Dwight Freeney abused second-year left tackle and former first round pick Duane Brown in Week 9, recording 1.5 sacks and getting several key pressures and hits on Matt Schaub. Freeney has been feasting on overmatched left tackles all season and draws another very favorable matchup on Sunday.
He saw his sack streak end at nine straight games against the Patriots in Week 10 and was also held without a sack last week against Baltimore. If he is fully healthy, he should get his groove back on Sunday, but look for the Texans to give Brown some help with a tight end, most likely rookie James Casey.
Freeney started the season as the most effective lineman for the Colts in terms of defending the run, but has slipped in recent weeks, allowing 4.24 yards per carry on 54 attempts around left tackle and left end. Brown has the worst directional yards per carry average for the Texans offense and Houston backs are averaging only 2.23 yards per attempt on 61 carries behind left tackle and around left end. Expect the Texans to avoid Freeney's side of the field at all costs.
Houston has had some success running behind right tackle Eric Winston, averaging 4.12 yards per attempt on 68 carries behind right tackle and around right end and Robert Mathis has also been falling off on the strong side, allowing 4.29 yards per attempt on 58 carries to his side of the field, which is higher than the 4.1 yards per carry that the Colts defense is yielding as a whole.
Indianapolis deployed a nickel defense on most snaps in the Week 9 matchup and were very effective against the run, as Houston gained only 81 yards on the ground and averaged only 3.1 yards per carry. They will need a similar performance to be successful on Sunday, as it appears that Steve Slaton has emerged from the doghouse and will see more action in Week 12 than he did in Week 9. Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir are the key to the success of this defense, so they need to continue their solid play.
In the passing game, Matt Schaub has been sacked 19 times thus far in 2009 — which is a low number for the Texans franchise at this point of any season — but they did yield four sacks to the Titans on Monday night and Tennessee mostly just rushed their front four.
Brown will try to atone for his poor performance against Freeney the last time these two teams met, but he will need some help in order to keep Freeney contained. Mathis had only half a sack against Houston in the first game, so it will be interesting to see if he steps up with so much attention being paid to Freeney on the other side of the formation.
Three-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson is fully recovered from the rib injury he suffered against the 49ers in Week 7. He 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.
Even though he was not 100 percent in the first matchup, he still torched the Colts for 103 yards on ten receptions, though they did keep him out of the end zone. Johnson was held to four receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown by the Titans in Week 11 and did not have a reception in the second half.
Tennessee was able to accomplish this by switching to man coverage and having All-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan follow Johnson wherever he went. Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers are not as skilled as Finnegan, so it will be a challenge for the rookie tandem to try to contain him.
Houston uses a lot of motion and different formation and personnel groupings in order to get Johnson isolated on the most favorable matchup available. That would be Lacey, so look for the Texans to line Johnson up opposite Lacey and attack.
Lacey will need a lot of help from Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt, but the key for him will be to get his hands on Johnson at the snap and not allow him to get a clean release. Johnson is effective both underneath and over the top, so Houston will target him at all depth levels until Lacey proves that he can stop it.
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 came away with four receptions for only 46 yards against the Titans, who have given up their fair share of passing yards this season — and Matt Schaub had 305 yards passing on Monday night.
Walter needs to be more productive against Indianapolis for the Texans' passing game to succeed. Powers has shown that he is no pushover and is playing above his rookie status. For their part, the Colts need to start thinking outside the box and attempt to line Powers up opposite Johnson in an attempt to at least slow him down.
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.
The Texans struggled to run the ball against Tennessee last week, with only 16 attempts for a paltry 57 yards. They need to get back to the running game and establish some semblance of balance on offense if they are to be successful on Sunday. And that starts with Slaton and, to some degree, Moats.
For the first time in recent memory, the Colts have a run defense that attacks the line of scrimmage and ardently pursues the ball carrier. Under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, they have improved against the run overall and have been far more aggressive this season than in seasons past.
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 Clint Session need to take the lead on this, making sure that they maintain their rush lanes and always wraps up and bring their man down. Brackett made a huge leap forward with a big game against the Ravens in Week 10 and needs to build on that momentum, further establishing why he is the captain of the defense.
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. They have painted themselves into a corner at 5-5 and are playing the 800-pound gorilla in the division at home in a must win game. They must feel as though they could've won the game in Week 9 if a few more bounces had gone their way, so they can't hold anything back now.
The 2009 season has already been Schaub's best season as a starter. Through ten games, he has achieved career highs in passer rating (98.9), touchdowns (19), completion percentage (67.1), and is 85 yards of having his best season yardage-wise.
He was able to move the ball effectively against the Colts in Week 9 with 311 yards passing, but was unable to close out drives and score touchdowns in the red zone. He also threw two costly interceptions and ended with an 82.6 passer rating even though he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and completed 74.4 percent of his passes.
Houston was very close to breaking the game open in Week 9 and Schaub was a big part of that success. Now that he has had a good look at the Indianapolis defense, he has to be anxious to make up for falling short in the last matchup.
Johnson and Slaton are the keys here. If the Texans are able to get the ball to Slaton in space, particularly in the screen game in an attempt to slow down the pass rush and allow Slaton to work in the open field, Schaub will be able to build on the success that they had in Week 9. The big question is whether or not they will be able to isolate Johnson on Lacey and take advantage of the game's biggest mismatch.
Houston has had tremendous success overall in the passing game, ranking third in the league, but they have been especially lethal in the deep passing game, averaging 10.62 yards per attempt to the deep left, 17.83 yards to the deep middle, and 19.89 yards to the deep right.
The numbers for the Indianapolis pass defense are 8.9, 15.08, and 11.63, respectively, and those numbers have been rising sharply in the two games since the last time these teams met. After giving up big days to Tom Brady and Joe Flacco, the Colts now rank 18th in the NFL against the pass, whereas they ranked seventh going into Week 9.
Basically, this is put-up-or-shut-up time for the Indianapolis secondary. They have struggled the past few weeks, Lacey has been exposed as a liability, and the injuries they suffered earlier this season are finally starting to take their toll, though Bullitt and Powers have performed admirably.
If the Colts are serious about remaining undefeated, they will show up ready to shut down this potent passing attack on Sunday. If they are not, they will not.
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