The biggest albatross for the Houston Texans throughout their existence has been their offensive line. When they came into the league in 2002, it was dreadful. It was at that level or slightly higher throughout David Carr's tenure with the team, though it did slowly show signs of improvement.
Over the past few seasons, it slowly graduated to decent and could now be considered good. Houston added young talent such tackles Eric Winston and Duane Brown through the draft, as well as guard Antoine Caldwell. They also added free agents Chris Myers and Wade Smith. Gary Kubiak has been instrumental in the reconstruction, getting some of "his kind of guys" on the roster, but the rest of the coaches deserve credit as well. In addition, it doesn't hurt when they have better backs to block for and a quarterback who has a quick release and makes fast decisions.
Brown had a rocky start to his career, as he was in a platoon as a rookie in 2008 and many speculated that he was already a bust heading into the 2009 season. He responded with a solid, if unspectacular campaign in 2009 and proved that he could learn the techniques necessary to take advantage of his physical skills.
Dwight Freeney registered four tackles and 1.5 sacks against Brown in Week 9 last season, but was shut out of their second matchup in Week 12. Brown has been limited in practice this week, but should play. Freeney is a handful for any fully healthy left tackle, so the Texans will probably give Brown some help, most likely with Arian Foster if he gets the start.
Robert Mathis had five tackles in the two games against Winston last season and had a half sack in Week 9 and an unassisted sack in Week 12. The two players have been squaring off against each other twice a year for the past three seasons, so they know each other well.
This matchup ultimately come down to how well the much larger Winston is able to grind Mathis down throughout the course of the game, as Mathis has been productive early in games against the Texans when he's fresh, but has tended to wear down over the course of 60 minutes.
Antonio Johnson, Gary Brackett, and Daniel Muir have taken the middle of the Colts defense from dreadful to decent the past two seasons, so this is the year they need to make the ascension to good. Muir and Johnson need to continue to disrupt the line of scrimmage, get their hands on the smaller interior linemen for Houston, and push them into the backfield. That will open things up for Brackett to flow to the ball carrier and make the play.
Schaub was sacked only 25 times in 2009, so he will be looking to go through his progressions quickly and get the ball out of his hand and into the hands of his talented playmakers as fast as possible. Indianapolis needs to make him feel the pressure early, keep the game close, and let the pressure sink into Schaub and break him down in the fourth quarter. That has been their recipe for success the past few seasons and they have fared quite well against the Texans during that timeframe.
Andre Johnson has climbed the ladder from highly-touted draft pick to rising star to fantasy football goldmine to legitimate NFL star. He torched the Colts in Week 9 last season with ten receptions for 103 yards, but Indianapolis was able to hold him in check in Week 12 to the tune of five receptions for 67 yards.
He is their most dangerous player on offense and requires a double team. The Colts would be best served assigning Jerraud Powers or Jacob Lacey to him, though, since both those cornerbacks are better man coverage players than Kelvin Hayden. Houston doesn't move Johnson around the formation very much, so Indianapolis will be able to assign two players — most likely Powers bumping and covering Johnson in the short-to-intermediate area with Bob Sanders assisting over the top — to Johnson's side of the field and hope that those two guys do well enough that Johnson will not destroy them.
Hayden will probably draw Jacoby Jones, who appears to have leapfrogged Kevin Walter on the depth chart. Jones will most likely line up at flanker. He is a tremendous deep threat, but is also dangerous with the ball in his hands on slants and screens.
Hayden is a better read-and-react player than Lacey or Powers, so he should draw Jones. Antoine Bethea must make sure that he doesn't get caught looking in the backfield or become too obsessed with tight end Owen Daniels, lest he give Jones an opportunity deep. That leaves Lacey on Walter, who was once a fine complement to Johnson, but appears to have lost a step. He'll still be a challenge for Lacey, but the focus will be on Johnson, Jones, and Daniels.
The issue with Daniels is that no one is sure if he's completely recovered from the knee injury that ended his 2009 season. All signs point to him being 100 percent, but it generally takes a player an offseason and a regular season to fully recover from a ligament injury.
If he's healthy, that presents a serious problem for the Colts, as Melvin Bullitt will most likely be assigned to cover him. Bullitt has struggled in coverage against athletic tight ends, so Daniels may be targeted early and often in an attempt to draw the safeties in and move the chains.
How much do the coaches trust Steve Slaton and how much do the trainers trust his neck? Those are the key questions. Slaton has been wildly productive against the Colts during his career, averaging over seven yards a carry and scoring four touchdowns in four games.
Early indications say that Arian Foster will get the starting nod, which would prove beneficial for Indianapolis. Foster played well replacing Slaton last season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry over the last four games of 2009, but 4.8 yards a carry is preferable to seven yards a carry.
Foster also takes away a potential weapon in the passing game, as he is not as skilled or versatile a receiver as Slaton and will probably be kept in the formation to assist Brown with Freeney in passing situations. He is a much more methodical, plodding player than Slaton, but is also more consistent.
Foster is taller, bigger, more powerful, and could be able to run through the tackles of Clint Session, Philip Wheeler, and Brackett if they try to simply make contact and cause a collision rather than wrapping up Foster and actually tackling him to the ground. Foster will win on most collisions, so tackling fundamentals will be the key to success on defense, especially if the Texans run their offense primarily out of three receiver sets in an attempt to give Foster more space in which to operate, allowing him to pick a hole and get up a head of steam.
Matt Schaub is not yet an elite quarterback, but he's working on it. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2009, posted his first winning record as a starter, and started all 16 games for the first time in his career. He led the league in pass attempts, yardage, and completions.
With the development of Jones and the return of Daniels, he has a number of weapons at his disposal for this game that he either did not have or did not have at full capacity last season. But, it's too early to elevate Schaub to the level of elite. He's still in the second tier of "very good to great."
Even Peyton Manning was viewed for years as a great quarterback with tons of talent and an outstanding understanding of the game. He didn't reach elite status until he won a championship. He wasn't considered truly elite until he became a nearly unstoppable force in the final two minutes and the fourth quarter. He also needed to consistently beat Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Manning and the Colts are what's keeping Schaub and the Texans from bringing their game to the next level. They are a talented team that wants to win their division and win a championship and Indianapolis is in the way. To start their ascension, the Houston Texans need to beat the Indianapolis Colts.
To keep the Texans down, the Colts need to keep beating them. In order to beat the Indianapolis, Houston — and Schaub in particular — needs to avoid fourth quarter collapses. They have come close to beating the Colts in recent seasons, only to fall apart in critical moments. If they can avoid a collapse, they can keep pace with Indianapolis and beat them.
In order to force a collapse, the Colts defense needs to stay the course. They need to get to Schaub early and wear him down. They need to keep the game tight, where the margin for error is very small.
In that situation, Schaub will either rise to the occasion or wilt. The Indianapolis defense needs to be there to make a play when he makes a mistake.
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