Colts’ key to playoff success is handling Texans’ game-wreckers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 15: Defensive end J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans looks on from the sidelines as they play against the New York Jets during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 15, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Indianapolis Colts’ most consequential game in four seasons will consist of 140 or 150 plays, give or take a few, and involve 90 players, give or take.

Their first playoff appearance since the 2014 AFC Championship game is as big as it gets – until next week if they’re able to complete a road sweep of the Houston Texans Saturday afternoon – and Frank Reich and his staff have harped on the importance of each player doing his job every . . . single . . . play.

It’s about team.

It’s about being on point.

Yes, it is.

But it’s also about putting your game-wreckers in position to wreck the game, and limiting the opportunities for their’s to do likewise.

Maybe rookie right tackle Braden Smith faces J.J. Watt 60 times and holds his own on 57 snaps. But Watt, the NFL’s only three-time Defensive Player of the Year, whips him three times for a sack, a forced fumble or hurried pass that results in an interception or incompletion at a critical moment.

“I don’t play against him that much because he plays the other side,” left tackle Anthony Castonzo said Thursday, “but if you watch him on film, if a guy is off his technique on one play, you’ll see that’s the play he gets the sack because he’s going all out on every play.

“If you make a mistake, he’s going to take advantage of it.”

Maybe Romeo Crennel’s defense clamps down on T.Y. Hilton the majority of the game, but the noted Texans Killer collaborates with Andrew Luck to bust ‘em five times for 100-plus yards and one long-distance, momentum-swinging reception.

“Something we pride ourselves in as coaches is that we are going to detail every single play because you never know,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “ . . . we stress that on every play, no matter what . . . you always have to be alert for the big-time playmakers.

“They are loaded and we have got to know constantly where 99 (Watt), 90 (Jadeveon Clowney), 59 (Whitney Mercilus), 32 (Tyrann Mathieu), 25 (Kareem Jackson), 24 (Johnathan Joseph), 43 (Shareece Wright) . . . where they are at all times and we’ve got to be on it.”

That in mind, here’s a refresher course on four of Houston’s big-time playmakers:

J.J. Watt

If Luck isn’t named Comeback Player of the Year, it’ll be Watt. After missing the final 11 games last season with a broken leg, he has re-established himself as one of the league’s premier defensive forces. His 16 sacks trail only Aaron Donald (20.5), and his fat stat line also includes 25 quarterback hits, 18 tackles for loss, seven forced fumbles and four passes defensed.

No one needs to remind the Colts of Watt’s ability to alter the course of a game with a play or two. In 12 games with Indy, he has 12 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He’s had multiple sacks in four games, including the first meeting this season in Indy. In 2014, Watt returned a Luck fumble 45 yards for a touchdown.

“J.J. is just a monster player,” Frank Reich said.

More times than not, the Colts have weathered the Watt storm. He’s just 4-8 against Indy.

Jadeveon Clowney

The first overall pick in the 2014 draft is listed as an end, but let’s not quibble over his position. Crennel does a masterful job of moving Clowney around to maximize his size (6-5, 255 pounds) and freakish athletic ability. Clowney frequently lines up in a standing position over the center, finds a crease and creates havoc with quick penetration.

“The way they move Clowney around is very strategic, it’s very well conceived and planned, and the patterns they run with him when they move him around are very effective,” Reich said.

The freshest memory of Clowney among Colts’ fans is him biting on Luck’s hard count and jumping offside on a third-and-1 near midfield with 2 minutes remaining and Indy protecting a 24-21 lead. Clowney’s aggressiveness sealed the deal.

However, let’s keep in mind his ability to dominate. Clowney has 9 sacks, 16 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries this season. In eight games against the Colts, he’s generated 4.5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss. In Houston’s 37-34 overtime win in Indy, Clowney recovered a Luck fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.

DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins is coming off the best year of his career, and that’s saying something for someone who’s already been named to three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team. He matched Andre Johnson’s club record with 115 receptions, his 1,572 yards rank third in team history and his 11 TDs are tied for second-most behind his record 13 in ’17. Hopkins also didn’t drop a pass. All season. He was targeted 163 times.

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus considers Hopkins one of the top wideouts in the league, and has had mixed results in defending him this season. In Houston’s 37-34 overtime win in Indy in week 4, Hopkins went off for 10 catches, 169 yards and one touchdown. His late 24-yard catch-and-run in OT set up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning 37-yard field goal.

But in the Colts’ win in Houston in week 14, Hopkins was limited to his least productive game of the season: 4 catches, 36 yards on 10 targets.

So is Eberflus confident in limiting Hopkins again? Or concerned he’ll enjoy another breakout game?

“It’s more of a concern,” he said. “When you are dealing with one of the best players in the league – just his skill set – it’s a concern. It’s an attention that everybody has to have their attention to that man because he’s so good.”

Deshaun Watson

He presents so many problems for Eberflus’ defense, many of which can be traced to Watson’s mobility/escapability. He has passed for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns with a 103.1 rating, and rushed/scrambled 99 times for 551 yards and 5 TDs. Priority 1 is to keep him in the pocket, which is easier said than done.

Reich insisted the Colts’ objective is to “keep him in the well.”

“Any time you get a playmaker like this at quarterback who can extend plays the way he does – big, strong, physical, can move – the more you can just keep him in the well the better off we’ll be,” he said.

When Watson eludes the pass rush and buys time to throw, he further stresses the secondary to stick with Hopkins and the other receiving options.

Houston coach Bill O’Brien also hasn’t been shy about using Watson as a tool in the ground game. His 551 rushing yards are a franchise record for a QB and rank third among league QBs this season.

The Colts have done a decent job of containing Watson. And by decent we mean he’s “only” passed for 642 yards and 3 TDs in two games against them this season. More to the point, Eberflus’ defense has kept Watson from having that breakout game with his legs – 11 total rushes, 76 yards.

Also, let’s not forget Watson was the NFL’s most “gettable” QB this year. He was sacked a league-high 62 times this season, and the Colts chipped in with 12.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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