Colts at Texans: What to watch for Sunday

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday rematch with the Texans in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

  • Get back on track: A week later and it’s still hard to believe Andrew Luck and the offense were so impotent against Jacksonville, especially after the Jaguars went to Nashville and gave up a zillion yards to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and 30 points to the Titans.

Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni conceded the shutout loss “ranks right up there’’ as one of the worst experiences he’s endured. The cure? A nice bounce-back game, and that includes not giving up on the run game as Sirianni and Frank Reich did against the Jaguars.

The Texans feature disruptive talent on defense – J.J.Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus – and one of the keys to keeping Luck out of their crosshairs is to give him a reliable run game. We’re looking at you Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.

As impressive as Luck has been in his Comeback Season – 32 touchdowns, second-most in the NFL, and 3,360 yards while being sacked just 14 times– the Colts have been more successful when they haven’t found themselves in situations where he’s had to carry the load. It should surprise no one they’re 0-5 when he’s attempted at least 43 passes and 10 of the 14 sacks have come in those games.

Luck is going to have to make plays in the passing game, and he’s more than capable of that. In nine career starts against Houston, he has 21 touchdowns. But the Texans also have gotten to Luck for 24 sacks, including 4 in their overtime win in September.

It’s going to be noisy at NRG Stadium and perilous in the pocket. That’s not an environment conducive to another 50-plus pass attempt game.

  •  Limit the damage: Watt and Clowney are going to make plays. That’s what they do. Houston’s defensive tag team has combined for 18.5 sacks, an additional 17 QB hits and 26 tackles for loss in 12 games. Against the Colts in September, they shared 4 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles. One of Watt’s sacks resulted in a lost fumble Houston turned into a TD. One of Clowney’s came in overtime and was pivotal in the outcome.

It’s imperative the offensive line and complementary parts limit the damage done by Watt and Clowney. And part of that is locating Clowney on passing downs. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is a master at moving Clowney around in the formation, allowing him to stand up and probe for a weakness.

Here’s where it’s worth noting the Colts’ offensive line hardly resembles the one that struggled in the first meeting. Only one starter remains: rookie left guard Quenton Nelson. The new look: Anthony Castonzo (not Le’Raven Clark) at left tackle, Evan Boehm (not Ryan Kelly) at center, Mark Glowinski (not Matt Slauson) at right guard and Braden Smith (not Denzelle Good) at right tackle.

  • Limit the damage, Part II: This is a case of strength on strength. Houston features the league’s No. 3- ranked run game. It averages 140.8 yards behind the triple threat of Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue and Deshaun Watson. It has rushed 378 times, second-most in the NFL (Seattle with 380). The Colts take a run defense to Houston that ranks No. 12 in yards per game (104.1) and No. 7 in yards per attempt (3.9). It’s thrived behind the stout play up front by Jabaal Sheard, Margus Hunt, Denico Autry and Al Woods.

Miller and Blue are clear threats, but we view Watson as the wild card. The Texans aren’t shy about exposing their franchise QB to called runs, and he’s adept at tucking the ball and breaking containment when coverage takes away his options in the passing game. He’s averaging 5.4 yards on 69 attempts with a long of 34 and 2 TDs. In Indy, he picked up 41 yards on six carries, including a 5-yard TD.

“That creates a huge issue for our defense,’’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said.

  • Receiver dominance: We’re going to sit back and enjoy what should be an entertaining afternoon by two premier receivers. That would be Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton.

Hopkins is arguably a top-5 talent at his position. He’s got size (6-1, 215), speed, incredible hands and great run-after-the-catch skills. He ranks in the top 10 with 80 catches, 1,115 yards and 8 TDs. And he’s developed a quick rapport with Deshaun Watson. Hopkins has been targeted on 114 of Watson’s 364 passes (31.3 percent). Next in line: rookie KeKe Coutee (41).

“He creates problems,’’ Erberflus said.

Two of Hopkins’ top four games have come against the Colts, including his 10-catch, 169-yard outing in September. It was his 24-yard catch-and-run in overtime that set up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning 37-yard field goal as time expired.

Hilton, meanwhile, has been just as dominant against Houston. In 13 games, he’s averaged 8.5 targets, 5.2 catches and 95.8 yards with 9 TDs. He’s eclipsed the 100-yard mark six times, including a 223-yard performance in 2014 that fell 1 yard shy of matching Raymond Berry’s single-game team record.

Hilton returned to practice Friday after missing two games with a shoulder injury. Obviously, the Colts need their Pro Bowl wideout to play like one.

  • And the winner is: Texans 31, Colts 20. There’s still a playoff pulse, but it’s faint following the crash-and-burn in Jacksonville. Forget the AFC South, which Houston has a stranglehold on with its team-record nine-game winning streak. The Colts (6-6) also find themselves trailing Baltimore (7-5) and Tennessee (7-6) in the pursuit of the final wild-card spot.

Reich has emphasized a one-game-at-a-time approach all season, and that hasn’t changed. The weekly goal: be 1-0 at the end of it.

“Yeah, it’s very important . . . 1-0, no doubt,’’ he said. “What we just talked about breaking the field is all the stuff we do – the whole offseason, all the training camp stuff, every step of the way – it’s for games like this.

“To have a game in December, this kind of game, this is what you want.’’

Sorry, but we see the Colts 0-1 Sunday and 6-7 on the season.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.