In a back stretch full of games that were virtually “must win” for the Colts, this week that sentiment is even more relevant. The Colts travel to Houston Sunday, and this time it really is a must win game. A loss to the Texans all but assures that the Colts will be staying home in January. With such an impactful game ahead, let’s take a look at the matchups that will define this game.
Colts Offensive Line vs Texans Defensive Line
The offensive line of the Colts will look dramatically different when they take the field Sunday from the unit that faced the Texans in their first contest. How different? Well, if C Ryan Kelly is unable to play, which seems likely, the only lineman who played against the Texans in week 4 who will play Sunday is G Quenton Nelson.
Although they haven’t been quite as sharp without Ryan Kelly, this is a wildly different unit than the one that allowed 4 sacks and 10 QB hits. Since that game, the team has given up just 5 more sacks. The return of Anthony Castonzo and the emergence of Mark Glowinski at right guard and Braden Smith at right tackle have solidified one of the better lines in football, and Evan Boehm has stepped up to fill in for Ryan Kelly admirably.
With that said, that line will face a tough competition on Sunday. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are having great years and will look to be disruptive on the edge and get into the backfield like they did in the first matchup. I don’t expect the Colts’ offensive line to be perfect here, but they’ve faced a lot of very good defensive lines, and I’d be willing to bet that Quenton Nelson is a greatly improved player from the guy who got put on his butt by Clowney in week 4. This will be an important matchup to determine if the offense can get going after two rough weeks, because keeping Andrew Luck upright will be critical.
Marlon Mack vs Texans linebackers
Marlon Mack has had a couple very good games, but hasn’t been a huge impact over the last few weeks. That needs to change if this team plans to make it to see the playoffs. When the Colts have effectively run the ball, it has meant a better balance, less predictability in terms of play calls, and an overall more potent offense. If they can get Marlon Mack going early, it will help establish some rhythm to the offense and set them up for shorter 2nd and 3rd down situations which are much harder to defend.
I anticipate that the offensive line will be able to open some holes for Mack. It will then fall to him to take advantage at the second level. His ability to break off chunk plays hasn’t been on display this season as much as it was last year, and they need to see it resurface as this season comes to a close. They’ll need him at his best for this stretch of games, and hopefully Frank Reich has a plan to involve him more heavily than last week.
T.Y. Hilton vs Texans secondary
Part of the reason that the Colts need to get Marlon Mack going early is that it will enable them to open up their most significant weapon against the Texans, T.Y. Hilton. If they are able to get the play action game working to Hilton early on, this game could swing in the Colts’ favor quickly. In games where Hilton is doing his thing, the Colts tend to get into a groove, and Hilton has put up stupid numbers against the Texans over the years. If ever they needed him to do so, now is the time. First, however, they need him to make it to a practice and get healthy for the game, which is no guarantee at this point.
Anthony Walker vs Lamar Miller
Lamar Miller has had a pretty solid couple of weeks for the Texans. Since week 11 he has topped 100 yards from scrimmage, and his 97-yard run against the Titans is something that defensive players lose sleep over. Anthony Walker will likely be the guy primarily tasked with limiting Miller’s effectiveness in the passing game and as an explosive runner.
Walker has gotten better and better as the season has gone on, and I think this is a matchup he is equipped to handle. Darius Leonard of course will play a role in this as well, but ultimately it will come down to Walker playing at his best and making sure the defense is on the same page and doing what they need to in order to limit Miller’s impact.
The Colts have played relatively well against the run, but they can sometimes let those big plays get by them, and they cannot afford to do that Sunday. Stopping that means staying disciplined and making sound open field tackles. Those are things the Colts have done very well at times and very poorly at others.
Deshaun Watson vs Colts secondary
The Colts secondary has been a bit of a conundrum. At times they have played pretty well. At other times they’ve left us wanting to pull our hair out. We need a good performance this week against Deshaun Watson and a Texans team that has gotten hot. There isn’t anything unbeatable about Watson.
Don’t get me wrong, he is not without ability. His athleticism makes it possible to extend plays with his legs, and he uses that when necessary. He is a good quarterback who plays smart football and has the fortune to be throwing the ball to a ridiculous receiver in the form of DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans are undoubtedly lucky to have him.
If the Colts want a prayer of impacting this game, it will mean disrupting the rhythm of the receivers getting off the line of scrimmage, being quick and aggressive to react to the ball in the air, and limiting yards after the catch by making good open field tackles on receivers. These are areas they’ve struggled, and Keke Coutee was able to go over 100 yards in their first matchup because of it.
The Colts will need to have a plan to minimize the impact Hopkins can have, because with Coutee nursing a hamstring issue, they don’t have a lot of other truly dangerous receivers to deal with. If they let Watson sit comfortably in the pocket and throw to the seam to Hopkins, it is going to be a very long day.