INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Saturday AFC wild-card playoff matchup with the Texans in Houston’s NRG Stadium:
Kickoff: 4:35 p.m.
Broadcast: ESPN, WRTV-Channel 6
Weather the storms
And there undoubtedly will be storms under the NRG Stadium roof. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are a terrific tandem when it comes to wrecking an offense; probably the NFL’s best 1-2 punch. They share 25 sacks, 46 quarterback hits, 34 tackles for loss and 8 forced fumbles. Those are what you call game-changing plays.
“You have to account for those guys on every play,’’ Frank Reich said.
Andrew Luck’s Comeback Season has benefitted greatly from an offensive line that has developed into one of the NFL’s best. It has yielded a league-low 18 sacks after allowing a league-high 56 a year ago. It has paved the way for Marlon Mack to become the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards four times in a season.
In other words, we’re talking strength vs. strength.
As the Colts and Texans split their season series, Watt and Clowney combined for 5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles. It’s imperative for rookie right tackle Braden Smith to hold up against Watt, and for coordinator Nick Sirianni to offer occasional help. It’s critical for Luck and center Ryan Kelly to determine where Clowney’s lining up – coordinator Romeo Crennel moves him around – and limit the number of times he crashes the middle of the line.
The importance of Kelly’s return after missing Sunday’s win at Tennessee can’t be overstated. Evan Boehm has filled in admirably, but Kelly has played at a Pro Bowl level this season.
How much from T.Y.?
The last time T.Y. Hilton was in the friendly confines of NRG Stadium – yes, his home away from home – he exited with a right ankle that was barking like a wild dog. He injured it on a 60-yard reception, and has been dealing with it ever since. He’s practiced once, and then on a limited basis.
Reich was asked if the team might have kept Hilton out of a game or two to allow his ankle the necessary time to heal if not for the magnitude of them down the stretch.
“There’s definitely one or two of these weeks that we would have probably put T.Y. down if it wasn’t the end of the year . . . just to kind of let him recover and get back to full speed, definitely,’’ he said.
That’s not happening, even though Hilton again didn’t practice this week. Regardless the level of his health – is he 70 percent? 80? – Hilton’s mere presence impacts Houston’s defensive approach. Crennel’s focus must remain on Hilton, who has turned the Texans into his personal punching bag. In 14 games, he’s averaged 5.4 receptions and 103 yards with 9 TDs. In seven appearances in Houston, it’s 41 catches, 933 yards and 7 TDs. Three of his top four regular-season outings have come in Houston: 223 yards in 2014, 199 in December, 175 in ’17.
Surprisingly, the ankle injury hasn’t limited Hilton’s playing time. He was on the field for 80 percent of the offensive snaps against the Titans and 87 percent the week before against the New York Giants. But Hilton’s effectiveness as a receiver was as limited as it’s been in Nashville. He was targeted just 6 times and came away with 2 catches for 61 yards.
Given his druthers, Luck would play something of a complementary role to Mack and the Colts’ ground game. Indy is at its absolute best when it’s able to run when it wants, and use play-action. They’re 4-0 when Mack cracks the 100-yard barrier and 6-0 when they have at least 28 attempts.
Establishing Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins won’t be easy. Houston’s run defense ranks 3rd in yard per game allowed (82.7) and 1st in yards per attempt (3.4). In the two earlier meetings, the Colts were limited to 91 total rushing yards and 2.3 yards per attempt. Mack missed the Indy game with a hamstring injury and needed 14 carries to pick up 33 yards in the rematch in Houston last month.
While the Texans are capable of delivering pyrotechnics in the passing game with Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, they love to pound away with Lamar Miller (973 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt) and Alfred Blue (499, 3.3), mixing in healthy doses of Watson (551 yards, 5.6) for good measure. They rank 8th in the league in rushing (126.3 yards per game), and are averaging 29.5 attempts per game, fifth-most.
Against the Colts this season, the Texans have stuck with their ground game but enjoyed only moderate success: 208 yards on 60 attempts, 3.5 yards per rush.
Watson is the wild card. Even though he’s been sacked a league-high 62 times – 12 times by the Colts – his mobility creates problems. His 551 rushing yards are a franchise record and rank 36th in the NFL, third among QBs.
“You have to keep him in the well,’’ Reich said, referring to keeping Watson in the passing pocket.
This is where the Colts’ run defense must step up once again. It ranks 8th in the league, its first top-10 finish since 1995. The Colts, Texans and Saints are the only defenses not to allow a 100-yard rusher this season, and the Colts’ streak of 18 straight regular-season games is second to the Saints’ 22. Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has been a difference-maker all season with a league-high 163 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss, but we’re looking for some heavy lifting up front from Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Margus Hunt and Al-Quadin Muhammad.
This is no time for Luck, Mack or anybody to be careless with the football. This is no time for the type of interception Luck suffered against the Giants (tried and failed to heave the ball out of bounds) or at Tennessee when a bad decision led to a pick-6 that gave the Titans life. It’s no time for Mack to put the ball on the ground like he did six days ago.
Ball security will be paramount with Watt, Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and others lurking. The Colts gifted Houston 14 points in their overtime loss in Indy with fumbles by Luck and Kelly.
Trust us, the Texans don’t need any help.
Also, this would be a good time for the Colts to remain efficient in the red zone (5th in the league with TDs 68.8 percent of the time) and on third down (a league-best 48.6 conversion percentage).
There are few secrets between these AFC South rivals, especially after two games, each decided by 3 points. Reich insisted the Colts will remain committed to doing what’s gotten them to this point, but also admitted it’s important to make a few adjustments.
“We know them and they know us,’’ he said, “but I do think there will be wrinkles. I just think that’s part of it. You are always trying to find a couple of wrinkles. What you experience is all you got to do . . . Is create a little seed of doubt. If we can create a little seed of doubt in their defense about what we are doing, that can go a long way.’’
And the winner is: Colts 27, Texans 24.
This is not a homer pick. We like the way the Luck-led offense is playing and we’re finally trusting the Leonard-led defense. The last time the Colts visited Houston, Luck torched the Titans with 399 yards and two TDs and Hilton roamed for 9 catches and 199 yards. No. 6 seeds are 15-17 in first-round match-ups with No. 3 seeds since 2002, which means they’re essentially a toss-up. We’ll stick with the Indy.