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 is a 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.
Tony Ugoh blocks Mario Williams
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He has successfully answered those questions and 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.
On the inside, former first round picks Amobi Okoye and Travis Johnson are two exceptional athletes with questionable motors that haven't put it all together yet. 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.
However, Okoye missed last week's game with an ankle injury and may be held of out this week's game as well. Even if he plays, he will be limited, so the Colts should look to run in his direction and catch him both injured and asleep at the switch.
Jeff Saturday was just returning from injury and coming off of a bye when these teams met in Week 5. Charlie Johnson was playing left tackle for Ugoh, Jamey Richard took his place at left guard, and Mike Pollak was making his first start of the season at right guard, coming off of injury and a bye.
With a healthier lineup and a more stable offensive line on the interior, as well as the injury to Okoye, the Colts should be able to run the ball between the tackles.
However, the Texans are most vulnerable on the perimeter, where their outside linebackers are lacking and their cornerbacks are not particularly stout against the run. Pro Bowl middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans covers a great deal of ground, so the Colts should ask him to cover even more in the hopes that he gets caught up in traffic and taken out of the play.
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.
Manning has proven himself over the course of the last two weeks to be at least effective when the game is placed in his hands, so the Texans may break with conventional wisdom and decide to back off. That would be a sight for sore eyes for Manning and would mean that, perhaps, the Colts can finally start climbing out of their 32nd-ranked rut in the run offense.
Ryans is certainly the stud of this unit and won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006. He followed that up with a Pro Bowl selection in 2007. He is not the only good player among the Texans linebackers, but he is considerably better than everyone around him.
He played through an injury in Week 5 and still recorded seven tackles, so expect him to be involved on most plays this Sunday. He does not have a sack this season, though, after recording 5.5 in his previous two seasons and has only two passes defended in 2008, and is not heavily involved in the passing game, save having the responsibility of hunting down the man with the ball and punishing him.
This unit is hurting from the loss of Zach Diles, who was playing at a high level before breaking his leg against Detroit two weeks agao. In his place, the team will use rookie Xavier Adibi in a rotation with Morlon Greenwood and Kevin Bentley.
Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez — if available due to a hamstring injury — have been very effective over the middle and will be attacking a group of linebackers that is not particularly adept in pass coverage, so there will be opportunities in the middle of the field.
Tthe throwing lanes will be narrow for Manning, but he must squeeze the ball into those windows, since he is throwing to targets that are more talented than the men covering them and success in the intermediate middle will create much larger throwing lanes on the outside.
Former first round pick Dunta Robinson, who was on the PUP list the last time these teams met, is back in the line-up and prepared to face off against Reggie Wayne. Robinson has not been on the injury report since he came back, but he has also not been on the field at the start of the game, with the Texans preferring to work him back slowly.
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He is again not on the injury report and may sit at the outset again, but Houston may also decide that they cannot afford to let Jacques Reeves cover Wayne any more than is absolutely necessary.
Robinson is a fairly physical player and has excellent hips, which allow him to lock down on receivers in man coverage. He is not physical enough or fluid enough, though, to cover Wayne one-on-one and will need help over the top.
Safety Will Demps is fast for his size and performs adequately in coverage — though he has yet to record a pass defended this season — but he will not be able to overcome Wayne even with Robinson in the mix as well if the Colts have success over the middle early on and force the defense to creep up.
Marvin Harrison has been inconsistent, to put it mildly, but still has the skill and guile to beat Demarcus Faggins on most snaps. In addition, strong safety Brandon Harrison is more of a box player and can be exploited deep.
Harrison will certainly have his fair share of chances, but he has already had a number of fantastic chances already this season and squandered them. He can still be used as a decoy, running quick slants and stop routes early on to suck the linebackers and Brandon Harrison out of the middle of the field, then later deep down the sidelines to open things up for Clark and Gonzalez, running patterns past the linebackers and in front of the safeties.
Ultimately, the Colts could take advantage of Brandon Harrison by running Marvin into the intermediate middle area of the field, drawing the safeties in, and hitting Clark on Gonzalez in the deep seam. Marvin is 36 years old and no man can be an elite receiver forever, but he still has his role on this team and, if Houston chooses to ignore him, he can still beat them, albeit inconsistently.
Addai. Over the course of the past few weeks, Manning has made it to the point that he appears to be close to his former self and can no longer be saddled with the sole responsibility of making the offense go. Even with a backup quarterback on the other side, this still could turn into a high-scoring game and the best weapon Indianapolis will have in that situation is a balanced offense. The more balanced they are, the more effective they are and the less that is left up to fate.
If the Colts are to start a run at the playoffs, they showed signs of serious life in the past two outings, but need to show more balance and get their running game back on track. In a game where the match-ups dictate that Manning and company should be able to do whatever they want on offense, they need to be able to capitalize on those match-ups and do whatever they want on offense. The schedule for the running game and in general only gets easier from here, so a strong showing on Sunday will not only provide hope for the rest of the season, but a key to victory on Sunday.