Draft pick for draft pick and dollar for dollar, the Texans have one of the most dominant defensive lines in the league. Right end Mario Williams has lived up to his billing as a first overall selection in 2006. He has been to two Pro Bowls, has 44.5 career sacks, has improved considerably as a run defender, and has five sacks already in 2010. Left end Antonio Smith, who signed a five year $35 million contract in 2009, has contributed 2.5 sacks thus far this season and is a fairly well-regarded run defender in his own right.
It is difficult to run wide on Houston because of their talent on the edges. Where they struggle is up the middle, as former first-round pick Amobi Okoye and former second round pick Shaun Cody, who was originally drafted by the Lions in 2005, do not generate a great deal of pressure in the passing game and are not effective at anchoring or penetrating the line of scrimmage on run defense.
Like the Colts, the Texans generate most of their pressure with the front four and rarely blitz. All but one of their ten sacks have been generated by the defensive line, with the rogue sack courtesy of linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who is currently on injured reserve.
Like the Colts, the Texans have not been able to generate a great deal of pressure with their front four this season and the vast majority of sack production has come from their ends. Charlie Johnson will have his hands full with Williams and Ryan Diem has a lot to contend with in Smith, but Williams has only one sack in his last four games and two of Smith's sacks came against the Raiders in Week 4.
Houston's pattern is that they are able to get to the quarterback when they face a week offensive line and a team that is accustomed to giving up a lot of sacks — the bulk of their production came from games against the Raiders and Redskins — or when they are playing at home against a division rival and the left guard is giving away the snap count. Williams and Smith did not sack Peyton Manning a great deal in Week 1, but they did pressure him often and they registered a lot of hits. Given that this game is being played in Lucas Oil Stadium and that the snap count issues have been mostly resolved, Manning should be able to survey the field and have a mostly clean pocket.
In the running game, this could be the one case where it works to Indianapolis' advantage that Joseph Addai is hurt. Kyle DeVan and Mike Pollak match up well against Okoye and Cody because they are faster off the ball and more aggressive than the two Houston tackles. That may leave Jeff Saturday available to isolate on middle linebacker Brian Cushing, or possibly Brody Eldridge can motion into the backfield and act as a fullback, isolating on Cushing.
Mike Hart is a stronger inside runner than Addai and will make more yards after contact. Those yards will make down and distance more manageable for an injury-depleted group of skill position players that will certainly miss Dallas Clark in their first full game without him.
Now that Ryans is out of the picture, the Colts can focus their attention on taking Cushing out of the game. Cushing covers a lot of ground and is an extremely athletic and versatile player with a nose for the ball. Indianapolis will not be able to check down in the middle or throw to the tight end or slot receiver in the seam effectively while Cushing is on patrol.
Their best option will be to get him to cheat towards the line of scrimmage and fool him with play action if they are able to isolate on him and frustrate him in the running game. Cushing is also very aggressive and doesn't like to lose, so he will lose sight of his responsibilities in the middle of the field in the passing game in the Cover 2 defense if the Colts are able to get a hat on him and run right at him.
Weak side linebacker Kevin Bentley was limited in practice this week and has spent most of the season trying to shake a knee injury. If he is able to go, he will not be 100 percent, so Indianapolis should be able to run slants and screens to his side of the field, as well as being able to motion Eldridge away from the weak side without losing production in the passing game.
Back up Xavier Adibi has been nursing a hamstring injury, but had full participation in practice on Thursday. He has not been able to stick on an NFL roster and has limited coverage abilities, so that could equal more targets for Eldridge in the passing game as well.
Zac Diles played well on the weak side in the first tilt between these two teams and has performed suitably on the strong side since Ryans got hurt and Cushing was moved to middle linebacker. But, Diles cannot cover Jacob Tamme one-on-one and give Manning some opportunities outside the tackles in the intermediate area and in the flat, provided that Tamme finally lives up to what has been expected of him since he was drafted in 2008.
With injuries to Clark and Austin Collie, as well as Pierre Garcon being held out of practice, the Colts will most likely use a two tight end, two wide receiver set with Tamme, Eldridge, Anthony Gonzalez, and Reggie Wayne. Blair White will play some flanker and Gonzalez will move into the slot when Indianapolis goes into a three wide receiver set, but the Colts should primarily use two tight ends in their base offense. That means that the Texans can deploy their base 4-3 defense, with rookie Kareem Jackson covering Wayne.
In Week 1, Wayne registered seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown against Jackson, but was mostly invisible in the second half. Since Collie, Garcon, and Clark will not be available, Wayne will need to have a big game working against Jackson and will need to make the necessary key plays when called upon. Collie and Clark's absence leaves a tremendous void in production and White, Tamme, and Eldridge can only fill so much of that void. Jackson is a favorable match-up for Wayne and he has, historically, performed well when facing a favorable match-up in a pressure situation.
Gonzalez will go to work against second year man Glover Quin, who had a very respectable game against Garcon in the season opener. Gonzalez will be targeted more in this week's game than Garcon was in Week 1 simply by virtue of the fact that Manning has fewer options. Gonzalez has been underwhelming thus far in his career, but he has a tremendous chance to make a big splash on Monday night with a good match-up, a national stage, and a limited amount of competition for targets.
Safeties Bernard Pollard and Eugene Wilson are more in-the-box safeties than coverage guys and have a tendency to cheat towards the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by the fact that the Texans have given up seven pass plays of 40 yards or more, which is second worst in the league. Indianapolis will be able to take some shots deep, provided they can establish the run and White, Gonzalez, and Wayne can get behind the coverage.
This is a bad pass defense, with inexperienced cornerbacks, coverage liabilities at the safety position, and a propensity to give up the big play. They have allowed a league worst 306.2 passing yards per game, 14 touchdown passes compared to only four interceptions, and opposing quarterbacks have a 106.3 passer rating. It is unfortunate that the Colts are limited at receiver due to injury, but the silver lining there is that the Texans are vulnerable and Manning excels at attacking a defense's biggest weakness.
Houston also ranks 29th in scoring defense and their best effort on the year was when they held Indianapolis to 24 points in Week 1. It would be tempting to attack the Texans through the air and never let up despite the injuries at the receiver and tight end positions. But, as was shown in the first game between the two teams this season, the Colts need to be balanced on offense to be most effective. This game has all the makings of a track meet, where the last team with the ball wins, so it is encouraging that Indianapolis will be able to throw the ball at will on Houston if they need to. By playing keep away, luring Cushing, Wilson, and Pollard towards the line of scrimmage, and avoiding the temptation to become one-dimensional, Colts will be able to win this race.
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