. How many safeties are deep? Is it one, or is it two? That’s the vital question for the Colts’ offense.
This season Brissett is averaging 4.2 air yards on completions, and 7 air yards on every intended pass. His attempts are traveling 2.5 yards short of the sticks. The Colts have attempted only 23 deep passes (passes over 15 yards through the air) and are 29th in deep pass attempts.
Brissett isn’t a bad deep thrower. We aren’t talking about Jared Goff here. He’s completed 11 of these attempts for 279 yards, has thrown 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, and is averaging 12.1 yards an attempt. He shows great touch and can throw it down the sideline.
Most of these attempts have gone to T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron. He’s 5/9 for 142 yards and 1 touchdown when throwing deep to these two. Part of it is the talent, Parris Campbell is really fast, but hasn’t been the deep threat torch he was expected to be right away. Zach Pascal, Deion Cain, and Chester Rogers don’t have the speed to cause deep troubles. Their big offseason signing, Devin Funchess, bobbled a pass and broke his colarbone. That being said, the Colts should, and need to start throwing it down field more often, especially with Hilton’s belly filled with red health potions.
Teams have been able to play one safety deep against the Colts, and keep the strong safety in a robber setting, lurking, collapsing on the ball, cleaning up the run game, and staring deep into Jacoby Brissett’s eyes. Brissett’s first interception this season was a pick six, because the strong safety could sit on the short part of the field without the free safety worrying about multiple deep passing routes.
This also makes the short passes easy to defend. Open crossing routes are stuffed for three yards on third and nine.
The Texans have gotten away with single high press man looks. They did it against Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes beat them on one +20 yard deep throw, a free pass that went through Justin Reid’s hands and into Tyreek Hill’s. Mahomes was 3/15 for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes that flew further than ten yards in the air.
Houston is going to keep playing like this until a team throws them out of it. Johnathan Joseph maybe back. Lonnie Johnson Jr. looks like an entirely different player now that he’s using his strength at the line of scrimmage well and playing the ball. Dare I say it, Bradley Roby’s replacement Phillip Gaines was competent last week.
If Houston can get away with one safety deep the Colts will be playing at an enormous disadvantage. The run game faces an extra defender. The short passing plays face an extra tackler. The play action passes deal with players closer to the receiver presnap. But if the Colts can throw the Texans into two deep safeties, it will open up their entire offense, and makes this game traumatically different.
3. A LIGHT HAS TURNED ON
After five years of bland, run heavy, do just enough to win 20-16 football, it seems like the Texans may have finally found the light switch, searching deep and fumbling in the valleys of its brain. And, no, don’t give me the whole the quarterbacks and offensive line were bad excuse, Bill O’Brien helped picked those quarterbacks (!!!!) and mismanaged his own offensive line (!!!).
Now, though, things look different. The Texans are 4-2 and looking to put their foot on the AFC South’s esophagus and start chasing postseason homefield advantage with a win this weekend. After scoring only 10 against Carolina, they’ve combined to score 78 offensive points the last two weeks.
They’ve done this by attacking the opponent’s weakness, like lightning v. water, or that soft spot between the shoulder blade and spine. Against the Falcons they used stack wide receiver sets with Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins to force the Falcons flummoxed secondary into making decisions.
Against the Chiefs they attacked their non-cornerback defenders in the passing game. Houston’s secondary pass catchers caught 12 of their 15 attempts for 142 yards and 1 touchdown. DeAndre Hopkins had five first downs against Tyrann Matheiu, and seven first downs on his nine catches. They ran the ball 41 times for 192 yards and averaged 4.7 yards an attempt. The had 15 more first downs and had the ball for 19:36 longer the the Chiefs. It was an expert game of keep away.
This week it’s the Colts’ defense that has been crappy this season. I regret my post. But it’s been crappy without Jabaal Sheard and Darius Leonard on the field, two of the three most vital components of this defense. Sheard hasn’t been good since returning from injury, and this maybe the week he finally makes a difference. Leonard has been out with a concussion, and he’s the center piece of the defense. Devouring the run game. Spying the quarterback. Timing rushes perfectly. Taking away the short center of the field and doing wild things like covering DeAndre Hopkins.
Even though they are currently 17th in points allowed per game and 28th in DVOA the defense has more talent than this, and it’s better than how it’s played because of extenuating circumstances.
Last time the Colts were on the field they played much better. They held the Chiefs to 36 rushing yards on 14 attempts. They limited Mahomes to 321 yards on 39 attempts. As a unit, they tackled well, played the ball at the catch point, and forced fumbles. Their pass defense and run defense DVOA was -23.3% and -29.7%.
The hindrance to the Texans’ offense this week is Matt Eberflus. In the 2018 Wildcard Round the Texans were held to seven points. Deshaun Watson attempted 49 passes for 235 yards. They played with zero pace. The non-Watson run game was awful. Indy ran great stunts to create pressure. They funneled the ball where they wanted it and played it from there. The only thing Houston did well was throw drags to Keke Coutee against soft zone coverage.
And don’t forget the slot corner blitzes. Kenny Moore, like death, comes for all of us, except for this game since he’ll be out.
This isn’t Dan Quinn or Steve Spagnuolo. This is Frank Reich and Matt Eberflus. This is an entire wheelbarrow of pink goop.
4. I’M THE JOKER BABY
Last time the Texans saw T.Y. Hilton he was mocking the Texans with a clown mask, the mirror flipping society’s ills back against itself so they could fully see all that deep vile hatred, and terrorizing late night talk shows. Hilton is back and healthy again, and once again, is playing his favorite opponent, the Houston Texans. Nobody loves doing something more than Hilton loves playing the Houston Texans.
Texans CB Johnathan Joseph didn't appreciate T.Y. Hilton calling NRG his ‘second home’ and said the comment was “for clowns.”— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) January 5, 2019
This is how Hilton showed up for their matchup
Over his career Hilton has caught 76 of his 122 targets (62.3%) for 1,445 yards (11.84 yards a target), and 9 touchdowns against the Houston Texans. The Colts are 9-5 in these games.
This season Hilton has also felt the Brissett affect. In 2018 he averaged 10.7 yards before the catch and his average catch went for 16.7 yards. This season he’s averaging 5.7 yards before the catch and his average catch goes for 9.7 yards. He looks stronger than previous seasons though. He’s breaking tackles with lower body strength and creating his own.
The deep catches are rare and occasional, instead of a constant force in this offense. Secondaries are no longer charred charnel houses.
This is the game for Brisset to be more than intelligent, mobile, refuse to make mistakes, and move the chains. With Hilton back, he needs to utlize him and finally hit on some deep passes to keep Indy from faling into a 2-1/2 game hole.
5. THE SECOND LEVEL
The Chargers, Raiders, and Falcons had success against the Colts’ defense. The best way they did this was attack the second level of their defense. Against the Chargers, their linebackers were over aggressive and focused on the right hand, when the left hand was the one that held the knife all along.
Even Devonta Freeman was able to run the ball aginst the Colts.
The Raiders pummeled the Colts front seven. They turned the first level, and clasped hands onto breasts at the second level. Jacobs ran for 79 yards on 17 carries. The Colts interior defensive line composed of Denico Autry and Grover Stewart on the first level is malleable, and rarely makes run tackles. If you block the second level you can run for ever against them.
Houston has been horrendous at blocking the second level since Brandon Brooks left for Philadelphia. It’s been better this season though. Laremy Tunsil-Max Scharping double teams are my favorite football thing going on right now. Because of the first level movement they generate, the second level is merely a detachment and clasp. It’s a short commute. The linebacker is stuck.
The entire unit did a fine job blocking the second level against the Chiefs. When thinking of football past a ‘I love this team’ level, one of the things to keep in mind is the context. The Chiefs’ have either the 31st worst or the worst linebacker group in the league. It just depends on what you think about the Cincinnati Bengals. Houston was great at the second level last week, but as of right now, from the point of time we are currently stationed at, it’s impossible to tell if it’s the opponent, or an actual skill the team has developed.
If they can do this once again, it will open up the entire offense to attack the Colts’ defense since their secondary hasn’t played very well. Pierre Desir hasn’t been as physical, and is a game time decision. Quincy Wilson is beatable in man v. man coverage along the sideline. Rock Ya-Sin’s physique can be seen from the broadcast view, but he’s still a rookie. Kenny Moore has been injured, and is out this week as their usual slot corner.
I’d expect for Houston to use the play action, set up easy throws, get the Colts riled up and aggressive. Then, from there, they can take advantage of Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins in one v. one matchups.
Houston also doesn’t have to really worry about the Colts’ individual pass rushes. Justin Houston had a sack against a pulling guard against the Chargers, and beat Cameron Erving a lot, but hasn’t been the impact the Colts’ expected. Kemoko Turay is out for the year. If they aren’t blitzing, Houston doesn’t have to really worry.
The key to pass protection is going to be spotting it before it arrives, and making the presnap protection corrections. As the Texans’ offensive line has grown accustomed to one another, the pickups have gotten better. As mentioned before, it’s still the Colts, and Eberflus has been able to come up with some funky stuff to leave the Texans’ offense retching and Watson bleeding.
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:-- through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If