The biggest mismatch along the offensive line is surely Dwight Freeney against second-year left tackle and former first-round pick Duane Brown.&nb Brown struggled during his rookie season and ended up being part of a rotation at left tackle instead of being the starter or being benched.
He has started every game in 2009 and has held onto his starting job, but is far from an elite player at his position. Freeney has been feasting on overmatched left tackles all season and draws another very favorable matchup on Sunday. He has a sack in each of his first seven games this season and has been the most effective lineman for the Colts in terms of defending the run, as plays to his side of the field have a lower average in terms of yards per attempt than any lineman in any other direction.
Brown, by contrast, has the worst directional yards per carry average for the Texans' offense and Houston backs are averaging only 1.92 yards per attempt on 48 carries behind left tackle and around left end. Expect the Texans to avoid Freeney's side of the field at all costs and offer Brown some help in the form of a tight end, fullback, or tailback in order to keep Freeney somewhat contained.
Houston has had some success running behind right tackle Eric Winston, averaging 3.74 yards per attempt on 53 carries behind right tackle and around right end, but Robert Mathis has also been fairly stout on the strong side, allowing 4.14 yards per attempt on 28 carries to his side of the field, which is lower than the 4.5 yards per carry that the Colts defense is yielding as a whole.
Where the Texans have been most effective — and where Indianapolis has been least effective — is running between the tackles behind guards Kasey Studdard and Chris White and center Chris Myers. These three men have started every game together so far in 2009 and are starting to get on a roll, as evidenced by their performance in the second half of last week's game against Buffalo.
One of the reasons that Indianapolis ranks 17th in the league against the run is that they've given up a number of big plays on the ground, but also have faced only 25 rushing attempts per game, 22nd in the NFL. They have been dominant and physical at times on defense, but have also had serious lapses in concentration (Frank Gore run), periods of woeful ineffectiveness (the third quarter against the Rams), and games where they have simply been blown off the line of scrimmage (Week 2 against the Dolphins).
Houston is certainly going to go after Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir up the middle and may need to lean on the running game, just like they against the Bills, given the absence of Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels.
In the passing game, Matt Schaub has been sacked 13 times in 2009 — which is a low number for the Texans' franchise at the midpoint of any season — but they also haven't faced a pass rush that is as potent as the Colts' pass rush and Antwan Odom injured his Achilles tendon before he had much of a chance to challenge Brown in Week 6. Brown certainly hasn't faced a defensive end of Freeney's caliber yet this year and Freeney has plenty of practice taking advantage of overmatched, young offensive tackles, so it is very likely that the Texans will line up with two tight ends, one back, and two receivers, almost always using one tight end to help on Freeney's side of the formation and frequently using both tight ends to max protect.
Three-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is off the injury report for the first time since suffering a rib injury against the 49ers in Week 7. He didn't have a lengthy stay on the injury report, but any ailment that makes Johnson less than 100 percent effective makes the Texans offense less than 100 percent effective.
Johnson is one of the most explosive, sure-handed, and effective receivers in the NFL and they can ill afford to lose Johnson for any period of time, especially now that Daniels is out for the remainder of the year. This will be a big test for Kelvin Hayden, though he will have help over the top from Antoine Bethea and underneath from Clint Session.
Without Daniels in the lineup, Schaub will target Johnson early and often and at all depth levels. It is critical that the Colts do not allow him to take over the game and one way to do that is to make solid contact with him when the ball comes in his direction, since his ribs are probably not fully healed at this point even if he is no longer on the injury report.
On the other side of the formation, Kevin Walter enjoyed a breakout season last year, but has been largely absent from the offense and the stat sheet in 2009. Walter was targeted six times against Buffalo and came away with four receptions for only 29 yards. He needs to be more productive against Indianapolis for the Texans passing game to succeed. Jerraud Powers has shown that he is no pushover and is playing above his rookie status. With Bob Sanders and Philip Wheeler acting as enforcers on his side of the field, it could be a very long day for Walter, which would mean a very, very long day for the Texans offense.
Even though Houston has the third-ranked pass offense in the NFL, the key for them on Sunday will be to get the running game going with Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats. More specifically, they need to get the ball in Slaton's hands, because he is their most diverse, most consistent playmaker on offense — an even bigger force than Andre Johnson.
Slaton was benched after a critical fumble in the first half of the Bills game last week and Moats had an exceptionally solid performance in relief, rushing for 126 yards with three touchdowns on 23 attempts. Arguably, that could be as a result of the opponent Moats and the Texans were up against, as Buffalo currently ranks last in the league in run defense and may give up 3,000 rushing yards this season.
Indianapolis is a better run defense by way of their ranking — the other 31 teams in the NFL can make the same claim, after all — but they are also a more cohesive unit and they swarm to ball carrier more quickly and effectively than Buffalo. That will help them against both Moats and Slaton, but they also have a tendency to give up chunks of yardage on the ground. Slaton tends to gain yards in bunches and all it will take is one missed tackle, one bad angle, one Slaton cutback, and the Texans could strike in a hurry.
Gary Brackett and Session need to take the lead on this, also making sure that Wheeler maintains his rush lanes, doesn't try to be a hero, and always wraps up and brings his man down. Houston will try to get Slaton the ball as much as possible and in as many ways as possible — even splitting him out or putting him in the slot as a receiver.
Coach Gary Kubiak benched Slaton last week, but that was for the second half of a game they were leading against an inferior foe. This week, at 5-3, playing the 800-pound gorilla in the division in what could be the biggest game in the young franchise's history, Kubiak is going to ride Slaton and Johnson for all they're worth.
Schaub is off to the best start of his career. Through the first eight games, he is averaging 292.8 yards per contest, he leads the league with 2,342 yards passing, and has thrown 16 touchdown passes against only seven interceptions — and it should be noted that he had no touchdown passes and two picks against the Bills.
He has always possessed the talent and potential to be a star in the NFL, but was never able to stay healthy throughout the course of a full season. So far, so good, so long as he stays upright, but he could get knocked out of a game at any moment, which would bring Dan Orlovsky or Rex Grossman into the mix.
Even without an injury to Schaub, the Colts have an excellent chance of containing the vaunted passing attack of the Texans, and possibly even shutting it down. Houston has had a full week of practice without Daniels, but they have not been in a game situation where they needed to throw the ball in order to move the chains and win the game with Daniels out of the lineup.
Last week against Buffalo, they had the lead and were able to run the ball at will. That probably won't be the case on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see if the Texans put Schaub's safety at the forefront and max protect, or if they decide to spread it out and give him options. For their sake, they should choose the max protect option, as all their other options at tight end are more valuable as blockers than they are as receivers.
But, Kubiak has played around with different formations, varied his sets and deployments on offense throughout the season, and has been very creative — and successful with those methods — so he may trust what has worked thus far and spread it out.
Whatever the strategy on offense for the Texans, the Colts have the seventh-ranked pass defense, the league's best scoring defense, and have given up only nine touchdown passes in the last 23 games against 22 interceptions. They have proven they can stand up to physical receivers, fast receivers, guys that like to run after the catch, guys that can box out a defender with their body, and guys that can streak down the field and catch the deep ball. Without Daniels at his disposal underneath and in the red zone, Schaub will lock in on Slaton and Johnson. Slaton and Johnson cannot defeat Indianapolis in the passing game.
As long as the Colts can keep the Texans receivers in front of them and keep the tailbacks from running through them or around them, they should have a very good showing on Sunday. And it could be a very long day for Schaub and the Texans offense.
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