Week 12 Preview: Texans vs. Colts

Wounded both physically and spiritually after going through the wood chipper at M&T Bank Stadium, the Texans come home on a short week to face a game that will likely determine the rest of the course of the season. Win, and the fate of the division continues to roll through Houston, as they’d drop to lower tiebreakers, improve to 3-1 in the division, and gain a one-game lead on the Colts. Lose, and not only are they behind the Colts, they automatically lose any tiebreaker to the Colts. Win, and homefield in the first round looks plausible. Lose, and the Texans are looking at a dogfight to make the playoffs.

The first matchup between these two teams did not allay any concerns that the Colts simply had Houston’s number. The Colts allowed little separation, destroyed the short middle of the field, and overcame short fields to force the Texans into field-goal attempts.

And while Houston only lost by a touchdown in Indianapolis, they had J.J. Watt at that point. They came into the game having Will Fuller, who remains questionable for this game and — I suspect — would probably not be 100 percent if he did play. The season has taken a toll on Houston’s star power and asked Bill O’Brien to respond. The answers, too often, haven’t been satisfactory.

Vegas opened the Texans as 5.5-point favorites. That number has dropped dramatically, as it’s down as low as 3.5 points in some places and the over/under has been bet down a full point (to 45.5) as well.

When the Texans have the ball

All DVOA statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

The Texans degraded themselves and Deshaun Watson in last week’s bloodbath against the Ravens. Watson dealt with containment principles that he hadn’t seen before. The Ravens brought heat and phenomenal coverage. The run game was non-existent until the fourth quarter. RPOs were mostly left on the table to rot. It was a tough game to watch.

Moreover, we have to be honest about where this offense has gone over the last month without Fuller. The Texans can’t complete anything downfield — they’re just 7-of-16 for 212 yards and an interception on balls that went 15 yards past the line of scrimmage since Week 7 started. Specifically against the Colts, the Texans completed just one deep ball during the Wild Card game last year, and one deep ball during Week 14. This team knows Bill O’Brien’s preferred route combinations — and various max-protect schemes — and sticks to them. It really caps the ceiling of this offense against this defense.

The Colts held the Texans to 100 total rushing yards in Week 7, their second-lowest total of the season. Houston could not run out of 12-personnel to save their lives (1.7 YPC on nine attempts), and found more success in 11. Even that success was bolstered by 32 yards of Watson scrambles. My belief is that the Colts watched the Ravens game and will be eager to see if Watson has learned how to deal with contain principles. At this point, out of O’Brien’s base offense, the Texans are less dynamic than they are when Watson is calling the shots on the run. Indianapolis sure sounded like they understood that in interviews:

Indianapolis’ defense has been pretty hot of late, not allowing 300 total passing yards as a defense since Week 3. They entirely shut down Leonard Fournette last week against the Jaguars, and have allowed fewer than 20 points to their last four opponents. (Six of Pittsburgh’s points came on a Brian Hoyer pick-six.)

The Colts actually did not blitz Deshaun Watson very much in the last meetup between these two teams, sending just seven on 37 dropbacks. What they did do is play tenacious underneath defense, allowing only Darren Fells more than the league-average amount of separation:

Source: NFL Next Gen Stats

I expect DeAndre Hopkins to again draw Pierre Desir shadow coverage, as has become the norm between these two teams. That doesn’t usually look bad for the Texans, as Hopkins had 12 targets and 106 yards in Week 7 — he barely missed a touchdown that was called back on a horrific in-the-grasp ruling as well.

Unlike the last time these two teams met, safety Malik Hooker is in the lineup. Indianapolis should be at relatively full strength on defense for this game, minus safety Khari Willis who has already been declared out. Rock-Ya Sin is also questionable. Hooker, along with Justin Houston and Darius Leonard, are the guys I consider the stars of this defense. Them all being healthy for this might tilt things.

When the Colts have the ball

Houston is having problems legitimately fielding a defense for this game. There are only three safeties that can play with Justin Reid being ruled out early: Tashaun Gipson, Jahleel Addae, and A.J. Moore. Moore has played a grand total of four defensive snaps this year. Gipson looked slow and like he wanted no part of tackling Lamar Jackson last week — can’t blame him there, but I can say I’m not sure I’m comfortable believing he’s going to play well in this spot. With Lonnie Johnson getting ruled out, there are three potential options for No. 3 cornerback: a return from Bradley Roby, Vernon Hargreaves in his first week with the team, or Keion Crossen. I think I like Crossen the most of those options, but I don’t know that I’m thrilled with any of them. A fully healthy Roby would really save the season, but he’s been limited forever.

We effectively buried the lede with this discussion, which is that the Texans get absolutely no pressure without J.J. Watt. They barely even tried last week, putting a laughable five blitzes out on 25 Lamar Jackson dropbacks. He was sacked once and hurried exactly one other time. It was an embarrassing performance considering they were trying to stop the run and got rolled over in that area too. Even Johnathan Joseph said they thought they made it too easy on Jackson:

The good news for the Texans is that the way they were able to effectively slow Brissett down in Indianapolis was with blitzing. They sent 21 blitzes — most of them in the second half — and got three three-and-outs and one four-play drive in four attempts. Brissett’s pocket presence is not sterling and that’s perhaps his biggest flaw as a starting quarterback. The bad news is that, sans Watt, the Texans’ rush is less Bulls on Parade and more Motley Crue — who is going to be able to win one-on-one and get the rush to hit home?

Indianapolis retains one of the best offensive lines in the league, and even without Marlon Mack (hand), the Colts have a stable of solid backs that I think can do damage in this game. None of Houston’s linebackers have been able to check Nyheim Hines in coverage, and Jordan Wilkins has zero breakaway speed but is a solid sustaining back between the tackles. Johnathan Williams has always had the talent to roll over some fools, as well. Houston’s run defense should remain solid, but I would not be surprised if they got punctured for a few big gains coming off a short week, especially with weak tacklers at safety and outside.

Indy is banged up at receiver and tight end, but most of their players are still making the trip. T.Y. Hilton targeting this game for his return was as subtle as White House correspondence. Eric Ebron and Mo-Alie Cox made the trip as well. The Colts will be in a good position to have Zach Pascal run wild on crossing routes again:

I expect this to be a real feast-or-famine game plan for the Texans. Very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, blitz-heavy, and they’ll try to ask Brissett to make deep throws to make them pay. I think that game plan will likely be boom-bust, as implied by the original tagline, mostly because I don’t know if the team has played tight enough coverage over the middle to get to the deep throws.

Ultimately, I have low expectations for the Texans defense right now. They can get lucky via turnovers, and the Colts will probably hang the Texans in the game by running a lot, but on a down-by-down basis, any competent quarterback is a real threat against them. Brissett fits the standard.

Special teams

Ka’imi Fairbairn continues to struggle, and his pushed kick last week murdered whatever momentum the Texans had out of the break. Bill O’Brien wasn’t even asked questions about him this week, which goes to show what an organization-wide belief in using the Men In Black memory ray for Week 11’s existence will do for you.

They face one of the few teams who had also been destroyed by their kicker, as Adam Vinatieri’s year has been dismal. In what could be a low-scoring game without many opportunities, this matchup looms as potentially devastating for someone.

The Texans continue to have good special teams outside of Fairbairn’s kicks, and the Colts are solid outside of kick returns as well.

The read

Listen, I am not trying to hide this fact at all: I don’t like the Texans in this game.

It’s a tough spot for a banged up defense, the offense has been dragging ass for four weeks, and I don’t know how much running they’ll get to do. This is the scene of the teenage drama where Bill O’Brien is awkwardly making puppy eyes at the kid who is completely bad for him and we want to shake him.

At the same time, I have to admit that there are scenarios where they win this game. They involve some urgent O’Brien offensive changes (urgency unseen as far as pressers) or a superlative Deshaun Watson game. Watson would have to be far and away the best player on the field — as he was in the Jaguars game — for me to feel confident in the Texans winning.

That will be the tastiest crow I ever eat if it happens. I was committed to picking the Texans to win the division early, but without Watt, my confidence level has changed in the defense doing enough. Give me Colts 22, Texans 19.

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