No matter who has lined up behind center this season, Houston's pass protection has dramatically improved throughout the course of the season. By having the quarterback focus on getting rid of the ball quickly and working briskly through his progressions, a Texans offensive line that gave up eight sacks in their first two games has allowed only 14 in their last seven. The more sack-prone Sage Rosenfels was brought to the ground only twice against the Baltimore Ravens and the exotic pressure schemes that they can throw at an offense.
Rookie Duane Brown is coming off a tough game
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Rookie Duane Brown, taken in the first round of this year's draft, has struggled thus far this season. Against the Ravens, he was called for holding in the end zone, which led to a safety for Baltimore and has looked lost at times.
He 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 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 Rosenfels, 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 matchup, he should be coming inside to meet Rosenfels as well.
In the running game, coach Gary 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. Over the course of the past season and a half, the Colts have actually fared better against larger, more physical, less agile offensive lines.
Against the Ravens, Titans, and most recently the Steelers in 2008, they were able to penetrate the line of scrimmage and get to the ball carrier before he got a head of steam.
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 Gary Brackett to stick to their assignments, mind their gaps, and attack the line of scrimmage.
They were unable to do this in Week 5, but they must be successful on Sunday in order to keep Steve Slaton from taking over the game and putting it in the slippery hands of Rosenfels.
Without a doubt, the most dangerous weapon that the Texans have on offense is receiver Andre Johnson. He has a rare blend of size, speed, and agility that makes it very difficult, but not impossible, to contain. With an injury-depleted secondary and their third cornerback on Johnson, the Ravens were able to limit him to 66 yards on seven receptions.
Owen Daniels has emerged as a top tight end
This is an impressive feat, given that Johnson tore up opposing secondaries during the month of October, averaging 148 yards and ten receptions per game, with two touchdowns.
Since that point, Johnson has slowed his torrid pace as defenses have made them their focus. By assigning a linebacker to the short area of the zone on the strong side, a safety deep, and a cornerback to bump him at the line, teams have been able to hem Johnson in.
This does not mean that the Texans have stopped targeting Johnson, just that there are more bodies around him when they do.
Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels have reaped the most benefit from the obsessive nature of opposing defenses over the past month, as Walter has registered over a third of his receptions and half of his touchdown catches in the last three games and Daniels exploded for 11 receptions for 133 yards in Week 9 against the Vikings. Houston has worked the ball away from Johnson, to Walter's side of the field, as well as over the middle with posts and slants.
As a defense, the Colts need to make sure they take away the intermediate middle because, if they don't, Walter and 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 Daniels usually plays tight against the formation, Clint Session will need to chuck him before he gets off the ball.
Although deep threat Andre Davis will most likely not be available, since he has missed the last three games, they will still take a few shots downfield during the course of the game in order to keep defenders from crowding the line to stop the run and cut off short passes coming over the middle, so Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea need to make sure that they keep everything in front of them.
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.
Even though he was stifled by the Ravens last week and Ryan Moats ended up with more carries, Steve Slaton seems to have settled all debates and appears to be firmly entrenched as the starter for Houston.
Steve Slaton has impressed as the Texans' starter at running back
Slaton's greatest asset is his versatility 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 backfield.
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 faced previously 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. However, he will get a lot of work in the running game and Indianapolis does not match up well against the Texans' offensive line.
Houston will attempt to focus on the running game, taking the attention away from Rosenfels and the passing game. Therefore, Indianapolis needs to do whatever it can to shut down the running game, including bringing Sanders into the box, sending Freddy Keiaho, Gary Brackett, and Session on run blitzes, and crowding the line of scrimmage.
The Colts cannot lose track of Slaton 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. If they can accomplish this, it puts the game in the hands of the quarterback, which is exactly where the Colts want it to be.
Sage Rosenfels has been a backup quarterback in the NFL for eight seasons now and still feels as though he has something to prove. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and throws the ball like he's trying to make all the teams that passed on him second-guess themselves.
The Colts will do their best to try to force Sage Rosenfels into further mistakes
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The irony in all of this is that Rosenfels is a backup because he takes too many risks, because he tries to do too much, and because he ends up failing in critical juncture — due to the fact that he takes too many risks and tries to do too much.
He had an 84.6 quarterback rating in nine games last season and threw for 15 touchdowns. He has averaged 7.1 yards per attempt for his career and has a career passer rating of 80.9. He has 28 touchdowns in 488 career attempts. However, he has also thrown 25 interceptions in those 488 attempts.
He was 4-1 as a starter in 2007, but lost the biggest game of the year — December 23 against Indianapolis — by a wide margin, killing any chance Houston had at its first winning season.
In Week 5 of this season, Rosenfels had the Colts on the ropes and was poised to get the Texans the first win of the season. Unfortunately, he tried to do too much and ended up costing his team the game.
Houston has the talent on offense to succeed. They have two very talented receivers, a top-five tight end, and finally have a consistent running game that they can hang their hat on. In order to be successful, they simply need someone that will work within the confines of the offense, distribute the ball to the talent on hand, and not take too many chances. Against the Indianapolis Cover 2, patience, determination, and taking what the defense gives you are key.
That is not how Rosenfels is wired, though, and, if the Colts find themselves in a close game late, they need to put the pressure on him. Not in the sense of blitzing or pass pressure, but they need to make him feel as though the game is his to win and he just needs to go that extra mile to do it.
This strategy succeeded against the Steelers last week, with Ben Roethlisberger being mentally and physically worn down by the consistency and energy of the Colts defense; it happened in Super Bowl XLI, and it can happen again this week. It happened to Rosenfels last week, as the Ravens scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, forced him into two interceptions, and turned what had been a 19-13 nail biter into a blowout.
Steve Slaton. The only way that this game comes down to the wire is if the Texans are able to keep the game close, start to wear down the defense, and avoid falling into an early hole, thus playing right into the Colts' hands.
The only way Houston can do that is to work the ball to Slaton in the running game and the passing game. As far as matchups are concerned, the only bad one for the Colts is their defensive line versus the Texans offensive line, from a scheme and athleticism standpoint.
If Houston is able to take advantage of that matchup, they can stay in the game. If the cannot, then it becomes Rosenfels' game.