As the Indianapolis Colts prepare to head to Houston for Thursday night’s AFC South Division showdown with the Texans, here are some quickie observations in the spirit of the short week:
—Yes, it’s a no-brainer that the Colts will double team Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on many if not most plays. But former defensive guru Buddy Ryan once gave me a piece of advice on how to deal with a dynamic player: Always keep him guessing. That’s what New England coach Bill Belichick used to do with the Colts’ Dwight Freeney, who never knew when or if he would get double teamed and from where it could come. Expect the Colts to try the same strategy against the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Month for September. If that doesn’t work, then Watt can expect regular double teams. At times, Freeney demanded triple teams. If it comes to that, so be it.
— The Colts are thin at offensive line with guards Jack Mewhort and Hugh Thornton banged up. If they can’t go, Joe Reitz and A.Q. Shipley get the call. And even if Thornton plays, expect the Texans to test that middle with a lot of inside stunts, meaning J.J. Watt could be looping inside to take advantage of one or all of these guys. Because it’s a short week, there’s not a lot of time to prepare exotic blocking schemes and you want your guys to play fast. So positioning a tight end, Dwayne Allen or Jack Doyle, in the backfield to keep an extra pair of eyes on Watt makes a lot of sense.
— After so much conversation has been exhausted about rookie Jonotthan Harrison starting at center last Sunday, it stands to reason the Colts see more upside in him than A.Q. Shipley, even after Harrison appeared to botch three snaps in his first NFL start. It’s a touchy subject, for some reason, not made easier by the lack of a simple explanation: The Colts just need to say they think Harrison will be the better player long-term and needs to play to grow. We might not like that answer, but evasive explanations mean inquiring minds are still going to want an answer. And that means reporters are going to continue to ask about it. That’s what we get paid to do.
— Punt returner Griff Whalen needs to be smarter against the Texans. He’s survived in this league as much for his smarts as anything. He can’t have another game like Sunday, when he failed to field a line-drive punt, turning it into a 69-yard change in field position, then later lost a fumble on another. Coaches have little tolerance for mistakes being repeated on special teams.
— Texans running back Arian Foster, hamstring willing, will be a huge test for the Colts’ improved 11th-ranked run defense. We’ve seen Foster run through the Colts before and it’s been ridiculous at times. He’s had four 100-yard games against Indy, including 231 in 2010 (that counts twice, huh?) While Foster will get yards, the key is to gang tackle and not turn a productive play into a game-changer. The Colts will likely crowd the defensive box to discourage this, which means cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler will be on the spot to play solid man-to-man coverage on Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. Johnson has torched the Colts in the past, too, so expect a safety to be looming overhead to keep tabs on No. 80.
— Johnson is great, but Hopkins scares me. The second-year pro can make huge plays. Too much attention paid to Johnson means the Texans will look to spring Hopkins, who has three TDs to Johnson’s two and averages 14.8 yards per catch to Johnson’s 11.9.
— The Colts can’t keep turning the ball over. While they’ve won three in a row, the glaring statistic through five games is nine turnovers. Andrew Luck has been intercepted six times and the Colts have lost three fumbles. The Colts had just 14 turnovers all of last season. Guys will be tired and sore from the short week, so ball security and playing smart becomes even more important.
— Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is supposed to take care of the ball, relying on Foster and making wise decisions. It’s about “don’t get us beat.” But he’s thrown six interceptions, so the Colts will look to blitz at opportune times. The Texans will throw the dump-off passes, screens and try misdirection plays to catch overly aggressive defenders. It’s important for pass rushers, and particularly linebackers, to not over-commit.
— The Texans have struggled with the Colts in the recent past because they’ve been unable to defend the pass. And now the Colts have the best group of receivers in the Luck era. Presuming the guys up front can give Luck time, it’s imperative to take advantage of defensive matchups on Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks. The tight ends will be compromised to help block on a lot of plays, but the receivers should be open if there’s time, and that’s not just dink-and-dunk throws, but down the field.
— The Texans have allowed 132.2 rushing yards per game. Yes, the Colts should be able to run the ball, but don’t just line up and slam it in there in predictable formations and on predictable downs. If we’ve learned anything from five games, the Colts aren’t a hat-on-hat, smashmouth running team. The running lanes open when defenses have to back off to defend the pass. Pretty sure I’ve hammered away on this point this season.
— Because Houston has allowed 20 or fewer points in four games, scoring might be difficult. Field goals aren’t a bad thing. The Colts have been aggressive in going for more in disadvantageous down-and-distance situations this season. Don’t be afraid to settle for three. Those points can add up if you keep moving the ball into Texans territory.
— If the Colts win this game, it really counts twice toward reclaiming the AFC South because of tiebreakers. A sweep in the first round of division games also favors the Colts in that Houston and Jacksonville still have to come back to Lucas Oil Stadium. And the Texans have never won in Indy.
— While Foster has made his disgust for Thursday night games known, the Colts shrugged at this line of questioning Tuesday, and rightfully so. There’s nothing any of these NFL players can do about it. The Texans’ star has a legitimate gripe, and the Thursday games have been dreadful to watch, but these guys realize they’re paid well to do a job.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.