Key Matchups: All Eyes on the Left Tackles

The left tackles in Sunday's Colts-Texans matchup will have their hands full against highly-talented defensive ends. Greg Talmage points out what Mario Williams and Dwight Freeney are likely to do in this matchup -- and what Tony Ugoh and Ephraim Salaam will have to do to slow them.

After the Texans selected defensive end Mario Williams over running back Reggie Bush in 2006, team owner Bob McNair explained his rationale, saying he believed Houston needed a top pass-rusher to get pressure on Colts QB Peyton Manning since Manning played quarterback for the current gold standard in the AFC South.

"If we had Bush, would we outscore Indianapolis? Our decision was no," said McNair at the time.

For Mario Williams, his rookie season was one of several ups and downs. One thing the Texans did last year that likely hindered Williams was that they moved the rookie all over the line. He played right defensive end, he played left defensive end and he even moved inside on some downs. Williams, though, was never fully comfortable with all the different assignments.

So Houston scratched that plan in 2007. Now Williams plays at the right end position exclusively. And he's off to a solid start with 6 tackles, 2 sacks and a fumble returned for a touchdown in his first two games.

His battle this week is against Colts rookie left tackle Tony Ugoh. This is a matchup Colts and Texans fans should have the opportunity to enjoy for several years to come.

Ugoh has done a good job of stepping in for retired left tackle Tarik Glenn, but the kid is still just two games deep in his NFL career. Because of that inexperience, Ugoh can expect Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith to attack frequently from his side. While Ugoh has kept Manning clean for the most part, he has struggled at times with speed to his outside shoulder. Last week, the speed and motor of Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch gave Ugoh more than he could handle at times.

Ephraim Salaam
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty

That said, Williams won't just rely on his speed rush off the edge. Expect more bull-rushes and twists from Williams this week to test the rookie's lower-body strength and awareness. Ugoh must be ready to quickly kick-slide out of his stance. Just like Tarik Glenn used to do, Ugoh needs to use his wingspan to get his hands on Williams and push him past Manning, giving his quarterback that extra second needed to find a receiver downfield.

In the other matchup when Houston has the ball, Texans LT Ephraim Salaam and Colts DE Dwight Freeney have become quite familiar with each other. Since 2004 Salaam has been in the AFC South as both a starter and backup in Jacksonville and now in Houston. In four career games against each other, Freeney has amassed a total of 3 sacks.

Freeney's speed should give the bigger Salaam (6-foot-7, 302 pounds) all kinds of headaches. Expect to see the Colts' star defensive end lining up wide a lot.  Freeney will do this because he wants to stretch the edge to contain and set-up his spin move to finish it off. After dipping his shoulder and going out wide to contain the quarterback within the pocket, Freeney will attack using his spin move.

Salaam must anticipate that spin back to the inside, keep his hands inside the Colts' attacker and stay low. The Texans will also use tight ends Mark Bruener or Owen Daniels to help Salaam.

Besides tight end help, Salaam's best friend in this battle might actually be his quarterback. So far this season Texans QB Matt Schaub has executed the West Coast Offense to a tee -- a lot of quick drops, three steps and boom -- the ball is out.

In two games, Schaub has yet to be sacked. That's a big change from David Carr.

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