Mario Williams has been and will be the star on the defensive line for the Texans, probably until the end of his career. Given his draft status and considerable abilities, it is inevitable.
So far this season, he has 24 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble, but he is the driving force behind the Houston pass rush. The Texans rarely blitz, preferring to stay in their base Cover 2 defense, so it is incumbent upon Williams to get to the quarterback.
Charlie Johnson has struggled at times this season, but has been mostly solid. He has not, however, faced a defensive end of Williams' caliber, either in terms of athleticism or motor, so he will probably need help in the form of a chipping tailback, most likely Joseph Addai. Indianapolis used Dallas Clark as an extra blocker in the formation against the 49ers far too often — even once would be far too often, given Clark's talent as a receiver — so hopefully they avoid that mistake in this matchup and use Addai or possibly Chad Simpson, since Donald Brown is unlikely to go.
Plays around left end to Williams' side have averaged 8.41 yards per carry on 27 attempts to that area. While that number was inflated by the day Chris Johnson had against the Texans in Week 2, that's still an area of weakness for Houston. Indianapolis has averaged 4.26 yards per attempt on 19 carries to that area, so look for them to run some stretch plays to that side of the field in order to take advantage of Addai's lateral speed.
Left end Antonio Smith is a fine player, but Ryan Diem should be able to handle him in the passing game and the Colts should have a fair amount of success running to Diem's side of the formation, as the Texans have yielded 4.66 yards per carry around right tackle and right end, though they have only averaged 3.56 yards per carry to Diem's side of the field.
Where Houston seems vulnerable — and, again, these numbers must factor in the huge day that Johnson enjoyed in Week 2 — is in the middle of their defense, as tackles Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody are young players that are still trying to live up to their draft status.
Teams have averaged 6.11 yards per attempt on 55 carries up the middle against the Texans, so, if ever there was a game for Mike Pollak, Jeff Saturday, and Ryan Lilja to shine, this is it. Indianapolis currently ranks 30th in the NFL in yards rushing per game, 26th in yards per attempt, and 29th in attempts per game, so they apparently have not given a passing thought to the running game to this point in the season. Eventually, they will have to develop the running game and seek some manner of balance on offense.
Since the calendar says that it is November, Sunday could be an opportune time. The matchups favor them, they should have success, and they need to get on track if they are going to avoid a repeat of what has befallen them the past two seasons.
Houston has registered just 11 sacks on defense so far in 2009. With adequate protection, Manning should not see a repeat of the San Francisco game, where he was taken down three times after only having been sacked twice in the previous six games.
Rookie strongside linebacker Brian Cushing seems to be the blitzer of choice for the Texans — though they rarely bring extra defenders — and he has 1.5 sacks. The Texans like to use Cushing in a variety of ways and like to move him and DeMeco Ryans around in the formation. Frequently, they will line up in the nickel defense, with only Ryans and Cushing, deploying five defensive backs, which may begin to explain their struggles against the run.
They generally play their defense straight up, with seven men in the box, running a Cover 2 defense. Cushing and Ryans, therefore, are required to cover a great deal of ground, both in run defense and pass defense.
They are aided by cornerback Jacques Reeves in the passing game and tend to patrol the middle of the field. They are both active and athletic players with sound tackling technique that flow well to the football. They go a long way in covering up the deficiencies of the Houston defensive tackles and backpedal well into their zones.
Cushing was held out of practice on Wednesday and was limited on Thursday, but that has been par for the course the past few weeks while he nurses a foot injury. He has suited up and played every week, so there's no reason to believe that he will not be available on Sunday.
Clark and Austin Collie need to be cognizant of where Ryans and Cushing are at all times, both in terms of when they settle into a zone and believe themselves to be open when, in actuality, Ryans and Cushing have the ability to close to the ball, as well as when they roam over the middle and go for the ball, as Cushing and Ryans will be prepared to put a shot on them in order to separate them from the ball.
Teams have had the most success attacking the Texans over the middle, both in the short passing game and the deep passing game, so Clark and Collie will need to be ready to tighten their chinstraps and prepare for contact.
Reggie Wayne will draw Dunta Robinson in what is a matchup of very skilled, athletic players. Teams have averaged only 7.53 yards per attempt on Robinson in the deep passing game, but this is as a result of the fact that he gives his receiver a fairly generous cushion. Robinson has allowed only an average of 5.73 yards per attempt in the short passing game, but look for the Peyton Manning and the Colts to exploit the cushion that Robinson gives up much in the way that they exploited the amount of breathing room Shawntae Spencer gave Wayne last week.
On the other side of the field, Colts fans had better hope that Manning and Pierre Garcon can get back on the same page. They have not connected well the past two weeks, but cornerback Glover Quin has allowed an average of 11.56 yards per attempt to the deep area of the field on his side, but only 4.69 yards per attempt in the short area of the field. This is as a result of the fact that he tends to press receivers at the line, so Garcon needs to beat that press at the snap and get deep, where Quin has difficulty turning his hips and running with the receiver.
Eugene Wilson, the safety to that side of the field, is a capable player that is familiar with the tenets of the Cover 2, but he often tries to do too much, tries to read the quarterback's eyes, and tries to jump the route. For these reasons, Houston is vulnerable to double-moves and pumpfakes to that side of the field.
In order for them to be effective in the passing game, they need to distribute the ball equally and have success with that distribution. It is therefore imperative that Garcon and Manning re-connect so that they can connect for some game-changing plays on Sunday. Ultimately, this is a talented but flawed defense. It is up to Manning and the Colts to expose those flaws with a balanced attack.
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