On November 21, 2019, the Indianapolis Colts will travel to take on the Houston Texans. In this Week 12 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
In week 7 these two teams met for a fantastic game in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts had control of the game early on and never let up. Jacoby Brissett had a big day setting career highs for both passing yards and touchdowns while Justin Houston sacked the Texans electric franchise quarterback twice. Hopefully, we see a repeat of that performance in prime time.
Let’s figure out what we can expect in week 12.
In case you forgot where Texans head coach, Bill O’Brien cut his teeth in the NFL, it was with the 2007 New England Patriots as an offensive assistant. O’Brien came to the Pats by way of a nearly 15 year run coaching at various college football programs along the east coast. If you trace back his schematic influences far enough you’ll start to see names like Carl Franks and Marty Galbraith. Then if you dig just a little deeper you’ll find that all roads lead to a lot of guys riding Steve Spurrier’s coattails and even though we won’t debate the effectiveness of trickle-down football-knowledge-economics O’Brien took an odd path to land himself on a staff with a pre-Broncos Josh McDaniels calling the plays for a team that went 19-1 and broke countless offensive records along the way. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons Bill O’Brien uses the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system but it doesn’t hurt that his first season in the NFL also happened to be a historic one using an efficient, highly malleable system.
The Erhardt-Perkins isn’t a system in the same way that the West Coast or Air Coryell offenses are, as those systems imply a style of passing the ball. Short throws stressing a defense horizontally or more vertical passing concepts stressing a defense vertically are the aim of the West Coast offense and Air Coryell, respectively. Instead, the Erhardt-Perkins can be used to accomplish either of those goals and is instead a highly efficient method for communicating passing concepts out of various formations. The article I linked above is a great dive into this topic, but just to give you a quick understanding, the Erhardt-Perkins exists to streamline ideas. In theory, your offensive coordinator could call the same passing concept out of an infinite number of formations and because the concept was the same, you don’t have to process any additional information, it’s technically the same play to an offensive player but is unpredictable to a defense.
So how did Bill O’Brien choose to use this system in week seven against our Colts?
Crossing and Rub routes
Texans offense vs. Colts rub route for first down. pic.twitter.com/6nBEA6FLKj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Texans did everything they could to beat the Colts man coverage with crossing routes, rubs, and even some picks. It’s a good strategy against man coverage.
On this play, the Texans anticipate that the Colts cornerbacks are going to switch their man as Kenny Stills comes in motion behind DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins knows that Shakial Taylor is looking to run with Stills and jams him off the line to create separation for his teammate before getting into his own route. For good measure, the Texans have another crossing route that still could use if Hopkins jam missed its mark.
Texans offense vs. Colts. Beating man coverage pic.twitter.com/Olp8RL4M8i— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
In week seven the Texans did a pretty good job setting up and finding the match-ups they wanted to target. They obviously felt good about 33-year-old tight end David Fells ability to beat Quincy Wilson with his route running ability... one bad play doesn’t show everything you need to know about a player but this clip is telling.
Play action and bootleg
Texans offense vs. Colts. PA Roll right flood pic.twitter.com/wFePAWQMi8— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Bill O’Brien did a good job using play action and getting his highly mobile quarterback, on the move outside the pocket. On the play above you see Watson fake the handoff before rolling right and choosing between four receiving options on the same side of the field. It resulted in an easy read and a first down.
Taking advantage of the coverage
Texans offense vs. Colts. Great play design, slot WR made life tough for Willis to get to RB in man coverage. Watch that WR get his head around right after crossing Willis to see if his handy work would pay off. pic.twitter.com/2kOSR1ahvH— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
On a lot of downs the Colts (smartly) used Darius Leonard to spy Deshaun Watson, doing so meant that it was effectively the same as having five pass rushers, which means given the Colts scheme, they will be in man coverage a lot.
The Colts come out with a two-deep safety look but the running back releases on a route to the left side, it meant that the safety and slot cornerback are responsible for the slot receiver and the running back.
The receiver releases inside and runs down the seam toward the safety and here’s where I’m not 100% sure what the Colts defensive backs responsibilities are but there are really on two options. Option one; this is straight man to man coverage, no matter what the safety is covering the running back, the corner is on the slot receiver. Or option two; the safety is responsible for covering either the receiver or the running back if either man runs a route over the middle of the field, while the cornerback is responsible for anyone who runs an out-breaking route toward the sideline.
If it was option one, the safety, Khari Willis, misplays the backs route, expecting him to go to the flat and getting caught up in the traffic that the receiver creates.
If it was option two, the safety, Khari Willis, misplays the receiver’s route, expecting him to cut inside and likely expecting the back to go to the flat.
Either way, the receiver gave that inside release and ran toward Willis to hopefully create traffic for the back running his crossing route. Watson hits the open back and they pick up a nice gain.
Texans offense vs. Colts. Play action pass, LB's not in position. pic.twitter.com/JlZDgVWGcL— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Texans used a lot of motion in week seven. This play is a great example of why they did so. When they send the receiver in motion the Colts linebackers adjust from left to right. At the snap the Texans pull the backside guard and fake the handoff, giving a strong run fake pulling the linebacker close to the line of scrimmage leaving them completely out of position to defend DeAndre Hopkins on the slant route over the middle of the field. This is a well designed, quick-hitting play.
Texans offense vs. Colts. Not a great rep for Rock Ya-Sin. pic.twitter.com/gtTUtM1Hig— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Texans got man free coverage for a lot of the game and here they draw up a play designed to beat it deep. By sending both receivers on a deep crossing route it means that theoretically (as long as the protection holds up) one of these deep receivers is probably going to be open.
Crossing routes are very difficult to defend in man coverage and the safety eventually has to make a choice. In this case, Malik Hooker played this as well as he could have, not declaring until Watson started his throwing motion. Had he gone to one side or the other, Watson simply would have thrown it the other direction, because he stayed on the hash and both receivers had a step on their cornerback, he threw to the wider side of the field.
This isn’t anything revolutionary, every NFL team will use some form of this play against cover one but its a look we can probably expect to see again on Thursday night.
Setting up plays
Texans offense vs. Colts 3rd quarter TD drive. Colts stop respecting jet sweep, Texans run option to Coutee pic.twitter.com/lcvUvVZRGu— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
In the third quarter the Texans had a five-play drive that resulted in a touchdown. In all but one of those plays they sent Keke Coutee in motion on some sort of jet sweep action. By the fourth play of the drive the Colts linebackers were still reacting to it but not nearly as much as they had been, they kept seeing the action but they weren’t going his way with the ball.
Every offense tries to set up plays during the course of the game, it isn’t often that one of the plays they try to prime a defense for is a jet-sweep quarterback option run.
More deep crossers
Texans offense vs. Colts Anthony Walker was keeping the three yards immediately surrounding him, very safe. pic.twitter.com/0M8zHW2x2M— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
This is a similar play as the crossing play above it. The formation is different, the Texans brought in an extra lineman that lines up at the right tight end spot to block for the deep routes. The other tight end releases to the deep outside of the field while the back gives a run fake and heads to the flat.
Because the TE that Anthony Walker would be responsible for is pass blocking, Walker is left without much to do in coverage. I gave him a hard time because it would have been great if he had felt the receiver crossing behind him and prevented this ball from being thrown, but Walker did have to defend against his man slipping out on a delayed release. Given the fact that his responsibility likely runs a 5.5 second 40-yard dash, I wish he would have taken his chances and done more. That said, he probably did what he was supposed to do.
One on One match-ups
Texans offense vs. Colts. Not much more Rock can do, still gets beat for the big gain. pic.twitter.com/HgfEfuUmOY— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
One on One match-ups
Rock Ya-Sin has had an up and down rookie year. He’s a rookie playing corner in the NFL, that’s to be expected. On this play, Watson saw that he had a receiver one-on-one without safety help over the top. Watson was going to throw this ball no matter who was covering his guy.
This has more to do with the fact that Ya-Sin didn’t have help than Ya-Sin playing like a rookie at times. At the end of the day, Ya-Sin did everything but make a play on the ball. He was in good position he just didn’t do enough to challenge the catch and Watson threw a perfect pass.
Ultimately the Texans didn’t do much in week seven that I think they won’t do again on Thursday night. They had success and actually had more scoring drives (5) than the Colts (4), it’s just that the Texans kicked three field goals and scored two touchdowns (one after the game had more or less been decided), while the Colts scored four touchdowns.
If the Texans do a better job converting in the red zone this game could have a different outcome than the first match-up did. That said, in their first four games the Colts defense gave up 9 touchdowns when backed up inside their own 20. Since their week four loss to the Raiders the Colts defense has allowed just five touchdowns when backed up. Scoring in the red zone against these Colts isn’t an easy thing to do.
Deshaun Watson is as promising a young quarterback as you will find in the NFL. He can make every throw, he progresses through reads, something he has improved, as most young quarterbacks don’t process the field the way 22-year-old Andrew Luck did and he has the athleticism to extend plays and improvise when the need arises. Watson is a very good young quarterback and it would be foolish to dismiss that because he plays for a division “rival”.
He showed all of that in week seven, though he wasn’t perfect, throwing two interceptions, one of them being his fault.
Good luck stopping that
Texans Offense vs. Colts. Indefensible. pic.twitter.com/bQTlfpFJW6— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
If you figure out a way to stop this 100% of the time you will be a wealthy individual. Or in jail, because breaking Deshaun Watson’s legs is illegal and I wanted to head this one off before someone said it.
Notice the zone coverage
Texans offense vs. Colts Watson gets outside pic.twitter.com/4epYNuw4IO— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Colts spied Watson most of the game and in man coverage, they often used a linebacker. When in zone they would often drop a DT to spy. In some ways, this makes sense, on the play above they drop Carl Davis, all 320 pounds of him (this is what he’s listed at, after looking at him, it seems light). On one hand, Carl Davis probably isn’t going to get much pressure rushing the passer and by camping in the middle of the field it could prevent Watson from scrambling up the middle of the defense.
On the other hand, if Watson does anything at all that requires lateral movement, Carl Davis is only slightly more valuable than a traffic cone. That said Watson only ran the ball three times in week seven which is tied for his season-low.
Watching this play on film had to suck for Watson
Fading away, across his body, overthrows his target and gives the ball to the other team... yeah it’s difficult to think of a worse down. I mean you can do it, but really this just an awful series of decisions for Watson in a matter of just a few seconds.
This interception counts against Watson, but it shouldn’t
Texans offense vs. Colts. Leonard with an amazing play pic.twitter.com/Spmw42YYtm— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Sometimes as a quarterback you take the heat for a lot of things that aren’t your fault. Sometimes you hit your receiver in the hands with a pass and the ball ends up in the hands of the defense. Sometimes there’s a maniac on the field and he does this.
Nobody. No one at all:
Deshaun Watson was good in week seven. He made one bad mistake but he led his team on multiple scoring drives. At the end of the day, the Colts defensive game plan was simply too much for them to overcome.
In the last match-up, the Texans backs ran the ball 19 times for 69 yards, a 3.6 yard per carry average. Which isn’t Trent Richardson levels of bad, but it’s not great. Carlos Hyde was given 12 attempts gaining 35 yards while Duke Johnson carried the ball 7 times for 34 yards. Johnson may have deserved more attempts but the final score is somewhat deceiving, the Texans were behind by at least two scores for the majority of the second half.
Texans Run 1 pic.twitter.com/MTrORJquxe— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 19, 2019
This was Carlos Hyde’s longest run of the day. A 10 yard scamper on an outside zone run to the left. He took the hole that opened in the middle of the field while Leonard is moved out of his gap and Hyde is tackled by a trio of defensive backs.
Same play, this time for 11 yards
Texans Run 2 pic.twitter.com/o2DAK9ady3— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 19, 2019
This time it was Duke Johnson who was able to pick up the nice gain.
Both of the Texans’ best runs came in the fourth quarter with the Colts leading by more than one score. I wouldn’t read too much into these two runs but based on what the Texans tried to do I do expect to see more of these zone style runs on Thursday night. Hopefully Grover Stewart and the boys are up to the task as they were for nearly the entire game in week seven.
DeAndre Hopkins is going to get his catches and yards. Make peace with that now and move on. In week seven the superstar wideout caught 9 of 12 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. The second-leading receiver was Kenny Stills who caught 4 of 5 targets for 105 yards. Not bad numbers for a guy who Darius Leonard spiked four feet into the turf.
Six players caught multiple passes for these Texans the last time out and while they tried to spread the ball around, Hopkins and Stills were the only options that made a consistent impact.
Just a dig route
Texans offense vs. Colts. Hopkins. pic.twitter.com/2eRazPFa9A— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Texans send Hopkins on a dig route over the middle of the field against man coverage. He is able to beat his man inside before taking a big shot from George Odum.
Just a little out route
Texans offense vs. Colts. Hopkins is pretty good pic.twitter.com/TPic6R9eon— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
DeAndre Hopkins probably isn’t going to be the fastest guy on any NFL football field but here he showed enough acceleration to pick up an extra 10 yards.
Just a smart play
Texans offense vs. Colts. Hopkins TD pic.twitter.com/QCj5aHRSuN— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The more I watch it the more I think this touchdown was caused by Darius Leonard. Leonard bites hard on the run fake before bailing and trying to catch up to the receiver crossing in front of him. The safety (Odum, I believe) sees Leonard miss his assignment and runs up to prevent the sure touchdown.
Behind him, Pierre Desir is expecting to have safety help in the middle of the field so he maintains outside leverage. The Colts were going to box Hopkins in and had Leonard been able to cover that receiver the Colts would have had this play almost perfectly covered.
If this is how this play was supposed to go, I think Odum made the right decision dropping off and covering the otherwise uncovered receiver. Desir still had a chance (albeit a small one) to make a play and prevent the touchdown. Leonard had no chance to catch that receiver.
Something else to note is that Will Fuller was second on the team in targets heading into the last game. Fuller injured his hamstring after catching one pass for six yards and hasn’t played in a game since. He was listed as limited today at practice and so far I can’t find any information on if he is expected to return by Thursday. This will be something to watch.
After reviewing the Houston Texans leading up to the last game it seemed that they had vastly improved their offensive line and I stand behind that evaluation. They have rushed for 100 or more yards in all but their week three game against the Los Angeles Chargers and Deshaun Watson is only getting sacked on 8.6% of his pass attempts. Yes, 8.6% is a lot when compared to Jacoby Brissett’s 5.5% sack percentage but many of the sacks Watson creates by holding the ball too long trying to create, extend and improvise on broken plays. It creates sacks but it’s also a big part of what makes him special. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad with a player like Watson.
So how did these Texans turn their line around so quickly? Let’s recap:
The Texans traded multiple first-round picks to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil who is one of, if not the best young left tackle in football. In the 2019 draft, the Texans took Tackle Tytus Howard with the 23rd overall pick out of Alabama State. They, now famously, were jumped by the Philadelphia Eagles so they could select Andre Dillard and in what seemed like a panicked move the Texans seemed to reach on Howard. In the second round they selected T/G Max Scharping out of Northern Illinois.
I felt that both were terrible selections at the time. Both of them seemed to come far too early for either player and as a Colts fan I was pretty happy with both players being in Houston. Now after saying that, so far early in their careers, I appear to have been wrong about both players.
Howard has played his fair share at right tackle and before leaving in week six against the Chiefs with a partially torn MCL, he looked as good as you can expect any rookie tackle to look in his sixth professional game. Given what I believed about him before the draft, I was blown away with what I was seeing. When I turned my attention to Scharping, I was shocked to see his lack of anything resembling flexibility didn’t seem to hinder his ability to pass protect at the left guard position.
Notre Dame alum and Indianapolis native Nick Martin will start for the Texans at center while Zach Fulton will start at guard.
The Colts sacked Watson three times
Texans offensive line vs. Colts. Rushing the passer is easy when the tackle trips and falls down. pic.twitter.com/yH8kS4xS3I— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Tytus Howard didn’t play in week seven due to a partially torn MCL. In his place, Roderick Johnson got the start and this play won’t be on his personal highlight reel.
Good job moving in the screen game
Texans offense vs. Colts. Screen. pic.twitter.com/Dd9LtBMm9N— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
The Texans did a good job using the Colts’ aggressiveness against them with screens and the offensive line did a good job getting out and moving in space. We should expect to see more of the same on Thursday.
Once again, against the backup right tackle
Texans offense vs. Colts redzone defense. Good rush by Justin Houston and solid coverage by Shak Taylor. pic.twitter.com/cuBf3kb3Rj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Justin Houston got just enough pressure to make Watson get rid of this ball quickly. Shakial Taylor had good coverage and the Colts were able to get the stop. Getting pressure with only three pass rushers was huge for the Colts. With the Texans line back at full strength, I’m not sure we will see the same success.
This rep is what I expected Max Scharping’s entire career to be.
Texans offensive line vs. Colts. Watson's arm hit by Autry. pic.twitter.com/FA9L71FuMb— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Leading up to the 2019 draft I noted that Scharping has almost no flexibility and his side to side movement (or lack thereof) reflected that. On this play, Denico Autry did a great job starting outside and then making a quick move to the inside to get a hand up to hit Watson’s arm. If I were Matt Eberflus I would try to attack Max Scharping with speed until they proved it wasn’t an issue.
Justin Houston didn’t even want this sack
Texans offense vs. Colts Houston with the sack in a big spot pic.twitter.com/3YWM0VGdgU— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
That’s not true, of course he wanted it, but it wasn’t designed for him. His job on this play was to push Larmey Tunsil inside and prevent him from getting a hand on Khari Willis who was blitzing from the outside.
What that meant was that Max “Cement-Shoes” Scharping had to get out to block the much quicker man and, predictably, he couldn’t do it. Watson, being the great athlete that he is, escaped the pressure, running forward only to meet Justin Houston who had inexplicably been let off the hook by Tunsil who then watched the play happen and I assume he continued thinking about his post-game meal. Seriously, this guy is good but this rep isn’t a great look.
All in all this Texans offensive line is much better than it was a year ago. It isn’t perfect, there are some spots to test with blitzes like the one above and if we can pull a few more weeks of production out of Justin Houston, we could still get to Deshaun Watson a few times this week.
When the national media talked about the last game between these two clubs, they didn’t talk about how in control of the game the Colts were. They didn’t talk about how despite his big passing numbers, it never felt like Deshaun Watson was a real threat to take over this game. Instead, every single comment about this game started with this play:
Texans offense vs. Colts. Infamous stopped play. pic.twitter.com/IFQaWtKQYQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 17, 2019
Should it have been stopped? I’m not sure. Was that a catch? Also not sure. NFL officiating is as bad as I can remember it being and that doesn’t seem likely to change.
The one thing I am sure of is that had they allowed this play to continue without the whistle and had they ruled this a touchdown, I still don’t believe the Texans win this game. The Colts had their number on both sides of the ball the vast majority of the day and looked like the better team.
If I’m Bill O’Brien I’m pretty frustrated with this Colts defense. It found a way to seriously limit the best quarterback in the division and clamped down when the Texans offense was in scoring position. If I’m trying to figure out a way to beat this defense it’s going to take big plays and a prime time game at home against the only other serious contender for the division championship seems like the perfect opportunity to flip to the last couple pages of the playbook and dust off as many trick plays as possible, because if both teams play their best ball, I don’t think that these Texans aren’t good enough to win against this Colts defense otherwise.