Week 7 Preview: Houston @ Indianapolis

Unlike the last couple of weeks, the Texans will be coming into Indianapolis at a bit of a disadvantage. The Colts just had their bye week, are coming off their own rousing win in Arrowhead, and they’re getting healthy at the right time. T.Y. Hilton isn’t on the injury report at all, and star linebacker Darius Leonard has cleared concussion protocol. Indy’s banged up secondary still exists, but that was never going to be fixed in a day.

If Houston can win this game — and that’s a big if — they will cinch a real advantage over the rest of the division. Going to three games over .500 while the rest of the division is at .500 or worse, plus having two division wins in pocket for tiebreaker purposes, is quite a big deal.

The Colts opened as 2.5-point home favorites, and that has been driven all the way down to just one-point in some places. The Texans are clearly seen as the more talented team and are being given respect by virtue of the typical three points for homefield virtue.

The Colts have won four of the last five times these teams have played, and the time they lost, in Indianapolis last year during Week 4, is at least somewhat marred by the game going to overtime and Frank Reich going for it on fourth down to try to win the game rather than just taking a tie by punting. Of course, a lot of that recent past is of questionable value now with Andrew Luck retired.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

The biggest difference between this season and last season is the stunning lack of run defense played by the Colts in 2019. Even when Darius Leonard was healthy, this team got pushed back by the Chargers and Titans. Indianapolis’ defense has one of the worst power success rates in the NFL, allowing 89% of carries on third or fourth-down and less than two yards to go to become first downs or touchdowns. Runs at right tackle tend to give them the most trouble, and that’s fortuitous for the Texans because that’s exactly where they spent a lot of the second half against Kansas City.

The Colts have also generated almost no pass rush this year, with just 12 hurries to join their 13 sacks. They have one of the lowest pressure rates in the NFL, and blitzing appears to be mostly a game plan thing for them. Patrick Mahomes got blitzed 16 times. They blitzed Watson 19 times in the AFC Wild Card game, 11 last December, and nine times in Week 4. I expect the number to be closer to 19 than nine in this game — the depleted DB corps (No Malik Hooker, likely no Kenny Moore or Pierre Desir) doesn’t give them much of a choice as far as avoiding big plays. They sort of have to just put pressure on Watson and hope it works out.

The Titans and Chargers both had a lot of luck throwing out of 12-personnel, completing 16-of-16 passes for 7.6 yards per attempt, and running at 7.1 yards per carry. For the season, the Colts are one of 12 teams giving up more than a 50% success rate against 12-personnel, at 54%. As long as that remains Houston’s base game plan, I expect they’ll get a lot done against the Colts. It won’t be completely free, but they should be able to steadily move the ball along even if the Colts are able to bottle up the concepts that gave the Chiefs a lot of trouble on Sunday.

However, potentially a big wrench in these plans is the expected return of Kenny Stills off of his hamstring injury. Was a big part of the desire to shift to 12-personnel the loss of Stills, or was it an organic reaction the pressure Watson was taking? That’s the sort of question that doesn’t get answered in the media and only really plays out on the field. Indy’s best trait as a defense is their success rate as a pass defense against 11-personnel, which has been what the Texans have generally played as a base offense throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. Indianapolis has allowed a 23.4% DVOA to “other” wideouts, so both Stills and Coutee could be in line for a big play or two.

Is this finally the week that DeAndre Hopkins goes back to the good fantasy football numbers we’re expecting? Hopkins has been having a bit of a weird season. His average targeted air yards in the Kansas City game was just 6.2 — that follows 7.4 against Atlanta. For reference, it was 11.9 last year and it’s 9.5 on the balance of the 2019 season. If the Texans continue to run their offense like this, I think it caps Hopkins’ yardage total a bit barring broken tackles. You’ll obviously keep starting him, so it doesn’t really matter. But there has definitely been a shift the last few weeks to shorter targets as a whole and — especially for Hopkins — shorter targets on third down.

Play-action pushes the pace towards Will Fuller. On the season, the Colts have actually defended play-action passes pretty well. They’re averaging 7.2 yards per attempt against, essentially unchanged from their normal average allowed on a pass play. However, teams have run play-action against the Colts 30% of the time, so my guess is you’ll still see plenty of shots at Fuller. If Fuller had caught in even two of the three balls that hit him last week, he’d have been a top fantasy football player last week. I imagine he’ll get at least one more shot deep this week.

When the Colts have the ball

All DVOA stats courtesy Football Outsiders

What the Colts did to the Chiefs has become almost a default game plan for them as they have struggled with inconsistency from Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has generally played mistake-free football because the Colts have generally been able to use the game script in their favor this year. They aren’t asking Brissett to make a lot of dangerous throws, and the run game has made teams a little more reluctant to blitz him. His season-high blitzes taken was from Atlanta, at 13. Every other team has kept it under 10. The Chargers blitzed him only twice. Brissett has also been hurt by his receiving corps. No Checkdowns has Brissett being hit with 13 receiver errors, one of the highest numbers in the NFL.

The Texans have one of the strongest play-action defenses in the NFL, giving up only 5.9 yards per dropback against play-action passes — third lowest in the NFL. They’ll need that, because the Colts run more play-action than any team in the NFL per Sports Info Solutions — 33% of their dropbacks are play-action. The Colts are only getting .6.6 yards per play on those dropbacks, though. They’re not connecting deep very often so far this year.

This is an on-the-spot game for Houston’s run defense, which has been good, if not as historically dominant as they were in the 2018 season. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and they run more plays out of 13-personnel (three tight ends, one wideout) than any team in the NFL this season. They average 5.4 yards per carry out of that formation.

The Texans have almost no looks against that formation this year, but were impressively successful against it in 2018, holding runs out of 3-TE sets to just 1.7 yards per carry. (Most of those were goal line carries.) The Colts have some great blockers at tight end though — Mo-Alie Cox has been huge, and Jack Doyle can also bring some thunder.

Where I suspect we’ll see the Texans tested the most — and where I think the Colts will absolutely generate yardage — is getting the ball to the edge. They took advantage of Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt’s aggressiveness to get upfield by running past them in the Wild Card round, and I suspect that will play out again this year. Whtiney Mercilus is not quite as much of a chaser as Clowney was, but Watt can absolutely be schemed past like that.

T.Y. Hilton’s deep ball skills are cited often and they have been a big deal throughout the history of Colts-Texans matchups. However, this year, T.Y. Hilton’s average target distance is 7.8 yards. He’s behind many tight ends. He’s behind Jason Witten. Jason “I retired from the NFL to talk poorly about football, then came back” Witten. The Colts have been using Hilton heavily on screens and mostly connecting with him on curl routes.

Coming out of their bye week, I think the big question mark for the Colts is if Deon Cain and Parris Campbell can give them more. Oftentimes, a bye is what is needed to straighten out lagging areas of a team, and I think both receivers have a lot of promise even if they haven’t been great in small sample sizes so far. As things stand so far this season, this is a prefectly acceptable matchup for Houston’s banged up cornerback corps, which has no Bradley Roby and may or may not have Johnathan Joseph back at full strength.

Special teams

Two struggling kicking units trending in opposite directions. Adam Vinatieri imploded in his first two weeks, to the point where it became assumed he might retire. Kai Faibairn and the Texans have struggled over the last three weeks.

Otherwise, both special teams units have been fairly pedestrian to this point. Faibairn and Bryan Anger give the Texans a bit of an edge in field position.

The read

I have a ton of respect for Frank Reich and the job the Colts do. I have so much respect that I expect them to come out and fix a lot of lagging problems the team has had this year. I expect better play from the run defense and the pass game than I’ve seen to this point. Home field matters, and the bye week matters a lot here.

At the same time, I think had there been no bye week, and they were meeting in London or some other neutral site, I’d probably have favored the Texans by five or six on the merits of how each team is playing this season — and I do think there’s a blowout chance for the Texans if the Colts aren’t better than they have been this year.

Usually, when I see a home favorite being given very little respect, I shudder about the points. I do think there’s a chance the Colts win this game. But the way the Texans are playing offense and defense right now emboldens me, and I don’t think statistical systems are giving them enough credit for the way they played in Kansas City because of a few Fuller drops. I’ll take Texans 29, Colts 26.

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