Since the franchise got its start in 2002, this unit has been the team's albatross, as they have not been successful running the ball and have given up a considerable number of sacks.
Head coach Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub, the man he tabbed as quarterback of the new regime, have worked hard to reverse this trend and they are starting to make a good deal of progress. Though opposing teams got to Schaub eight times in the first two games, he was not sacked in Week 4 against the Jaguars, and the new faces along the line seem to be putting the pieces together.
Rookie LT Duane Brown, taken in the first round of this year's draft out of Virginia Tech, struggled mightily in Week 1 against the Steelers, had an unplanned bye in Week 2 to work on technique, and improved in successive division games against the Titans and Jaguars.
Brown is far more effective against smaller, faster rushers, where he can use his quick feet and long frame to get out in front of them, locking in and pushing them out of the way. He does not match up well against larger defensive linemen, since he is not as powerful as his frame would lead one to believe and he tends to get overwhelmed.
While this may seem like a problematic assignment for Dwight Freeney to draw, Freeney does have the tools and the ability to get past Brown and do some damage. If Freeney can explode into Brown's body and use his powerful lower body and leverage to get a good push on Brown, he should be able to ride the left tackle in a given direction, then shove him out of the way en route to the quarterback.
On the other side, Robert Mathis has to contend with RT Eric Winston, who is much better at using his size and strength to engulf smaller ends. Mathis needs to make sure that he doesn't let Winston square up on him and get his hands on his shoulder pads because, at that point, Winston has won the battle.
In this situation, it behooves Mathis to use his speed to get around the edge and pressure Schaub, forcing him to step up.
The interior of Houston's offensive line is weaker than the bookends by a pretty wide margin, so there should be pressure coming from the middle and, if Freeney is winning his one-on-one match-up, he should be coming inside to meet Schab as well.
In the running game, Kubiak has installed the zone blocking scheme he used so well in Denver that works off of combination blocks along the line of scrimmage. This scheme generally eats up undersized defensive tackles, but Keyunta Dawson and Eric Foster are actually the right two starters to use. They have the speed and awareness to get off the ball, read the zone, and attack the appropriate gap.
Daniel Muir and La Juan Ramsey are not aware enough and would allow Mike Brisiel, Chris Myers, and Chester Pitts to catch and release, opening up a hole for Steve Slaton or Chris Taylor, then getting the next level to take on Gary Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, or Clint Session.
In order to get the best of this matchup, the Colts need to play smart and fast, staying active and shooting gaps in the middle of the line. The Texans rarely run wide, since they don't have a player that can make the defense pay on the perimeter, so they prefer to run between the tackles.
With Freeney and Mathis funneling the ball carrier to the middle, it's up to Dawson, Foster, and Brackett to stick to their assignments, mind their gaps, and attack the line of scrimmage.
Neither Taylor nor Slaton has the patience or the vision at this point in their careers to make the Colts pay with a cutback run. Therefore, it is vital that the Indianapolis defenders get in their faces and force them to commit to a bad situation.
There was a time when Andre Johnson was the sole weapon in the Texans' offensive arsenal, but those days are long gone. Johnson is an exceptional athlete, can make a defense pay at every level, and is a big target with fairly reliable hands. However, limiting his effectiveness is far from impossible.
The key to slowing Johnson down is to keep him in front of you and tackle him when you get your hands on him. He does not do well in traffic and is not especially skilled at fighting for a ball in the air, so it is imperative that the Colts keep a crowd around him and make him uncomfortable.
When they do this, though, they need to make sure that they do not focus so much on Johnson that they ignore the other weapons that Houston has.
WR Andre Johnson
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Kevin Walter is the complement for Johnson that the Texans have been searching for since they drafted him. He is about the same size, but possesses the mental attributes that Johnson does not — fighting for the ball, catching in traffic, going over the middle — all without the freakish athleticism and strength.
As a defense, the Colts need to make sure they take away the intermediate middle because, if they don't, Walter and tight end Owen Daniels will eat them alive. Daniels has the speed and athletic ability to stretch the seam and take advantage of the soft spots in the Cover 2 zones if the Colts let him. Since he usually plays tight against the formation, the Indianapolis defenders need to chuck him before he gets off the ball.
When the Texans look to attack a defense deep, they look in the direction of Andre Davis. They will take a few shots downfield during the course of the game — especially since they will be facing the prospect of starting the season 0-4 — so Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea need to make sure that they keep Davis in front of them as well.
If the running game is successful early, Houston will certainly try to throw deep off of play action, so the Colts need to be ready.
There was a great deal of speculation regarding the depth chart at running back for the Texans heading into the season, but Steve Slaton seems to have settled all debates and appears to be firmly entrenched as the starter for Houston.
It looks as though Ahman Green — provided he is ever completely healthy — is behind Slaton and Chris Taylor and that it is Slaton's job to lose at this point.
Slaton's greatest asset is his versatility — he was heavily involved in both the running and passing games at West Virginia — and his surprising strength, as he is more powerful and harder to tackle than his 5-feet-9, 200-pound frame would suggest.
Houston takes advantage of these assets by getting him in space with screen passes, checkdowns, and splitting him out as a wide receiver, where he can square up against smaller athletes and either outmaneuver them or outmuscle them.
Additionally, since he does not pass block particularly well, it makes more sense to deploy him in pass patterns rather than keeping him in the back field.
The bottom line on Slaton is that, while he is an impressive young player, he does not possess the same game-changing abilities that the tailbacks the Colts previously faced possess.
He is not a home run threat in the running game, is not a player that is going to make a play work all by himself, and will likely only be a huge factor in the game if Indianapolis not to focus on him, which is a mistake that the Jaguars were guilty of in Week 4.
The Colts cannot lose track of him and must not give him any breaks or opportunities, especially in the passing game. He has plenty of ability to capitalize on an opportunity, but not enough talent to create opportunity.
Matt Schaub is too often credited for being just someone that has a quick release and excellent mechanics. Generally speaking, when a quarterback is praised for his accuracy, mechanics, and release, it is a way of saying that he doesn't have a strong arm.
QB Matt Schaub
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Though Schaub does not have a cannon attached to his shoulder the likes of Jay Cutler or even Peyton Manning — Manning's arm strength is underrated — he puts plenty of zip on the ball and can throw it for distance with anyone in the league.
The Texans usually shelter him from throwing the 15-yard out — since he doesn't have quite the velocity to complete that pass with impunity — by designing more pass plays to attack the middle of the field, especially in the short and intermediate areas.
However, when Houston decides to throw the ball 30 yards down the field or more, it is almost always outside the numbers, so Bethea and Bullitt will be called upon to cover a lot of ground.
Schaub has more than enough arm to get them the ball, has his textbook accuracy, and the Texans, facing an 0-3 hole and a hated division rival, will be more inclined to go for the jugular — and for broke — this week than possibly any other point in the season.
So far this season, they've shown patience and persistence, sticking with their system and their way of doing things. Kubiak tends to keep things simple, to stress execution, and to trust the athletes he has assembled to maximize their potential in his system.
But after a frustrating 8-8 season in 2007, higher-than-usual expectations coming into 2008, and three tough losses to start the season — including a heartbreaker in overtime last week — he will only be patient for so long.
By stymieing the Texans offense early, the Colts will put themselves into an excellent position to capitalize on mistakes when Kubiak becomes impatient and starts to air the ball out and take too many risks on offense.
He has assembled a very good group of players on offense that play well within the confines of his system and can strike when the opponent lets them, but they are not very good at creating opportunities and the results are usually disastrous when they try. Schaub is the best example of this physical and systemic limitation.
If Indianapolis can take away creases in the running game and force Slaton to make big plays on his own, if they can box Johnson in and force him to fight for the ball, and if they can shut down the middle of the field for Schaub, Kubiak will be forced to make him create.
When he tries to create, he will hold the ball too long, his mechanics will erode, and his accuracy will fall away. Turnovers can't be counted on in this situation, but they certainly are likely.
The best way to take away the intermediate middle — which is, of course, the soft spot of the Colts Cover 2 defense — is to pressure the quarterback with the front four. Jacksonville was unable to do this and let up 27 points. Pittsburgh and Tennessee were able and let up 17 and 12 points, respectively.
Shut them down early, turn up the heat, and watch the patient resolve of this Texans team deteriorate; Schaub especially. That's the way Indianapolis will beat this offense and this team.