Colts vs. Texans: What to watch for Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 09: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Houston Texans Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4
  • Offensive conundrum: There’s no secret to what’s ailing Andrew Luck and the Colts’ offense. They’re not stretching the field with any regularity. They rank 28th in the NFL in yards per play (4.5). Luck’s 5.34 yards-per-attempt average ranks 31st and he’s had just five completions that have gained at least 20 yards. The Rams’ Jared Goff had eight – eight!– in Thursday night’s shootout with Minnesota.

The Colts’ longest play from scrimmage through three games? Luck’s 33-yard scramble against the Eagles.

As much as the offense needs to offer a downfield threat to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage and clogging the underneath passing lanes, it’s hard to imagine Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni incorporating more of that in their game plan until their tackle situation improves. And that’s not likely to happen Sunday. Anthony Castonzo still is dealing with a balky right hamstring and Joe Haeg was placed on IR with an ankle injury. Le’Raven Clark, who yielded a crippling sack on fourth-and-3 at the Eagles’ 4-yard line with less than 2 minutes remaining in Sunday’s loss, remains at left tackle. Denzelle Good, who made his first appearance of the season when Haeg went down, likely makes his first start against Houston.

And then there’s the Houston defense. J.J. Watt. Whitney Mercilus. Jadeveon Clowney. D.J. Reader. Watt has 79 career sacks in 91 games, and has fattened up his stat line at Luck’s expense. He’s gotten to him 8 times, the second-most against any QB (Blake Bortles, 9).

“He can wreck a game and so can Clowney,’’ Sirianni said. “We have to be on top of our game . . . because they can embarrass you.’’

  • Contain Watson: It’s easy to look at Deshaun Watson’s bottom line and dismiss the threat he presents. The 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft is 3-6 as a starting QB. Go ahead, overlook him. We’ll pay more attention to his mobility and play-making ability. Before a knee injury ended his rookie season in late October, Watson set a franchise rookie record with 19 touchdown passes. He averaged 242.7 yards per game, 13.5 yards per completion and 8.3 yards per attempt.

Despite still working his way back from surgery, Watson is averaging 290 yards through the air with 5 TDs. He’s also the Texans’ second-leading rusher with 120 yards on 18 attempts.

Houston features a pair of top-drawer wideouts in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V. They’re averaging 14.8 yards with 3 TDs on 33 receptions. A key to limiting the Texans’ big-play potential is limiting Watson’s ability to buy time with his legs, or simply tuck it and run.

The Colts have yet to face Watson. He tore the ACL in his right knee in practice Nov. 2, four days before Indy’s visit to Houston. But they know Priority 1: keep Watson on a short leash.

“So that’s the game, being about to do that, and that’s easier said that done,’’ coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “He’s a heck of an athlete, strong in the pocket, able to extend plays.’’

  • Divisional matters: Remember when the Colts were the bullies of the AFC South? From 2002-11, Indy owned the neighborhood. They won seven division titles and posted a 44-16 record, including an NFL-record 16 straight inside the division.

But things have changed. Since 2012, they’re just 22-14 against AFC South competition – they’re 6-9 in the last 15 – and haven’t won the division since back-to-back titles in 2013-14. They were 2-4 in the AFC South a year ago, and both wins were against the injury-ravaged Texans.

Adam Vinatieri noted his last AFC South title hat is a bit frayed.

“I need a new one,’’ he said.

If the Colts entertain any thoughts of returning the playoffs for the first time since ’14, it all hinges on their ability to be competitive in their own division.

“It’s hard to make the playoffs if you don’t win your division,’’ Vinatieri said. “There are only two that get to (as a wild card).’’

  • Vinatieri Watch: Vinatieri’s next field goal is No. 566, and the record-breaker. He’s currently tied with Morten Andersen for the most field goals in NFL history. If he doesn’t get it Sunday, it probably comes Thursday night. Against the Patriots, his old team. In Foxborough.

“It’s always awesome to do it at home,’’ Vinatieri said. “Hopefully if I get the other record, I get it at home. Doing it in front of your home crowd, there’s something special about that.’’

“The other record’’ is for career points. Vinatieri (2,511) needs 34 more to eclipse Andersen’s all-time record.

  • And the winner is: Colts 24, Texans 20. We’ve heard the talk of the Texans being in desperation, win-or-else mode. And we get it. If they fall to 0-4 for first time since 2008, any hopes for relevancy the rest of the way essentially is quashed. But the Colts also face a better-win scenario. At 2-2, they’re positioned nicely in the AFC South and about where most of us had them at this point. Fall to 1-3, though, and the challenge of facing three of the next four on the road – starting with Thursday night’s trip to Foxborough – increases. Sunday is one of those find-a-way events. Somehow, find a way to win a third straight game in the series.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.