One week ago, the Colts had their playoff destiny in their own hands. Hosting the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis could have placed themselves squarely in the driver’s seat for an AFC South title and to end a playoff drought the franchise would like to forget. A collection of issues, ranging from the pandemic to sloppy play in all three phases, resulted in a blowout and handed the Titans the keys to the division in 2020.
This week the Colts will return some of the players who sat out last week, including two of the team’s most productive defensive linemen in DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry. They will also get rookie running back Jonathan Taylor back in time to play a really bad Texans run defense. Unfortunately, the game last week also came with a cost as injuries will force left tackle Anthony Castonzo and safety Khari Willis to miss the game.
The Texans will have their own issues as they lost their best cornerback Bradley Roby and their best wide receiver Will Fuller to suspension for the rest of the year. Houston recently released Kenny Stills and former starter Randall Cobb is on injured reserve. This leaves Brandin Cooks as their lead receiving weapon and likely requires multi-week healthy scratch Keke Coutee to play a bigger role.
With each of the team’s issues in mind, here are the keys to the game.
Pressure Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson is having an incredible season, in spite of losing his best receiver in a heinously lopsided trade with the Arizona Cardinals. Any discussion about the league’s top quarterbacks that doesn’t include Watson, and consider him as an honorable mention MVP candidate, isn’t being honest. If the Texans didn’t have to suffer through Bill O’Brien to start the year, things could have been much different in Houston this season.
With that said, even miracle workers need help and Watson’s not getting much of it with the Texans franchise. His head coach and general manager dealt away arguably the best receiving weapon in the NFL, his teammates are getting busted for PEDs and leaving him even more short-handed, and his defense has been horrible all season long. It should be clear at this point that Deshaun Watson is the best quarterback on a really bad team in the league.
Without his supporting cast, the Colts will need to strike early and then get after Watson. He is mobile but not a run first threat and he is not afraid to hold onto the ball in the pocket to allow his receivers to get open deep. Time is a pass rushers best friend. The longer he sits, or feels he has to sit, the better.
Can the defensive line re-establish its dominance and can Kemoko Turay take another step forward since his return? Rattle Watson and the Texans will have few answers.
RUN THE DAMN BALL!
This has been an incredibly frustrating and disappointing season for the Colts franchise on the ground. There were early-season expectations that Indy’s backfield was four deep with players who were talented enough to be productive starters. This group would be running behind one of the most respected offensive lines in the NFL. With two-time All-Pro Quenton Nelson at left guard, the anticipation was the Philip Rivers wouldn’t have to place the team on his shoulders often and that the running game would open up the passing game.
Instead, the Colts lost Marlon Mack in the first week. Rookie Jonathan Taylor has played like a rookie and has had to shoulder more of the load than the coaching staff had ever intended. The jury is out on whether he will justify his early second round draft billing.
The offensive line hasn’t been particularly good either. Quenton Nelson started the season on the injury report with a back injury. The same back injury has popped up at other times throughout the season. He has been good but has been called for numerous holding penalties and hasn’t been as active pulling and destroying defenders on the ground.
When you have a talent like Nelson, to not use him heavily seems odd unless there’s an underlying concern. Add to his possible ailments that Ryan Kelly has missed time, Braden Smith missed a game, and now Anthony Castonzo will miss time and the continuity of the last couple of seasons is starting to fall apart.
To make matter worse, Chris Ballard watched as his primary backups left following the 2019 season through free agency. The Colts have had to lean on Le’Raven Clark as the swing tackle, and he’s never put it all together, and rookie Danny Pinter as the primary support along the interior.
This group will need to figure things out. Even if held together by duct tape and Ace bandages, getting the running game going against the Texans is key. If Taylor can continue to develop and get some momentum going down the stretch, it could bode well for Indy’s playoff chances.
Time for T.Y. Hilton to clown again
T.Y. Hilton is coming off of his best game of the season. He has feasted throughout his career in Houston and will need to get things going if the Colts not only hope to make the playoffs, but hope to make some noise. There isn’t a version of the story this year that leads to any kind of playoff success that doesn’t rely on contributions from Hilton and rookie Michael Pittman Jr. in the passing game.
With Bradley Roby out and Michael Pittman Jr. likely to get plenty of attention, Hilton will need to be productive. If he can’t do what he does against the Texans in Houston, it’s not an encouraging sign for the passing game moving forward.