On September 30, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Houston Texans. In this week four match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our new look Colts.
The Texans finished 2017 with 4 wins and 12 losses, in what was only their third losing season in the last decade. The last time these two teams faced off the Texans and Colts were both missing their franchise quarterbacks. In the week of practice leading up to the two teams first matchup of 2017, rookie phenom quarterback Deshaun Watson went down with a torn ACL three days before the game, leaving no time for the coaches to adjust the gamplan. As a result, half of the 2017 Indianapolis Colts wins came against the Houston Texans. This year both starting quarterbacks are expected to play in this one, hopefully the results are the same as last season.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week four.
The 3-4 defense was created decades ago by Chuck Fairbanks and Hank Bullough and today their defensive innovation is used across the league. The Texans employ a 3-4 base defensive set. The 3-4 defense traditionally employs a system that requires its defensive linemen to protect not one, but two gaps along the line. In the Colts 4-3 the linemen are responsible for a single gap. For example a defensive tackle may be responsible for the area between the center and the guard (known as the “A” gap) and in a 3-4, two gap system a defensive tackle might be responsible for the gap between the guard and tackle (the “B” gap) and the gap between the guard and center.
The 4-3 is traditionally a one gap system and the 3-4 is traditionally a two gap system and that’s just the way it was, until Wade Phillips did something no one else had successfully done before, he integrated a one gap system with the 3-4 defensive front. The “Phillips 3-4” has kept Wade Phillips employed as a highly sought after defensive coordinator since 1981. Phillips served as the Houston Texans defensive coordinator (and interim head coach for a while) from 2011 to 2013 and his impact can still be seen when watching the Texans defense.
The 2018 Texans don’t exclusively use one or two gap concepts, instead they use both throughout the game depending on situation and personnel. Sometimes you’ll see J.J. Watt burst through the line at the snap, other times you’ll see him hold up, read and react to what the offense is doing. In 2018 it isn’t that unique to see a team employ both techniques but it is worth noting.
On the back end of the Texans defense we should expect to see a lot of man to man coverage. At times I noticed the Texans disguising coverage before the snap by showing blitz and man coverage before dropping the would-be blitzers into coverage and dropping into a cover 3.
Also if the Texans send a blitz they are almost always going to be in man coverage. Luckily I wont have to go into Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz system this week too because if they have zone blitz concepts in their playbook, they’ve yet to use them in a game. If they send extra rushers someone is going to have to beat man coverage.
An interesting thing I noticed is how hard this team sells out to stop the run, they really are really committed to limiting the opponents ground game. As a result of this commitment they tend to bite hard on play action. If there were ever a time to work in play action passes and RPO’s it’s against these Texans.
This is some of that disguised coverage I was talking about. Before the snap the Texans show a double a gap blitz before dropping both linebackers into a cover 3. The deep safety takes the deep middle while two of the corners play an underneath zone and the other two corners drop into a deep third. The Titans don’t run a great play for the coverage called and Blaine Gabbert drops a dangerous pass to his receiver who can’t come up with the catch, but this is something we can expect to see this Sunday.
Here is an example of the Texans actually blitzing. You’ll notice they send six pass rushers and four defenders cover a single receiver complete with a single high safety in a deep zone. This is also known as cover 1.
Had the Titans gotten their tight end out in space earlier in the play and bounced the running back out to the left for a dump off that could have turned into a huge gain. Instead they stayed in to block so that Gabbert can throw a deep incompletion.
Here the Texans rush 3, drop a down lineman into a short zone, something I’ve noticed the Colts doing this year as well. On the back end the Texans show a Tampa 2 coverage, dropping a linebacker in the middle of the zone while the safeties play deep halves and the corners each have an underneath zone on the outside.
The Titans have the right idea attacking a weak point of the cover 2 but fail to execute.
Deep in the redzone the Texans drop eight men into a zone, rushing only three. Really I included this play because JJ Watt is a cheat code and it doesn’t matter if you rush three or just Watt and drop 10 into coverage.
The Texans scheme is diverse and modern, but it has to have horses to run.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before but this defensive line is good. For the record the first defensive line that might be an easier task for our offensive line will come in week seven against the Buffalo Bills. Until then, it’s tough sledding.
Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are listed as linebackers but for all practical purposes they are defensive linemen who sometimes drop into coverage. Mercilus will drop more often than Clowney. (insert general comment about the quality of these two)
With those two coming off the edge the interior of the line could probably still produce, even if it were lacking in talent. Unfortunately for our Colts the Texans interior defensive line isn’t lacking for talent. Christian Covington isn’t the guy you probably expected me to go into after that introduction but here we are. We’re starting with him because despite the fact that most people who read this article probably don’t have any idea who he is, the dude is pretty good. He was a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL draft out of Rice who has struggled with injuries during his young career. Last year Covington seemed to be coming into his own, shaking off the inconsistent play that followed him earlier in his career while filling in for an injured J.J. Watt, before tearing his biceps in week seven.
Covington is a guy the Texans can count on, as is the massive man who lines up at nose tackle for the Texans; D.J. Reader. Reader is listed at 6’3” and 347 lbs and after watching him play, I believe those numbers to be accurate. Reader is a good space eater but not much more and he shouldn’t see many snaps on obvious passing downs. He will be a lot for Ryan Kelly to handle one on one in the run game but when either guard is available to help, Reader’s sub par athleticism will be on display.
The problem with having either guard help out is J.J. Watt. Before his week three performance that saw him rack up three sacks all of the usual suspects of the national hot take media were writing Watt off saying that he looked washed up. I remember watching Rob Gronkowski’s first game back from multiple injuries and to me that’s more or less how Watt looked early in the season. They looked rusty and like they hadn’t played football in a while but like Gronkowski, a player as gifted as Watt isn’t going to stay down forever. Make no mistake Watt will be one of the best 2-3 defensive linemen the Colts will see all year.
In case you were wondering, JJ Watt is 100% back. pic.twitter.com/dyssCcqmCU— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) September 25, 2018
Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney are the names you’ll see on the field on Sunday. Before last week I would have thrown Dylan Cole’s name into the ring but the talented second year former UDFA out of Missouri State dislocated his wrist and was placed on injured reserve. I don’t see what the big deal is, Shaquem Griffin is playing out of his mind with one usable wrist (small joke, but seriously, Griffin is killing it).
Now that Cole is injured it’s going to be interesting to see what the Texans do at the third linebacker position. On their own, Cunningham is still a better athlete than he is a football player and Benardrick McKinney won’t be the best interior linebacker the Colts will see this season but he is very good and could end up having a big day.
When you have a defensive line in front of you the way that Cunningham and McKinney do, life gets easier and flowing to ball carriers gets much less difficult. With that said I feel very good about challenging these linebackers in space with Eric Ebron and Nyheim Hines, both could have big days exploiting the coverage they will see on Sunday.
Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu have both played more defensive snaps for the Texans than anyone else. Jackson, a long time cornerback, was moved to safety this off season and has looked very good in his new role. Both he and Mathieu have the ability to play deep at safety or as a slot corner. This versatility should be very useful as the season goes on for the Texans. Mathieu is no stranger to the Colts, this clip is from 2017 when he was with the Cardinals:
The Honey Badger! Tyrann Mathieu! pic.twitter.com/r0C29YP096— WeAreDBnation (@WeAreDBNation1) July 10, 2018
During their week one game against the Patriots cornerback Kevin Johnson suffered a concussion that landed him on IR. Honestly he may have been the weak link in the Texans secondary but it is notable anytime a team will be without a former first round pick.
In his place the Texans will send out Johnathan Joseph, Aaron Colvin, Shareece Wright and Justin Reed (a safety who has played some snaps at corner this year. Joseph is 34 years old, Wright is 31 and on his fourth team in five years. Neither is a bad player, but neither concerns me either.
Aaron Colvin is a guy that has flown under the radar nationally but is a very good young corner who came to the Texans after leaving the Jaguars in the off season. Right now he is dealing with a chest injury and may not be able to play this week. I never want a guy to miss time due to injury but if Colvin doesn’t play I feel pretty good what the Colts offense might be able to do on Sunday.
Aaron Colvin has shown the ability all year to keep up with the receiver across from him, but here against Tennessee week 17, he shows his RECOVERY speed from the pick at the LOC, still manages to force a breakup from behind. Edited with @KlipDraw pic.twitter.com/i96ZoXFtzz— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) March 1, 2018
What to Expect from the Colts Offense:
The Colts are going to need to get the ball out quickly this week, the Texans just have so many pass rush options and I’m not counting on seeing Anthony Castonzo on the field until I actually see him line up at left tackle. Until then I have to assume Le’Raven Clark is the answer at the position and as long as he’s there, the ball needs to come out quick.
I think play action out of shotgun formations will yield effective results and if the Colts can ever execute, a few well timed-screen passes could be deadly in this one.