3TFO: Colts @ Texans, Week 9
The Indianapolis Colts-Houston Texans rivalry has been nothing if not lopsided. Peyton Manning went 16-2 against Houston during his reign over the AFC South. In his absence, the Texans then became the division’s frontrunners. Now with Andrew Luck’s emergence the pendulum has swung back Indianapolis’ way.
The Texans were 11-2 when they hosted the Colts last season, yet are now facing a virtual must-win this time around. An Indianapolis win on Sunday would put the Colts four games up over the defending division champions and set their sights closer towards a first round bye. A Houston win would pull the Texans within two games of their rivals and set up a potential dogfight down the stretch. With the fate of the second-half AFC South race on the line, one of these matchups may very well determine Sunday night’s result.
It’s hard to believe that Matt Schaub started this season by leading his team back from a 21-point second half deficit in San Diego. Eight weeks later, he’s backing up an undrafted second-year player fresh off his first career start. On the surface, Case Keenum’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs was impressive. He threw for 10.8 yards per attempt and a 110.6 quarterback rating against arguably the best defense in the NFL. Most importantly, he gave the Texans their first game without an interception this season. So why, then, did he earn a negative overall grade? While his passing was on point, it was the times that he didn’t throw that burned him. Keenum took a sack on 31.3% of his pressures (only Matt Flynn has a worse rate this season). Too often when the Chiefs overloaded the box and blitzed, Keenum failed to adjust. He made some plays while scrambling (notably the 42-yard bomb to Andre Johnson with 6:07 left in the third quarter), but frequently tried to dodge a free rusher only to get sacked. This ultimately cost the Texans when he fumbled on his final drive to end Houston’s hopes of an upset.
Keenum’s approach must be different when he takes on a Colts defense with two of the hottest players in the league. Robert Mathis is having a banner season at an age when most pass rushers drop off. The Colts are playing to his strengths by dropping him in coverage less than they did last season, and they’re moving him around now that Dwight Freeney isn’t locked in on the right side. While Mathis had 14 total quarterback pressures from the blind side in the previous five seasons combined, he already has 23 from that spot this season. And when Keenum does get his passes off, he may want to avoid Vontae Davis’ zone. Allowing just 12 yards on eight targets and not getting beaten once versus the Denver Broncos, the Colts defender earned the single-highest grade we’ve ever given a cornerback. This wasn’t an aberration either, as his 0.75 Yards Per Coverage Snap this season is one of the best rates in the league. Keenum showed promise in his debut, but if he hasn’t learned from his mistakes, then Mathis and Davis will leave the Texans with the same result on the scoreboard.
It’s been a long time since the Colts have taken the field without Reggie Wayne; 189 games to be exact. The potential Hall of Famer has revitalized his career with Andrew Luck, but Indianapolis will now have to go on without our fourth-highest graded receiver of the last two seasons. T.Y. Hilton is coming along nicely in his second season, but is still a bit more of a downfield specialist at this point. Many are counting on Darrius Heyward-Bey to step up, but his 0.91 Yards Per Route Run is one of the lowest marks in the entire league. The Colts will miss Wayne most for his new-found ability as an inside receiver. His 317 slot yards this season made up 56.2% of the team’s total, and is nearly twice as many as Hilton and Heyward-Bey have combined. With no other Indianapolis wide receiver having more than three targets this season, it’s a mystery right now as to how the Colts will replace their top receiver’s production.
Without Wayne, the advantage in this matchup may very well swing to the Texans cornerbacks. Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph is off to another solid start, allowing just 32.1 yards per game and a 62.8 quarterback rating to opposing passers. Though he’s had a few too many penalties this season, Kareem Jackson is coming off a year where he had one of our highest coverage grades. With just three completions allowed on 11 Deep Passes this season, this duo is unlikely to let Hilton get over the top of them. Slot cornerback Brice McCain has struggled, but will the Colts have the personnel to challenge him without Wayne? If the Texans corners are on point, it won’t take long before Luck is missing his top target.
The Colts will get no sympathy from the Texans, who are dealing with their own big injury loss on the other side of the ball. For the second straight season they enter November without their best linebacker, Brian Cushing. An excellent all-around defender, he had the second-most run stops & fifth-most quarterback pressures at his position when he went down in Week 7. Last season I named him one of 2012’s Biggest Losses, as no Houston linebacker stepped up in his absence. That includes Darryl Sharpton, who earned poor run grades and is in line to take Cushing’s snaps again this time around. Cushing is excellent at capitalizing on the havoc that J.J. Watt creates up front, but without his presence in the second-level teams will find it that much easier to avoid the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
One player who won’t mind seeing Cushing off the field will be Colts running back Trent Richardson. Everyone has just about declared the former third overall pick a bust after he’s averaged just 3.0 yards per carry for the Colts and 3.4 across his entire career. But as Sam Monson explained last week, Indianapolis’ offensive line has given him little chance to succeed. Richardson still has forced the fifth-most missed tackles on rushes of any running back in the league this season, and his power and explosion still resonates on film despite his final stats. If the second-year running back is going to disprove all those already throwing dirt on his NFL career, taking advantage of a weakened front seven in a primetime divisional game would be an opportune way to start.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete