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How the Colts Can Shut Down the Texans’ Offense

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and they’ll be going up against their division rivals, the Houston Texans, in what should be a fun double chin-strap game. If the Colts were to win, they would face off against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Colts finished the season on a 4 game winning streak and won 9 of their last 10 games. The Texans finished the season winning 11 out of their last 13 games, but were only 2-2 in their last 4 games, including a Week 14 loss to the Colts in Houston.

Quick Stats

Texans Points Scored Per Game (Season) — 25.1 Points

Texans Points Scored Per Game at Home (Season) — 25.9 Points

Texans Points Scored Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 26.3 Points

Texans Total Yards Per Game (Season) — 362.6 Yards

Texans Total Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 333 Yards

Texans Passing Yards Per Game (Season) — 236.3 Yards

Texans Passing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 252 Yards

Texans Rushing Yards Per Game (Season) — 126.3 Yards

Texans Rushing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 81 Yards

Texans Yards Per Play (Season) — 5.6 Yards Per Play

Texans Yards Per Play (Last 3 Games) — 5.3 Yards Per Play

Texans Yards Per Point (Season) — 14.4 Yards Per Point

Texans Yards Per Point (Last 3 Games) — 12.6 Yards Per Point

The Texans have an efficient offense that has consistently ranked in the top half of the field and their yards per point ranking is in the top 10.

The Texans are dealing with a few injuries, including:

  • Their two best receivers behind Deandre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas and Will Fuller, are both on Injured Reserve after suffering a torn Achilles and a torn ACL, respectively.
  • Their opening day right tackle, Seantrel Henderson, has missed the entire season with a broken ankle.

Shutting Down Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson has played at an extremely high level this season. He has a strong arm that can stretch the field and is very athletic and can make a lot of plays with his feet. He is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. Stopping him will be difficult, but if the Colts are successful in doing so, they’ll take away the biggest piece of the Texans offense and render them almost useless. So, how do you stop him?

Watson’s Passing Ability

Deshaun Watson can make all the throws and has been accurate this season, completing 68.3% of his passes with a 8.2 yards per attempt average.

Week 17 vs Jaguars

Week 16 vs Eagles

Week 14 vs Colts

A couple of patterns emerge with Watson. Despite the fact that he has made all the throws, 20% of his passes have come on or behind the line of scrimmage. 41.5% of his passes have come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Half of his completions have come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. The rhythmic, short passing game is a staple of the Texans’ offense.

The Texans utilize a true spread offense and the spread offense relies primarily on simplified pre-snap reads and quick-hitting type throws. His high completion percentage (68.3%) is thanks in large part to those short passes. To combat spread offenses and to throw off quarterbacks, you need to throw off the timing in the passing game. This is similar to what we saw last week with the Titans’ offense. Although Mariota did not play, we saw that in their spread offense (which coincidentally they operate), they relied heavily on the short passing game and being in rhythm.

The main difference between the Texans and Titans is that Houston sets up the short passing game to go deep, whereas the Titans rarely go deep with Mariota. The Texans have been successful on downfield passes.

So, if we know the Texans need to short passing game for their passing game to thrive, the Colts need to do what they can to disrupt the timing of the receivers. Playing tight coverage and being more physical with their receivers helps disrupt that timing. Their main deep threat is DeAndre Hopkins, so while playing tight coverage gives him the ability to go deep and make a big play, having someone like Malik Hooker cap him over the top will eliminate that deep threat.

Watson has a 113.4 passer rating outside the pocket, according to NFL Matchup, so keeping him in the pocket will be key to the Colts’ success on defense. Watson’s passer rating drops to 101 when inside the pocket and it drops to 89.1 when he’s under pressure, however, it’s worth noting that under pressure he’ll scramble outside the pocket, so keeping him inside the pocket becomes even more important in that situation.

We’ll explore how to keep him in the pocket in the “Watson’s Running Ability” section.

Watson’s Running Ability

Week 17 vs Jaguars

Watson usually runs outside the pocket and that’s because he’s usually avoiding pressure up the middle. If the Colts bring pressure up the middle, they need to make sure that the edge defenders and the linebackers keep him contained in the pocket.

There isn’t necessarily a formation or scheme change that makes a big difference in stopping a running quarterback. The team can delegate a “spy” on Watson, which makes a difference, but again, there isn’t a major formation change that needs to be done. There are several coaching points that players need to be taught in practice. The coaching points are:

  • Not allowing the quarterback to reverse field or change direction.
  • Not rushing past the quarterback and making sure the players keep the quarterback in front of them.
  • The pass rush must not rush timidly or with any hesitation, but must rush with control and with their head and eyes in the backfield; their awareness level must be at an all time high.

These are the similar coaching points that the Patriots used in their Super Bowl matchup against Russell Wilson in the 2014-15 season. In that game, they held Wilson to 3 rushes for 39 yards.

I do believe the Colts should delegate a spy on Watson. Usually, the spy is a linebacker and I believe the Colts have two very good players who can be effective spies against Watson: Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker. Both players had nearly identical 40-yard dash times to Watson and are the two most instinctual and talented linebackers on the team. During the game, one of these two players should spy Watson on almost every play and they need to contain everything he does.

A good quarterback spy is someone who stays patient, who cuts off angles properly and has very good recognition and tackling skills. Watson is the type of player who will go through 2 reads and then take off and run and the linebackers need to be aware of this, especially on important 3rd downs. The Colts should look to keep 6 players in the tackle box area and within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage for most of the game. This will ensure that the running game doesn’t take off and it’ll keep Watson in the backfield.

The Texans are 7-2 when rushing for more than 100 yards and 4-3 when rushing for less than 100 yards. Their average margin of victory when rushing for more than 100 yards is over 12 points, and is less than 5 points when rushing for less than 100 yards. They average 27 points when rushing for more than 100 yards and 23 when rushing for less than 100 yards.

In short, the Texans are not as effective when their running game is slowed or shut down.

Taking Away Deandre Hopkins

Deandre Hopkins is arguably the best receiver in football. Hopkins had 115 catches and ZERO drops this season. Those numbers are unheard of and I would argue he was the most productive and efficient receiver in the NFL this season. If the Colts intend on shutting down Deshaun Watson, they need to take away Hopkins, so these two sections go together.

Week 17 vs Jaguars

Week 16 vs Eagles

Week 14 vs Colts

Hopkins runs all the routes in the route tree and does so as well as anyone in the league.

Receivers run 5 types of releases:

  • Shave
  • Stutter
  • Seam
  • Slide
  • Slice

Hopkins is at his best when utilizing a slice and shave release. Both releases are used when the defensive back is playing off the receiver.

The Shave release stems directly at the shoulder of a defender. The rule is to attack the route-side space shoulder of the immediate-threat defender. For example, the Shave release stems directly at the shoulder of a defender. The initial rule is to attack the route-side space shoulder of the immediate-threat defender. The Slice release informs the receiver to take the easiest release based on the alignment and attack path of the collision defender. Hopkins does both of these releases as well as anyone in the NFL.

Hopkins isn’t great at the stutter release. If you’ve watched Wes Welker, Julian Edelman or Cole Beasley, they are masters at the stutter release, especially Welker. The stutter release is used at the line of scrimmage against tight man or press coverage. Since Hopkins is not strong at the stutter release, it’s important to force him to use it as often as possible. The key to getting him off his game is to make him uncomfortable.

You’ll also notice that in his route charts, the routes where he received the ball (and caught it) needed to develop. He isn’t a Tyreek Hill type where he’s going to get 3-4 screen passes; Hopkins needs space to run his routes, so the thing that the Colts secondary needs to do is eliminate that space. He can’t be able to breath.

Hopkins is not a threat after the catch, averaging only 3.7 YAC yards per reception, which ranks in the bottom 20% of the NFL. He won’t run away from anyone, which means the Colts can afford to play tighter coverage.

Hopkins was essentially shut down in the last game against the Colts, but the Texans have aired it out more in recent weeks and Hopkins has had over 100 receiving yards in each of the last 3 games, so the Colts should treat this matchup like an entirely new game and not rely on the last Colts-Texans matchup.

To truly shut him down, the Colts should put their best man, most physical coverage cornerback on him and play Malik Hooker over the top on him on every passing down and Hooker should spy Hopkins on every play. Desir has been their best cornerback this year and is the most physical one, so he’s a great candidate to go up against Hopkins.

Winning the Battle in the Trenches + Stopping their Running Game

The Texans have arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL, which bodes well for the Colts. According to Pro Football Focus, their best offensive lineman is Kendall Lamm, who is considered average and the 57th best offensive tackle by their measures.

Football Outsiders have them rated as the worst offensive line in the NFL with an 11.3% Adjusted Sack Percentage, which is described as “ sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent”.

It is a weak offensive line that has allowed 60 sacks and 126 quarterback hits on the season, both of which are NFL worsts.

Last week, the Colts utilized a double A-gap defensive tackle look to generate pressure inside and to stop all A-Gap runs. The Colts would be smart to do something similar with Margus Hunt and Denico Autry. Hunt and Autry have had a great season rushing the passer and have a huge advantage over Kelemete, Martin and Fulton, who have been below average this season by most measures. A good interior defensive linemen can pressure the quarterback quicker than an edge defender because it takes less steps to get to the quarterback. By bringing pressure through the A-gaps, the Colts will get pressure on Watson quickly and it will force him to make a tough pass or use his legs, which the Colts will have covered. Leaving the B-Gaps open is dangerous if the linebackers are undisciplined and not good tacklers, but Leonard, Walker and Goode have proven to be sure tacklers this season, especially Leonard.

The Colts might even bring Clayton Geathers (if he’s healthy) into the box, which fortifies them in the running game, which means they can keep the defensive tackles in the A-Gaps. In nickel, the Colts should strongly consider keeping Geathers in the game and taking out a linebacker not named Leonard or Walker. Geathers is a strong run defender and can defend the Texans’ tight end if needed.

With the double A-gap strategy, the Colts can be free to blitz the B-gaps with their linebackers when they want. The strategy works when the team has a strong advantage inside and when they have two reliable linebackers (both of which the Colts have).

3 Adjustments/Keys for the Colts Defense

  1. Contain Deshaun Watson in the pocket and take away Deandre Hopkins, his favourite target and his primary read on many throws. Combat their spread system by playing more tight, physical coverage.
  2. Double team Deandre Hopkins by having Malik Hooker shadow him over the top. The Colts need to eliminate any space he has and to play physical with him to disrupt the development of his routes.
  3. The Colts need to play their defensive tackles (Autry and Hunt) in the A-Gaps to get pressure on Watson as quick as possible and to clog up inside running lanes.

The Colts need to make the Texans play left-handed and they need to force them to beat the Colts without Hopkins and with Watson not at his best. Force Keke Coutee, Lamar Miller and Jordan Thomas to have big games, because the odds of them having monster games are less likely than Hopkins or Watson having a monster game. With these adjustments, they’ll force the Texans to play with restrictions on their best offensive players.