A lot has been made about the fact that Mario Williams seems to be "putting it all together" at this point in his young career. No one ever doubted that the huge prospect with uncanny athletic ability had the skills to succeed at the NFL, but many were hesitant to put him in the same conversation as Reggie White. That comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but with his size, quickness, and ability to play any position on the line — he often moves inside to tackle on third down and plays both end positions throughout the course of the game — Williams can certainly be a disruptive force and is without a doubt the most talented member of Houston's front four.
He is an excellent pass rusher with very quick hands and a developing swim move that is big enough to play well at the point of attack. But if Tony Ugoh is able to lock onto him and get him to play high, he loses a great deal of his leverage and will be far less effective. With Ryan Diem unlikely to play Sunday Charlie Johnson's will likely sub at right tackle again and Ugoh will most likely play the entire game unless the score gets out of hand.
Ugoh will need to stay on Williams in the running game and probably will need help from Joseph Addai or Ben Utecht in the passing game. His ultimate goal, though, will be to attempt use his hands and strength to get into Williams' pads and force him to play high.
Left end Anthony Weaver is a fine player, but he is nowhere near as stout as Williams against the run and of little consequence in the pass rush. With Williams getting into a zone of late, the Colts should focus their attention away from Williams in the running game. They will also need to push the edge of the defense with slant and sweep plays, since the interior of the Texans line is also starting to mature and realize their vast potential.
Although Amobi Okoye appears to be slowing from a promising and fast start to his rookie campaign, he still is a very active, strong, penetrating player. His battery mate, Travis Johnson, is of similar ilk and athletic ability.
If Indianapolis is able to stay to the side of Okoye and Weaver, Jake Scott and Diem should be able to handle them one-on-one, leaving Ryan Lilja to pull into the hole and Jeff Saturday to force Johnson upfield, past the play.
Watch for the Colts to also mix in some draw plays, delays, and screen passes to slow down the frenetic pursuit of this incredibly quick defensive line. If Indianapolis can make these men think before they act, that will give them enough time to run the play as it was designed. If the defensive line for the Texans is allowed to follow their instincts, they will lead them to the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
With Pro Bowl performer DeMeco Ryans in the middle and free agent acquisition Morlon Greenwood on the weak side, Danny Clark gets lost in the shuffle. He is a fairly skilled player and does not shy away from contact. Dallas Clark, though, is far less accomplished as a blocker than a receiver, so this will be an interesting matchup to watch.
DeMeco Ryans breaks up a pass
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Assuming that Diem and Scott are able to take Weaver and Okoye out of the equation, that leaves pulling guard Ryan Lilja isolated on Ryans. Ryans was voted the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and as a starter to the Pro Bowl this season for a reason — he is an explosive and talented young man that has a nose for the football. The task of limiting the effect that Ryans has on this game is Lilja's sole responsibility. Lilja's effectiveness in this area is going to determine the overall effectiveness of the Indianapolis rushing attack.
Greenwood signed a sizeable contract — particularly for a man of his experience at the time — with Houston as a free agent following the 2004 season. He has since performed fairly well, but certainly not at the level the Texans were expecting when they picked him up nearly three seasons ago.
Once Houston realizes that the Colts are avoiding Williams' side of the field in the running game and giving him special attention in the passing game, they will attempt to overload the weak side of the formation and bring more than Indianapolis can block, which includes Greenwood.
Peyton Manning needs to be able to recognize this behavior before the snap and some combination of Ugoh, Addai, and Utecht to execute sound inside-outside blitz pick-up in order to give Manning enough time to get rid of the ball.
The silver lining when facing this corps of linebackers is that they are not particularly skilled in space, particularly in the passing game, playing either zone or man. Expect for the Colts to take full advantage of this with slants, in routes, bubble screens, and lots of checkdowns to Clark and Addai, especially if the Texans decide to bring the heat later in the game and Manning or Jim Sorgi needs to get the ball to his hot route or safety valve in a hurry.
Another plus for the Colts is that, with Dunta Robinson on injured reserve, Houston does not have a cornerback that can cover Reggie Wayne man-to-man. For that matter, they really don't have anyone in the back four that matches up well against Anthony Gonzalez or Dallas Clark.
Essentially, Manning will need to go through his progressions and get the ball to the man that is most open, with a preference towards a quick strike over the top.
For the Texans, though, there is not much of a drop-off in skill between No. 1 cornerback Von Hutchins and No. 5 cornerback Jamar Fletcher. This allows Houston to vary their personnel groupings in nickel and dime packages to best combat what the Colts are trying to do on offense.
There is also not a tremendous difference between starting free safety Will Demps and his backup, Curome Cox, or between starting strong safety C.C. Brown and back-up Michael Boulware. As a result, the Texans will most likely go small and come out in a nickel package on their first defensive series.
For Indianapolis, the best way to combat this will be to come out in two tight end sets, allowing Gonzalez and Wayne to win their individual battles, take advantage of the mismatch that Clark presents, and either keep Utecht in if necessary, or have him attack the seam opposite Clark. Checking down to Addai would, obviously, be a last resort.
As far as resting the stars on offense is concerned, Manning and the Colts control their own destiny. If they come out crisp, with Manning hitting Gonzalez and Wayne in stride on slants and deep posts, building an early lead, they will probably get the hook around halftime. If they struggle out of the gate and their timing is off, they will play well into the third quarter or to the end of the game, depending on the score.