This could be it. The Indianapolis Colts have their backs against the wall against a very hot Houston Texans team that continues to outperform expectations. A disappointing loss a week ago in Jacksonville was a big blow to Indy’s playoff hopes and a consecutive loss in Houston could very well seal the deal.
In the last meeting, Andrew Luck and the offense got out to a slow start. The Texans entered half time with a 21 - 10 lead and it took two fourth quarter touchdowns for the Colts to pull even. With the help of a Kai Fairbairn missed field goal from 59-yards, Indianapolis was able to force overtime.
A decision to go for it in Colts territory with the overtime period drawing close to its end backfired. The offense failed to convert on 4th-and-4 and the Texans capitalized by completing one big pass and taking a late field goal to earn the victory. Since that game, the Texans haven’t lost. Coming into that game, the Texans were 0-3.
The team that helped the Texans start its winning streak must also be responsible for ending it, on the road. Even if Indianapolis succeeds, it will need help to have a chance at wildcard spot. If the team doesn’t, the remainder of the season will be about getting ready for 2019.
Here are the keys to the game.
KEEP DESHAUN WATSON UNCOMFORTABLE
Early in the 2018 season, the Colts were very effective at putting pressure on opposing signal-callers. In Week 4, Indianapolis sacked Deshaun Watson 7 times and totaled 11 quarterback hits. Even with all of this pressure, Watson amassed 375 passing yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Even with that kind of pressure, the Texans won the game.
Imagine the outcome if Watson had a clean pocket all day.
The Colts have struggled to effectively shutdown opponents through the air all season. Houston feels very good about utilizing its numerous weapons to attack an inconsistent secondary. One important way to make this difficult is to keep the pressure up and force Watson to make throws out of the pocket, which may lead to make mistakes.
DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the NFL. He has the talent to take over a game and deliver major blows to the Colts upset chances on the road. While Matt Eberflus likes to run a zone shell defense, he needs to assign his best press man corner to Hopkins and keep the pressure on. There should be over the top coverage shading to his side on every play.
Another key is to be ready for Hopkins’ tendency to push off and interfere to gain separation. It is a nasty habit and Hopkins gets away with it all of the time. Being prepared to accentuate and point out when Hopkins breaks this rule can help frustrate him and slow down Houston’s offense.
MUST MAINTAIN BALANCE
There is no denying the fact that the Colts struggled to run in Jacksonville. Based upon the limited production, it could appear reasonable that Frank Reich and Andrew Luck essentially abandoned the running game. It was a bad choice. Look at what the Titans were able to do to the same Jaguars defense days later.
The point is, it is more difficult for any defense to play against a team that is able to maintain balance. Well-timed draws or screen passes, or simply the use of quick-release patterns can help put a defense back on its heels. In games where the Colts have remained balanced, they have won. When they haven’t stayed balanced, they have lost.
Sometimes this is a function of score, playing from behind or with a lead. Last week it wasn’t. Reich and Luck need to find a way to keep the backs involved.
On offense, Andrew Luck, his receivers and running backs must be responsible with the football. Turnovers in this game could be catastrophic. The Texans offense is dangerous enough without help. Giving it a short field at home is an awful way to win the game.
On the other hand, members of the Colts defense have to come up with big plays. This is a game where the Maniac needs to take over in the middle of the field. This is a game where someone in the secondary needs to make a big play and it could be a chance for Quincy Wilson or Malik Hooker to flash their ball hawkish ways.
This is a theme for every game, the team who makes more big plays and who wins the turnover battle will typically win. In order to keep their postseason hops alive against a divisional opponent on the road, the Colts will need to be that team.
OFFENSIVE LINE MUST GEL
The Colts offensive line has been one of the team’s biggest stories. Rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith have paired with veteran guard Mark Glowinski to effectively cure what has longed ailed a struggling unit. A historic run of not allowing a sack or hit on quarterback Andrew Luck unraveled after starting center Ryan Kelly went down with a knee injury.
It is unreasonable for fans to expect Chris Ballard to continue to pull rabbits out of his hat, replacing former starters with players who consistently play at or above the same level. Expecting Evan Boehm to play as well as a former first round pick, who happened to be putting together the best season of his career, is unrealistic. However, if continuity on the inside can be established until Kelly returns, the line can be effective.
The offensive line will also need to find a way to make up for the loss of Jack Doyle. He was the best blocking tight end on the roster and his absence had a profound impact in Jacksonville. If the offensive line can keep Luck clean, there is reason to believe that Luck can out duel Watson and the Texans offense. If not, this could turn into another long day.