An awful lot of attention will be paid to defensive end Mario Williams, both by the offense and by the announcers, but he definitely deserves the attention that he gets.
Williams has always been a tremendously gifted athlete, but the questions surrounding him when he was drafted first overall in 2006 were whether he could learn a pro scheme and become an effective two-way player, and whether or not he would have a tendency to coast or take plays off. He has successfully answered those questions and has begun to really put it all together in the early part of his third season.
Tony Ugoh blocks Williams during last season's matchup
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Tony Ugoh will have his hands full for most of Sunday and will need blocking assistance, most likely from Joseph Addai in the passing game and Dallas Clark in the running game, since Williams has been known to even fight off a double team and make a play, both against the run and the pass.
The issue for the Colts is that, since the Texans are aware of how much attention Williams draws, they tend to line him up at both right and left end at random points in the game to make it more difficult to avoid his side of the field. The good news for the Colts is that Peyton Manning can audible a play that is headed towards Williams away from Williams when he sees everyone line up prior to the snap.
And, regardless of where Williams lines up, it would be good idea for Indianapolis to focus their attention on Anthony Weaver's side. He is a try-hard player, but is definitely the weak link of this defensive front.
Of the two Okoye is the one that warrants watching, since he is the tackle with more physical prowess, but also the man most likely to suffer a lapse in concentration or effort. After the Colts run several successive plays to Williams' side, they need to watch for when he lines up next to Okoye and immediately throw the tailback in Okoye's direction.
Chances are that they will be able to catch Okoye napping and exploit that opportunity for a big play.
For the most part, though, Indianapolis should focus their rush efforts on the edges, with slants, counters, and possibly even tosses off-tackle. The Texans are most vulnerable on the perimeter, where their outside linebackers are lacking, they are short at least one safety, and their cornerbacks are not particularly stout against the run. Plus, even if Pro Bowl middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans suits up, the Colts need to make him cover as much ground as possible and push his injured ankle to the limit.
In the passing game, Houston plays surprisingly vanilla pass defense, rushing four and dropping seven in a pseudo Cover 2 scheme that focuses more on the short and intermediate middle than the edges. If Addai and Ugoh can eliminate Williams coming off the edge, the Colts should be in good shape in pass proection.
The Texans have been known, though, to run blitz on early downs. If Houston employs the defensive tactic that the Colts have seen thus far this season — stack the box and make Peyton Manning beat you — that means Manning will have numerous opportunities on first and second down against the blitz.
Provided that Manning and the Colts heed the sage advice of ColtPower.com and keep things simple on Sunday, Manning will see a number of very favorable matchups and will have only himself to blame if he does not take advantage of them.
Ryans is certainly the crown jewel of this unit, having won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006 and being voted to the Pro Bowl in 2007. He is not the only good player among the Texans linebackers, but he is considerably better than everyone around him.
DeMeco Ryans breaks up a pass
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Chances are that he will play on Sunday, but he will no doubt be limited by the ankle injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday.
In addition, the fact that both outside linebackers Morlon Greenwood and Zach Diles are much better pass defenders than they are run defenders makes running off-tackle that much more attractive for Indianapolis.
The linebackers, as a group, are not very susceptible to play fakes, so it will be important for Manning to attack them on the edges in the passing game as well, since it will be very difficult to get them to scoot up and drop the ball in behind them, and they tend to crowd the middle of the field and leave out patterns fairly open at all depth levels.
In general, this will be a throwback game for the Colts offense, as they will need to throw the ball to set up the run. Early on, the Texans will no doubt clog the gaps and attack the outside with run blitzes in an attempt to put the ball in Manning's hands.
Once he has (hopefully) burned them a few times in the first quarter, they will abandon this tactic, placing seven men in the box and allowing Manning to audible to a run to the non-Williams side of the formation.
From there, it's just a simple matter of mixing running and passing plays to keep the defense off balance. Houston holds the edge with their front seven versus the Colts front five — both due to the run blitzes and the still-strained interior of the offensive line — so it will be important for the pass offense to scald the Texans early with the pass, get them to back off, then close out the game with a healthy dose of Addai, Dominic Rhodes, and precision passing that will tear up an overmatched secondary.
Point blank, this is a unit that is missing its two best players — cornerback Dunta Robinson and safety C.C. Brown — could be without free safety Will Demps, who did not practice on Wednesday, and faces matchups of nightmare proportions with Fred Bennett, Jacques Reeves, and Demarcus Faggins facing off against Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzalez, respectively.
Throw Dallas Clark into the mix and the Colts should not need Addai to be active anywhere but in pass protection, or need to play with formations or motion to get the right matchup ... they have great matchups all over the field.
In danger of beating a dead horse, it should be pointed out once again that Tom Moore, Manning, and the Colts offense just need to keep things simple, target the soft spots in the defense, pick up the blitz, and hit the receiver that is most open. In order to properly go through his progressions and implement this plan of attack, Manning will need time and space in which to operate.
As a matter of fact, it would make sense to include Gijon Robinson in the formation in favor of Clark, simply so he can be another body to buy Manning time to throw.
With possibly two new safeties and three thoroughly outmanned cornerbacks in the secondary, the best way to exploit this defense for big plays is by using double moves. Given the fact that David Garrard completed nine passes to Matt Jones and Reggie Williams in Week 4 — most of them on slant patterns — the slant-go-pattern seems like the most logical choice. Bennett and Reeves were abused by Jones and Williams and no doubt have spent a fair amount of practice making sure that Harrison, Wayne, and Gonzalez will not get a clean release or be able to turn their shoulders and catch slants with impunity.
A quick slant pattern by any of the receivers, followed by a pump fake by Manning, followed by the receiver turning up the field and heading full steam for the goal line should result in a few big plays by the offense in the best case, and a few awed gasps from the fans at Reliant Stadium in the worst case.
This is, by far, the most favorable set of matchups, injury situations, and inactives that the Colts will face this season. On paper, this should be an easy road victory in the division for Indianapolis.
It is also going to be the toughest crowd and most fired-up set of players that they have faced sofar, given that the Texans were forced to take a bye in Week 2 and have yet to play a home game. Reliant Stadium is also reopening its doors after being ravaged by Hurricane Ike.
If the Colts can jump out to an early lead and deflate the Texans and the crowd, then they will win handily. If they cannot and they let Houston hang around, the mix of energy and emotions in play will swing the game in the Texans favor late.