Houston got off to a hot start against the Colts in Week 1, blowing the Indianapolis front seven off the ball in the second half, with Arian Foster running for 191 yards and three touchdowns in the last two quarters. They have since cooled off a bit, with Foster averaging only 80.5 yards per game. Matt Schaub has also already been sacked 16 times this season in 213 dropbacks, as opposed to 25 sacks in 614 dropbacks in 2009.
The good news for the Texans is that they get left tackle Duane Brown back for Monday's night after Brown served a four game suspension in weeks three through seven. Dwight Freeney had a sack against Brown in the first match-up and Brown is liable to be a little rusty after nearly a month off, but Freeney has not registered a sack since Week 2 against the Giants, so he may be a bit off his game as well.
In order to slow down this very potent Houston offense, Freeney will need to pressure Schaub and Robert Mathis — who was in a sack drought as well before recording 1.5 sacks in Week 6 against the Redskins — will need to wear out right tackle Eric Winston in the passing game so that Winston is not able to wear Mathis down in the running game.
Gap discipline all along the defensive line will be at least as important as pressure in the passing game, since the Texans will look to build on the success they had in the second half of the first game. Without Antonio Johnson, Daniel Muir will need to dig in his heels and occupy even more blockers at the point of attack because of the general ineffectiveness of Fili Moala against the run. Moala was in the game when Foster made a big play in the first game, so Houston will definitely try to target him and run in his direction.
Center Chris Myers and guards Andre Caldwell and Wade Smith all did an outstanding job in Week 1 and opened up huge holes for Foster. Since that game, though, defenses have placed more of a focus on stopping Foster and he has been less effective. He's still averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but he has had his low points as well, including an 11 carry, 25 yard effort against the Giants in Week 5.
The one piece of good news for the Colts — in a sea of bad memories and unfavorable matchups — is that the Texans have scored nine rushing touchdowns on the season and nine passing touchdowns. They tend to try to score by running the ball when they get inside the ten yard line, which is one of the few areas where the Indianapolis run defense has excelled. If they can bend but not break between the 20s, they should be able to contain Foster when Houston gets closer to the goal line.
Andre Johnson is still the go to guy for the Texans passing offense and the bad news for Colts defenders is that he's finally feeling 100 percent healthy after resting an nagging ankle injury during the bye week. Johnson gets more targets and catches than anyone else, but Schaub is doing a very good job of distributing the ball to the rest of his talented targets, as four other players on the roster have 15 or more catches on the season. But, if Schaub needs to make a play, he will look for Johnson as he did in Week 6 against Kansas City.
Kevin Walter had some success in Johnson's absence earlier this season, but he is more of a complementary target and someone Schaub looks for inside the 20. Walter caught a touchdown pass in the first game and has, historically, done well against the Indianapolis defense. Owen Daniels appears to be recovering from the knee injury that ended his 2009 season and is starting to show some of the burst before he got hurt.
Jacoby Jones has been slowed by injury, but could represent a very important piece of the offensive puzzle for the Texans, as he is their most viable deep threat and the Colts have had issues with the deep pass thus far this season. Schaub will look to get single coverage on Jones and throw him the ball deep on passing downs and check to see if the cornerback covering Johnson has help over the top from Aaron Francisco or Antoine Bethea.
If healthy, Jerraud Powers makes the most sense to cover Johnson, since he is the most physical of the Indianapolis corners. Houston generally does not move Johnson around that much in order to get a more favorable matchup — primarily because Johnson enjoys a favorable match-up against just about any cornerback in the league. That leaves Kelvin Hayden to cover Walter and Jacob Lacey one-on-one against Jones, which could work to the Colts advantage or could be a recipe for disaster depending on Lacey's concentration level. Lacey is also questionable for the game.
Daniels presents a major problem up the middle, since Clint Session and Philip Wheeler will be obsessed with stopping Foster and Francisco cannot handle Daniels in man coverage. The Cover 2 defense will work in the Colts favor, since Daniels doesn't not yet have the top line speed to get to the seam and get into the holes in the zone for big plays. Indianapolis should be able to handle Daniels underneath but will get destroyed by him if he's up to full speed and can run the deep post as quickly and effective as he could before the injury.
There is no doubt that the Indianapolis front seven has a strong desire to shut down Arian Foster after they were embarrassed in Week 1. They handed in a second half performance that was uncomfortable to watch and definitely more uncomfortable — and probably painful — to experience. The issue here — and this has been an issue for most of Houston's opponents this season, as they are the sixth best scoring offense in the NFL — is that focusing on Foster opens up the passing game and leaves a defense vulnerable to all the talented weapons the Texans have in the passing game. Therefore, the Colts need to be able to stop Foster with their front seven and not commit an eighth man to the box. If they commit that eighth defender, Schaub will be able to carve them up with play action passes and huge chunks of yardage.
The Giants were able to hold Foster in check in Week 5 by clogging rush lanes, shooting gaps, and making Foster run east-to-west. Foster is a powerful and decisive runner with deceptive speed and quickness. The more he hesitates and stutter steps, the more likely he will make a bad decision.
The run defense has a great deal of motivation and Gary Brackett has been very fired up and vocal on the field since Week 1. That is the best asset Indianapolis has at this point, so they must get more out of seven players than they did out of eight in that game. If they can't stop Foster without committing that eighth defender to the line, it could be a repeat of that disastrous Week 1 performance. If they do commit that eighth defender, it could get even uglier.
Schaub is playing with a great deal of confidence right now and, while he probably still has a great deal of respect for the Colts, he is no longer afraid of them and waiting for the other shoe to drop. That Week 1 win was a key victory for him, the team, and his confidence even if he only completed nine of 17 passes for 107 yards in that contest. His gains in confidence paid dividends in Week 6, as the Texans scored 21 fourth quarter points against a very good Chiefs pass defense solely on the strength of Schaub's right arm.
This is another big game for this team and this quarterback — Indianapolis has so far not realized the weight that their division opponents put on games against the Colts — so it is another opportunity for Schaub to gain confidence. It is also another opportunity for the Indianapolis defenders to chip away at that confidence.
If Foster can be stifled with seven defenders, that would put Houston in known passing situations and down and distance situations that favor Freeney and Mathis, especially at Lucas Oil Stadium. The best way to get in Schaub's head is to hit him and bring him down. Tipped passes and turnovers certainly do not hurt, but Schaub is playing with enough confidence that he feels as though he can come back stronger if given the opportunity. If he sees his next opportunity under center as another chance to get hit and sacked, then he will be less confident.
This is also a situation where the best defense will be a good offense. Indianapolis cannot be out of synch at the start of the game and they must convert red zone trips into touchdowns instead of field goals. The more pressure they can put on the Texans to score, the more pressure they can put on Schaub.
With the injuries to the Colts on defense and Houston's subpar defense, this does not promise to be a low scoring game. If Freeney, Mathis, Brackett, and Wheeler can get to Schaub early and work on eroding his confidence throughout the game, then they may yet again see the scared, young eyes of a quarterback that has squandered the game away in the deciding minutes.
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