Four Downs: Texans 20, Colts 17

Backs to the wall, the Texans responded. That’s the kindest way I can put this game.

After the Colts rolled all over the Texans for what seemed like an emotionally-defeating, back-breaking, 11-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with 10 runs, the Texans responded. A 51-yard pass to Will Fuller set up a field goal to cut into the lead, and a 33-yard run out of a stagnant run game, where Carlos Hyde had a huge hole forged for him behind Nick Martin and Max Scharping, helped set up the go-ahead touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins.

This game was an odd one. The Texans had almost all of the big plays, created a huge lead in yards per play (7.2 to 4.6), and yet they trailed or were tied for much of the game. They ran a grand total of four plays inside the Indianapolis red zone — two of which were field-goal attempts. The offense never looked totally right on a down-by-down basis.

But…

1 — A healthy Will Fuller opens up the deep game

The big reason that the Texans were able to win this game was Will Fuller’s comeback off a hamstring injury. Fuller described the injury as something that he didn’t even get much of a chance to test on the short week. He said he was taking it play-by-play:

Ho-hum, just a casual test run of torching the Indianapolis man coverage for two enormous gains, hauling in catches of 44 and 51 yards.

DeAndre Hopkins caught the two touchdowns — and he was great tonight — but Fuller gives this offense something that Hopkins can’t, and something that apparently Kenny Stills can’t do despite how skilled he is. He makes Bill O’Brien throw the ball deep.

The Texans, throwing 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, were 5/8 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That’s more yardage on 20-plus yard throws than they had from Weeks 7 to 11, combined. I must admit that a big part of the reason I thought that the Texans would lose this game was because I saw little hope for the deep passing game. Fuller himself wasn’t even sure how his hamstring would hold up.

That was an enormous tide-turner for the Texans, and it couldn’t have happened at a more impactful time.

2 — T.Y. Hilton finally doesn’t destroy the Texans in NRG

Meanwhile, in a big reversal of fortune, the Colts couldn’t buy a deep throw. In their Week 7 matchup, Jacoby Brissett was 8-of-13 on targets deeper than 10 yards, for 170 yards and a touchdown. In the NRG re-match, with Hilton coming off his injury and on a snap count, Brissett went 1-of-7 for 14 yards against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

While some of this was about a more zone-heavy defense, there were also some open shot plays where T.Y. Hilton just didn’t do his part:

It is true that Vernon Hargreaves (on the second one I’m about to post) and Johnathan Joseph both made plays on the ball. It is also true that a player like T.Y. Hilton is expected to catch those balls in tight coverage. He simply didn’t play up to his talent today:

Hilton admitted as much after the game, saying that he’d let the team down. I think Colts fans will probably take the balance of what he has done — you know, the playoff win, the constant deep ball torture, etc. But it was clear that he didn’t have it tonight. And it was clear that a big difference in this game was simply about how that impacted coverages for the other receivers. Zack Pascal isn’t dominating anybody. He’s a fine NFL wide receiver, but he makes his catches in a scheme.

As for the Colts passing offense, it seemed like they had good ideas as a whole but that they were having identity and drop issues. I’ll refer judgment on Brissett for the fans who have watched him more than I have this year, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a lot extra after the first read to bring to the table. The Texans got a bit more pressure on him than I was expecting, as well, and I know that’s not a big area of strength for him.

3) Establishing the memes

Bill O’Brien will run the ball. It’s something he does on first down a lot, and it’s his preferred way to play the game. Thus, in any game where the Texans can’t run, they are a bit stifled. The Texans made it to 99 rushing yards while running out the clock, but that’s a little misleading because they had a gain of 19 from Duke Johnson and a gain of 33 from Hyde. As far as a consistent running game — the one that sets up third-and-short — it was non-existent today. That’s 22 other carries for a total of 47 yards.

Meanwhile, the Colts managed to dominate in the run game, churning out both their touchdowns and 4.5 yards per attempt despite a slow start.

But the funny thing about establishing that run is that once you establish it, and a defense is tired … well, the Texans held the Colts to 17 rushing yards on six attempts on their final, ill-fated drive. (Brissett scrambled for six more on the final play of the drive, but that clearly wasn’t a run attempt from the start.)

Meanwhile, the Texans do squat for three quarters and Hyde pops off that 33-yarder. The mythology of the running plays and the narratives we create around them is fascinating. Frank Reich burned down 4:28 and a timeout on that final drive because he decided he was going to bullyball his way to a score.

How much time would the Colts have had left to drive for a go-ahead score if he’d simply thrown it three times? How much confidence did he have in Brissett at that point, knowing how the game had been going? It all just felt a little too cute to do the one thing the Texans have shown any ability to stop this year — runs — while they were trailing.

4 — Alone

Sometimes the NFL is exhausting, (OK, all Thursday nights) and it comes down to very simple things. Things like “don’t leave the best receiver in the NFL wide open in the end zone by 20 yards.”

Erase this play, the Texans throw underneath. It’s third-and-six in the cusp of field-goal range. (Whatever that is when you employ Ka’imi Fairbairn.) The game goes in an entirely different direction all because Clayton Geathers remembers an assignment.

But the Colts left Hopkins alone, and now the Texans are alone in first place. Sometimes it becomes enough to just not lose, and on a Thursday night where both teams struggled mightily at times, one of them struggled in a way that provided way more magnitude to the game.

Fuller’s deep ball game notwithstanding, there wasn’t a whole lot to be excited about. There wasn’t anything here that made me think “these Texans are going to rest up and ram it down New England’s throat on Sunday night.” There weren’t a lot of interesting schematic changes. RPOs didn’t work all that well. Misdirection in the run game was minimal. Duke Johnson continues to spend more time out wide as a decoy than he does as an actual receiver. I don’t think the Texans will get pressure on Brady as easily as they did against Brissett.

But they outgained their main rival for the division title by 100 yards, bounced back from a big time of possession hole, and they won. It was a must-win game to keep the division in reach, and the hope that this team catches fire remains alive for another week.

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