The Texans have spent the past few drafts using high first-round picks to stock their defensive line with young talent. Houston may want to consider doing the same thing the next few seasons with their offensive line.
They are vastly improved from their expansion days, when David Carr set a record for most sacks taken by a quarterback in a season in 2002, but this is still the Achilles heel of this offense. The starting five offensive linemen can be exploited.
One of the reasons for this is the shift in strategy for the Texans with Sage Rosenfels under center. Earlier in the season, Houston took advantage of Matt Schaub's excellent recognition skills and quick release by focusing their offensive game plan around timing routes and three step drops. Schaub has been taken to the ground considerably less than Carr ever was, but Schaub will not be the starting quarterback on Sunday. The knock on David Carr was, is, and always will be that he held onto the ball long and was at least partially responsible for the sieve-like state of the Texans offensive line.
Though his tendency to hold onto the ball is not as extreme as Carr's, Rosenfels has that habit as well and the Indianapolis defensive line should seek to test his ability to hold onto the ball after they hit him.
Ephriam Salaam and Eric Winston are fairly skilled players, but the underwhelming interior trio of Chester Pitts, Mike Flanagan, and Mike Brisiel is weak at the point of attack and allows regular access into the backfield in the running game and reasonably clear rush lanes in the passing game.
Gary Kubiak has attempted to insulate Rosenfels to a degree by calling more running plays than he would if Schaub were taking the snaps. It is imperative that the Colts win the battle of the line of scrimmage early, build a lead on offense, and force Rosenfels to beat them. Kubiak is a talented play caller and has a good offensive mind, but he tends to prefer operating within his comfort zone. The best way to get him to start dialing in plays that are futile is to take him out of that comfort zone as early as possible and keep him there.
One of the key differences between Sunday's game and the Week 3 matchup between these two teams is that Andre Johnson is healthy and will play. Johnson is a tremendously talented athlete that has been blessed with size, speed, the ability to catch the ball at its highest point, and excellent hands.
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KHouston will try to get the ball to Johnson early and often, throwing to him on screens and slants, posts, ins, outs, and deep routes. He is equally dangerous at all depth levels and has shown himself to be very effective with the ball in his hands in the open field. With Antoine Bethea unlikely to start, it is the responsibility of Matt Giordano, making only his third career start, to cover the deep area of Johnson's side of the field and not allow the gifted wideout to get behind him.
The Colts have the players to bracket and punish Johnson in the short to intermediate area of the field, hopefully wearing him down throughout the course of the game. If Houston is able to slowly and methodically work its way down the field with short, precise passes to Johnson, then they will have earned the right to score. The one thing that Indianapolis cannot afford to do is allow a big play to Johnson and allow this offense to feel confident.
Andre Davis has been the Texans defacto deep threat in Johnson's place all season, so the Colts defenders — Bob Sanders in particular — need to keep an eye on him and not allow him to get behind the zone either. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones are both fine young players that have flashes of explosiveness and big play ability, but they are also two individuals that make their money in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.
With Sanders and Giordano patrolling the deep zone, the goal for Indianapolis on defense will be, per usual, to keep everything in front of them, tackle soundly, and hit hard. So far this season, the Colts have been praised for their discipline, technique, and speed, but they are in reality a very underrated physical unit.
If the Indianapolis defenders are able to beat on these Texans receivers early and often, it will pay dividends in the fourth quarter in the form of dropped passes and short arms.
Though this sounds like a solid strategy, the issue is that, with the safeties playing so far away from the line — Sanders in particular — and obsessing over preventing deep passes, it opens up opportunities for Houston in the running game.
Free agent acquisition Ahman Green is on injured reserve, leaving the ailing Ron Dayne and rookie free agent Darius Walker as the two options for the Texans in the backfield. Though the faster, leaner Walker is expecting to see most of the carries, the ability of the big, bruising Dayne to wear down the Colts on defense cannot be overlooked. The veteran back was not supposed to play last week, but suited up against the Broncos and played well.
The Cover 2 scheme has the trade-off of preventing big plays versus allowing yards in the running game. Since Sanders and Giordano will be at least 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, their ability to help out in this area will be severely diminished. The Broncos came out with eight men in the box against the Texans in the first half in Week 15, essentially daring Rosenfels to beat them. After Rosenfels was successful enough to loosen up Denver's front seven, Houston was able to get into a rhythm in the running game after only registering nine carries in the first two quarters.
If the Texans see seven men in the box and two safeties playing off at the outset, they will attempt to get into an early rhythm with their rushing offense. If they are effective running the ball, it will open up their passing game, where they can be truly dangerous.
Neither Dayne nor Walker is a home threat, especially not to the level that Davis and Andre Johnson are, and the two running backs are mostly effective between the tackles.
That is why the task of halting the Houston rushing attack falls on Gary Brackett, Ed Johnson, and either Keyunta Dawson or Quinn Pitcock at the other defensive tackle spot. Typically, Brock, Dawson and Johnson would be more concerned with getting to the quarterback at the snap and Brackett would be responsible for covering the middle zone of the field.
Sunday, however, the two defensive tackles must attempt to penetrate into the backfield, disrupt the rush lanes, and allow Brackett to flow to the ball carrier.
This battle up the middle is at least as important as protecting the deep area of the field. If Indianapolis expects to win on Sunday, they must win here.
Although Rosenfels has done an admirable job in relief of Schaub, he is simply not as effective as Schaub at running this offense.
Both are rhythm passers, neither responds well to pressure up the middle, and both can be thrown off their games by disrupting their timing with their receivers.
The key difference is that, since Rosenfels is not as talented as Schaub and does not have as thorough an understanding of the offense, it's a lot easier to get Rosenfels off his game than it is Schaub.
Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden will be the "first line of defense" in disrupting Rosenfels and the Houston passing game. At the snap, they need to get their hands on the Texans receivers and attempt to reroute them.
Since a great deal of the offense runs off of quick drops, quick reads, and quick patterns, the more Hayden and Jackson change the planned route of Johnson and Davis, the more frustrating it will be for Rosenfels. Also, by taking away his first read and making him work through his progressions, it gives the defense more time to get to him.
Freddy Keiaho and Rocky Boiman are the "second line of defense" and will be responsible for filling in the passing windows in the short area of the field. In all likelihood, they will not need to bat down a pass or make a play on the ball if they are able to get into that zone and get the attention of Rosenfels, forcing him to his third read.
The third line of defense is Sanders and Giordano and has already been covered. By taking away those first three reads, the back seven should give the front four plenty of time to pressure Rosenfels and bring him to the ground.
If the Colts defenders are able to stay in their zones, mind their responsibilities and consistently take away his first three reads, Rosenfels will lose any gamble he makes, because he does not have the arm strength or accuracy to force the ball into a tight spot or feather a ball over the linebacker and under the safety.
If Indianapolis can get to that point on defense, they will be playing with house money in the third and fourth quarters.