Of course it had to come down to this. It’s the only possible outcome. The AFC South was usually decided by Texans-Colts this decade, so now, as the 2010s lays with clear tubes in its nostrils, gasps in its hospital bed, and wriggles in its low thread count white plastic sheets, its death rattle, Texans-Colts, it will once again be decided by this.
All those previous weeks were predetermined. For I am a Calvinist. I can’t see it. I do not know what’s there, but I do know that it’s there. Now that I’m way over here it all makes perfect sense. Aaron Colvin’s off man coverage, Trent Scott’s holding penalty, Deshaun Watson’s eye gouged touchdown. Kansas City fumbling away on a drunken Sunday night, Adam Vinateri kicking a pillow at the goal posts, a singular Brian Hoyer start—haven’t Colts fans suffered enough?
The heart has only so many beats. The sun is just a finite supply of hydrogen. The lungs lose their elasticity after so many inhalations. Everything is ordained and already settled. Don’t wrangle and allow what’s determined to strangle you. There’s nothing you can do. What is so confusing, and seems so unsettled now, are fears tearing at the unsettled mind. Let the skeletons make their long sad march. Hear their xylophones play. Texans-Colts a final turn AFC South title game. It couldn’t happen any other way.
1. YOU GOTTA DO SOMETHING ELSE
The Texans had two weeks to prepare against the Baltimore Ravens. Days in the film room. Time passes differently. Slow and moribund. Chinese takeout hazy. Searching for weaknesses. Learning how to attack an intelligent Baltimore team with a top cornerback group and a relentless third down pass rush. Awakened. Crawling out from the cave. Big bearded. I need to shave. And what did they come up with? The exact same thing.
Houston has stuck to this zone option ball control offense. This offense worked against Kansas City, Oakland, and Jacksonville, three of the worst linebacker groups, and it’s a Cincinnati away from four of a kind. It didn’t work very well against Indianapolis in their previous matchup, and it was was reasonable to assume it wouldn’t work against Baltimore. It didn’t.
The Ravens were all over these formations and actions. Flex wing tight end. Here comes the run. This time they try and mimic Baltimore with a dart option play. Backside defensive end chases the pull. Watson keeps. Eight in the box. Zach Fulton (#73) can’t get to Chuck Clark (#39).
Flex wing tight end. Fake the hand off. Backside edge defender sees Darren Fells (#87) pull. Rather than play the tight end, Matthew Judon (#99) ignores it. Clark flows over the top to play Fells. All my happiness is gone. Hopkins makes him miss once, but not the second time. Get this man a crunch wrap supreme, a Baja Blast, and some of the hot sauces in the little black pouches, yes those, the spiciest ones, of course I’m sure dammit.
2nd and 6 play action. Houston utilizes max protection. Despite investing three first round picks, two second round picks, and an average annual salary of $6.5 million in free agency to build their offensive line, they still aren’t confident enough in them to protect Watson on deep passing attempts on their own. It’s the same deep post scissors combination between Kenny Stills and DeAndre Hopkins. The slight difference is Keke Coutee is supposed to be the under route if the deep stuff isn’t open. Josh Bynes (#52) reads it. Coutee can’t outrun it. He deepens his route and runs into Hopkins. Coverage sack.
It’s week eleven. The same plays have been on film for a month now. NFL teams are filled with brilliant football men. They catch on. They recognize patterns. They see Fells in the backfield and know what’s coming. They see a max protection shell and Hopkins and Stills as tight receivers and they’re prepared.
The biggest concern for today’s game is that Houston’s offense has been figured out, and they faced a four day turnaround to expand their consciousness and come up with new things, and new ways to attack the Colts’ defense. Even in a week this is a difficult thing to do. Four days is sweaty. Maybe they were getting ready for the Colts during the bye week instead. Probably not. Hope is a dirty thing.
2. LET’S DO IT
What they can’t do is reenact what they did against the Colts in their first matchup. They spent the majority of that game trying to establish the run. Their first down run offense picked up 30 yards on 12 carries for 2.5 yards a carry. Deshaun Watson was 23 of 34 for 308 yards and averaged 9.1 yards an attempt. He was 9/12 for 106 yards on first down.
Roderick Johnson was active in place of Tytus Howard. Houston couldn’t move the interior of the Colts’ front. Howard is back, but fine to good isn’t that much a difference. The Colts front isn’t dominant either. Grover Stewart, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis, Margus Hunt, all change around on the inside. In that one, Nick Martin (#66) was repeatedly shoved around. Houston’s run offense wailed against a Colts’ defense that consistently loaded the box on first downs and against two tight end sets.
Houston went into the half down 14-9. The offense was better in the second half. They spread things out more. They didn’t max protect so much. They used plenty of spooky ghost jet sweep motions to get the Colts’ secondary running, and create space for DeAndre Hopkins. They ran the plays in the second half they should have run all game.
This is a nice expansion of the option play. Fake the hand off. Get wide. Hopkins runs an out against Pierre Desir. Watson moving to his right makes an easy throw.
This is a similar route in the third quarter from last week. The jet sweep action takes the place of the read fake. Hopkins is able to separate from Marcus Peters on a corner route.
Six yard Hopkins receptions that pick up a first down on second and four are conjoined with telecast exuberance. These are great when keep away is the name of the game against a team like Kansas City, who has an elite offense and great coverage corners. It isn’t when you’re playing the Colts, a team that can play keep away just as well, and doesn’t have the same talent on the outside. Houston has a matchup to exploit every time Hopkins is up against Desir. Hopkins has fallen from to 10th 29th in receiving DVOA this season. Find him downfield. Let him do some sideline attacking. Put flowers in his hair. Make him more effective.
Last week Houston used him the same way they’ve used him since the Chiefs’ game. Put him in the slot and have him run a slant. Put him wide and have him run a post. Teams are sitting on it now. The Ravens took away this first read by dropping a linebacker. The Colts were close to getting in front of it in a previous matchup. Darius Leonard is salivating and dripping all over his spinning discman somewhere in Houston.
The Texans should look to run more vertical routes this week. The Colts love to play single high with Malik Hooker deep. Both Desir and rookie Rock Ya-Sin have trouble with speed. They’re physical corners who can get lost out of breaks, and are susceptible to getting beat downfield. With Hooker playing single high, the offense can stress him into making decisions and then throw off it. This throw to James Washington against Ya-Sin is a perfect example.
Will Fuller V is questionable. This doesn’t mean the Texans should stop throwing the ball downfield. Kenny Stills is still a very good deep receiver. Fuller’s injury has, but shouldn’t have, shunted Houston’s deep passing attack. Since the last time these two played, the same game when Fuller was injured, Watson has attempted only 7 passes over 20+ yards though the air, and only 18 passes between 10-20 air yards. This is absurd. Throwing the ball downfield is one of Watson’s best skills. Stills had success against Indy downfield in their previous matchup. He averaged 26.25 yards a catch. It’s that same scissors combo against Ya-Sin.
With Watson and Hopkins, the Texans have the best players in this game. They need to do everything they can to play through them, spread the field out, and attack Indy’s deep thirds, deep fourths, and single high man coverage. This game maybe a shootout, and if it is, Houston has the better quarterback and receiver, and passing attack in general to win this one. They just can’t keep trotting out the same things they’ve trotted out for weeks now.
3. IT KEEPS GETTING BETTER
The monster in the center of this ideal, that sounds so clean and clear and beautiful in the confines of my skull, is that the Colts’ pass defense has substantially improved since the last time these two teams played. They’ve allowed 17 points a game, 196.75 yards a game, and have an average pass defense DVOA of -12.95%. The worst rating they’ve had was 7.1% against Jacksonville last week. Their pass defense has dominated against Denver, Pittsburgh, and Miami, and was great against Jacksonville.
These teams don’t have the same caliber of players that Houston has. Yes, I know that, I got it. The key here though is the Colts are healthier. Jabaal Sheard has knocked off the dead skin and torn the collage of newsprint off his walls. Justin Houston has figured out the whole hand down pass rushing thing. And, just as importantly, Kenny Moore and Malik Hooker are back on the field.
The Colts’ pass rush consists of a trio consisting of Houston, Sheard, and Autry. Houston is wiiiide out there. Getting into wide ‘5’ sets and speed rushing against anyone. The Colts prefer to use him against left tackles. It will be interesting to see if they get him any rushes against rookie Tytus Howard instead. Laremy Tunsil may lead the league in penalties, but he’s still a dominant one v. one watchdog. The one thing Watson can’t do is get deep in the pocket when Houston is wide. This will walk him directly into sacks. I’m old enough to remember when Whitney Mercilus would make plays like this.
Blocking Houston is like trying to grasp a glass bottle slipping out of your hands. It wriggles, you bobble, it crashes towards the Earth. Speed and gravity. Both are overwhelming. Phew. I’m still devastated I lost that beet juice kombucha in Canada. I know what professional offensive tackles feel like.
Sheard plays on the other edge. He’s been better as a run defender this season. He has 2.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 17 pressures compared to Houston’s 8 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 21 pressures. He still poses a problem for Howard. He wins predominantly with hands and power. Howard’s hands have improved tremendously this season, but Sheard can still give him some trouble.
Autry was a surprise last season. A slithering ensemble exploding from a can of beans. He had 9 sacks, but only 11 quarterback hits. These things usually balance themselves out. They have this season. He has 2.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 pressures. He’s a more consistent source of pressure this season. Like Sheard, he wins with hands and power. Love this rush against Rodger Saffold III. He’ll be trouble on the interior.
Houston have been diligent security guards in one v. one matchups. It isn’t the individual rushes that have killed them. It’s the blitzes. The shifting and repairing of Bill O’Brien’s waterbed. New starters, constant configuring, injuries, hot throw issues, have all led to a weakness against big blitz warfare. This week doesn’t change anything. Matt Eberflus is going to bring it cowboy.
The Colts can spread out their defensive line, show pressure with either Darius Leonard (#53) or Anthony Walker (#50) and run stunts from there. Tyquan Lewis (#94) is usually their other interior rusher.
The best thing they do is overload sections of the line of scrimmage to create free rushes. They’ll get four v. three, five v. four, and when it’s even one v. one blitz matchups, they’re relentless and overwhelming blitzers, howling for blood. Like death, slot corner Kenny Moore (#23) comes for us all.
They’re one of the rare teams who still runs zone blitzes. They’ll overload one side. Drop back a defensive linemen to scour the opposite side of the blitz. This is the only time dropping a defensive lineman into coverage has worked.
Leonard is also a great blitzer in his own right. It’s difficult to gauge what he’s doing before the snap. He switches from dropping into hook zone coverage, carrying the seam or post, spying the quarterback and turning spies into green dog blitzes, or blitzing from stacked alignment sets. He’s Luke Kuechlyish.
Watson has only thrown six interceptions this season. These usually aren’t missed reads, looking through a defender, or being overly aggressive. Instead these have typically been the result of the following algorithm: no one open + pass rush = desperation. The Colts’ offense kind of sucks. He can’t turn the ball over and make mistakes tonight.
Hooker is having a break out season. From a pure “I love professional football” perspective instead of a “I think I love the Houston Texans” perspective, his injury was a bummer. He’s back on the field now. He controls the deep center of the field, allowing the Colts to play single high, and the zone coverages they like to run. They’ll maneuver him around presnap to confuse quarterbacks. He has the speed and power to go from deep middle to a bounty hunting robber.
The deep middle is treacherous. If they throw there they’ll need to get Hooker running sideways in the opposite direction first. Even then, they’ll be better off making downfield throws from the hashmarks to the sideline.
The Colts’ pass defense is bolstered with top talent. It’s been vile since the last time these two teams. They do have coverage problems though, and they also haven’t played a quarterback better than a recently healed Nick Foles. Watson and this offense is a different matchup entirely. It’s going to be up to Houston’s coaching staff to maneuver around what the Colts’ do well to find open spaces in the passing game.
4. A COLLECTION OF HORRORS
Indy’s offense has been mediocre this season. Brian Hoyer’s body weighed down by bowling balls at the bottom of the lake sunk down their passing numbers, but still, it’s been mediocre. They’ve thrown for less than 200 yards in every game last month, and have posted a negative DVOA the last two weeks.
The biggest reason for this is T.Y. Hilton has been out with a calf injury. Zach Pascal has been their WR#1. He has 10 catches on 21 targets for 125 yards and 1 touchdown in this role. The only thing he has in common with Hilton is they both love playing the Houston Texans. In these games, Pascal has 17 catches on 23 targets for 230 yards and 4 touchdowns. Great stuff.
Things are shorter. Jacoby Brissett is maneuvering around the pocket. They’ve done everything they can to spread it around: Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, Chester Rogers, Nyheim Hines, have all seen plenty of targets. Limiting mistakes is his best skill. He’s mobile, but isn’t fast. He has an arm, but chooses when to use it. He isn’t overly aggressive. Brissett is just a normie non-Florida man version of Jameis Winston. Glasses. Mortgage payment. Shirts with sleeves. He makes some nice throws and whips his arm all the way around when he needs to.
Hilton may play. Houston better hope not. They’re already lucky they don’t have to face rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell. The Texans have been scorched by speed and short passing offenses. They’ve allowed a completion percentage of 74%, 18 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, 114 first downs, 7.4 yards an attempt, and have a DVOA of 10.9% (29th) when covering throws that travel less than 15 yards. Brissett has a completion percentage of 67.9%, thrown 13 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, 72 first downs, and averages 6 yards an attempt on these throws. Last week Lamar Jackson short passed them to death. This time Brissett will try and do the same.
Making matters worse is that Justin Reid, Mike Adams, and Lonnie Johnson Jr. are all out. Reid is the sinkhole in the heart. He’s ranged from covering things up as a single high safety, to playing man coverage. Johnson Jr. has been whatever for a rookie, and is capable when he can brutalize wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Bradley Roby could play. He’s questionable along with Tashaun Gipson. Expect for Johnathan Joseph, Vernon Hargreaves III, who has been atrocious playing press man in Tampa Bay, and Gareon Conley to play corner. Whatever else happens depends on who can roll out of bed. Regardless, Houston doesn’t have anyone who can hang with Hilton, or hell, even Pascal for that matter.
Look for the Colts to attack Houston through the air, instead of fight a powerful run defense that matches well against them.
5. WHERE’S IT GOING TO COME FROM?
Houston’s only disruptive pass rusher against the Colts’ passing attack last time was J.J. Watt. The Texans had one sack and eight quarterback hits in their last matchup. Watt accounted for six of them. He was the entirety of Houston’s rush. This was it. You can revisit the past, put your feet in those same footsteps, by clicking here.
The Texans’ pass rush doesn’t exist anymore. They have 4 sacks and 17 pressures since he went down with a torn pectoral. Yet, 12 of those pressures came in London when Gardner Minshew is still looking for an open receiver to break out into the flat. Brennan Scarlett has been responsbile for three of these loooong sacks, and Carlos Watkins has one of his own.
They haven’t created a meaningful rushes though. These sacks were the results of the quarterback running his way into pressure, and a failed zone read play. Houston needs to get more out of Whitney Mercilus. He’s the team’s best pass rusher. Yet, he has only four pressures the last three games. With D.J. Reader covered in blisters playing the run game, the interior pass rush has disappeared, and so has the alley-oops that were tossed to Mercilus to start the season. Wide and looping. Typically meaningless and inefficient.
Houston should look to give him some rushes against Braden Smith. The Colts’ right tackle has dropped off his rookie season. He’s beatable this time around the sun. Last time Anthony Castonzo sat on the couch between Mercilus and Brissett he wasn’t even able to reach along the spine to feel the touch of a hand.
Their weakest pass blocker is Mark Glowiniski’s neck beard. Charles Omenihu should be saved for pass downs as a crisp bullrusher against this wilted blocker. Reader getting more reps as a ‘3’ technique is another option. Every punt, every quarterback hit, every sack, every incompletion, every uncomfortable pocket, means so much for a defense without a competent cornerback group.
Romeo Crennel is in a rough spot. It’s hard for him to blitz because of the problems behind the front seven. They can’t really play pure man. The secondary is swished around mouth wash. It lacks the continuity to play zone coverage, and the understanding of when, where, how, and why to pass receivers in coverage. So he’s doing things like rushing three. He’s throwing bodies at the coverage, yet, without Watt, there isn’t a pass rush. Anytime he does this the quarterback can watch the shadow of the sun dial before throwing a pass.
Last week he blitzed Mercilus and Scarlett six times each and he blitzed Benardrck McKinney once. It didn’t work. The Ravens had a pass offense DVOA of 70.6%. The Ravens scored 41 points. They didn’t punt once. Crennel will need to be aggressive, B-E aggressive. He’ll need to run more inside loops, get McKinney going off the edge like D’onta Hightower, Jacob Martin has to get the chop-rip going, someone, anyone, someone, anyone, has to do something.
6. THE REMATCH
The man smiled at him a sly smile. As if they knew a secret between them, these two. Something of age and youth and their claims and the justice of those claims. And of their claims upon them. The world past, the world to come. Their common transciencies. Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one.