When the Houston Texans come to town on Sunday, it represents the first truly significant game on the Colts 2018 schedule. They’ll face an opponent against whom they are familiar, who has struggled out of the gate, and who represents an all-important opportunity at a divisional win.
Whether or not the Colts can get a win remains to be seen, but it will hinge, as all games do, on their ability to win their individual matchups. With that in mind, here are some of the matchups we should be watching for come Sunday.
Quenton Nelson vs Zach Cunningham
If you know who Zach Cunningham is, this undoubtedly confused you. Cunningham is a linebacker. He was somewhat abused by the Giants last week, and can struggle to react quickly to plays. From Battle Red Blog:
Cunningham’s play recognition during the rush is way too hesitant. He is watching the play develop and bunny-hopping in position in front of his primary gap responsibility. This creates no momentum for him when taking on a block and it allows larger linemen to overwhelm his smaller frame.
Might I remind you of this little gem from the Redskins game:
Quenton Nelson is a man who can eat a linebacker for lunch and pick his teeth with a blitzing cornerback. He has athleticism, size, and nastiness in his favor. Given Cunningham’s struggles in run defense against the Giants, you can definitely expect some pulling plays like this which will put Nelson on him and allow him to create big running lanes for Jordan Wilkins and possibly Marlon Mack.
Denzelle Good vs J.J. Watt
We haven’t seen top level J.J. Watt in awhile. Injuries have taken their toll on him the last couple seasons and kept him a bit off his game. However, last week we saw a player who looks like he could take over a game. With Joe Haeg out with an ankle injury, the spotlight will be on Good to handle the right side of the offensive line and a very formidable Watt, who when he is on his game, is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
The Colts would be foolish to let this matchup be one-on-one, because that would end badly for Good and worse for Andrew Luck. They’ll likely give Good help from Matt Slauson, the tight ends, and even running backs chipping. They’ll also try to get the ball out quickly, as they have all season. If Good can contain Watt, this offense should be able to put up points on the Texans. If he cannot, it will be a long day for the Colts.
Additionally, holding his own against Watt allows them to rush the ball effectively using those pulling blocks like we talked about earlier. If they can establish the running game and chew the clock, this game could be a big one for the Colts.
T.Y. Hilton vs Texans’ Defensive Backs
T.Y. Hilton has put up a lot of big games against the Houston Texans. For whatever reason, when he and Andrew Luck play the Texans, more often than not they put on an air show. Given the team’s injury hampered secondary, there is little reason to think this won’t continue. Hilton has been a clear target for Luck all season, often drawing looks from Luck even when it might be prudent to go elsewhere.
While Luck’s decision making with regard to targeting Hilton can sometimes be suspect, it also makes it clear that he won’t skimp on looking #13’s way this Sunday. Hilton will be facing Johnathan Joseph or Aaron Colvin in coverage, and the Colts will be pleased with those matchups all day. With targets like Eric Ebron over the middle drawing safety help, I expect Hilton to have a big game here.
Malik Hooker vs Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson is going to be a very good player in this league. He can make plays with his legs, make some breathtaking throws, and has the intelligence to run an offense that few sophomore quarterbacks often demonstrate. Last season he was electrifying in the short period before he was lost to an ACL tear. He was also lucky.
Watson likes to throw the jump ball. He trusts his receivers to go up and get 50/50 balls, and it is tough to blame him when he has guys like DeAndre Hopkins to pass to. However, those 50/50 balls nearly all went his way last season, and that isn’t usually nearly so successful an endeavor. That’s why his play has come back down to earth this season, and its why I think Malik Hooker will get his first pick of the year on Sunday.
Hooker has the range to get to a jump ball, the skills to track it, and the athleticism to go up and take it away. His ridiculous extension to break up a sure touchdown against the Eagles last week demonstrated that he is starting to feel more like his pre-injury self, and if he is challenged deep, which he almost certainly will be, he is going to make Watson pay.
Margus Hunt vs Cardboard cutout of an offensive lineman
The Houston Texans have a terrible offensive line. Their offensive line wishes it could be as good as the Colts’ line last year. It is really bad. There is hope that it can get better, because they’re playing two rookies, but they are an almost completely turned over unit that let Deshaun Watson get sacked 3 times and hit 11 last week. What would they look like if they had a quarterback without the awareness and mobility of Watson?
On the other hand, Margus Hunt has been like some sort of Estonian god-man who is experiencing his breakout season at 31 years old. He has been a near unstoppable force through three weeks, and hasn’t yet faced a truly terrible offensive line. It legitimately isn’t hard to see Hunt managing to net a couple more sacks on Sunday against this line, and if he can, it will be a truly impressive start to what will be a career year for him.
Darius Leonard vs all defensive rookies
Darius Leonard leads the NFL in tackles. He also has 3 sacks to his credit. He has been a phenom through three games in the NFL. The player who was picked too early has come out looking like the best defensive player in the 2018 draft, and he will undoubtedly be looking to continue his run of dominance and claw and scratch his team to a win.
While it is less likely to be at the forefront of his mind, there is little doubt that Leonard would love to net himself the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and he has already spoken about wanting to earn himself a pro bowl bid this year. If he can continue to have strong performances like the ones he has been stringing together, there is no reason that should be considered out of reach at all. In fact, if he can keep up his current pace, Defense Player of the year might not be out of reach (assuming Khalil Mack settles down).