Four Downs: Colts 26, Texans 20

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The Texans have spent this season pissing away a series of MVP-caliber performances by Deshaun Watson. Call a spade a spade. With the game on the line, down six and at the Indianapolis 2 with 1:28 remaining, center Nick Martin snapped a ball low and away, and failed to block anybody as the Colts recovered the aborted snap.

As usual, Watson absorbed that pain. He waited roughly 30 minutes before his presser and gave a raw account of the facts, blaming himself for not picking up the snap and saying he felt like he let the entire city of Houston down.

This is how a leader acts. This is the kind of thing fans want to see: players taking accountability, speaking openly of greatness and their journey to get there, and trying to learn from their mistakes. Meanwhile, because of injuries and suspensions, he’s creating 100-yard receiving days for Chad Hansen and Keke Coutee.

In a month most of us aren’t going to remember this game. The Texans have had a nice little comeback here, but the writing was kind of on the wall that the miracle comeback was dead when Bradley Roby and Will Fuller got suspended heading into this five-game stretch. We’re going to move on to the actual business of the Texans, which is rebooting from a lost season. But I know one person in the building who is going to remember it, he wears No. 4. Even in a down year for the franchise, with his head coach fired, his heart and soul is so deep into everything he does.

That’s what makes this as depressing as it is.

1) T.Y. Hilton is the true owner of the Houston Texans

Janice and Cal McNair may have their name on the papers, but the man who had racked up 85 catches for 1537 yards and 10 touchdowns in 16 regular season games against the Texans torched backup plan Texans corners Phillip Gaines and Vernon Hargreaves relentlessly in the first half. Hilton had seven catches for 100 yards and a score in the first half. Most of the plays that he made, Texans defensive backs were barely even in his area code.

There were some very strange things about this game to me that mostly shook out in a surprising way. Run defense was better than I thought it would be. Run offense was better than I thought it would be. But God forbid the Texans actually figure out a way to shut down a No. 1 receiver. Doubling them? Unthinkable. Playing enough zone to keep them from going off? Unthinkable.

Why the Colts went away from Hilton in the second half? I have no idea. I suspect they were trying to run clock at some points. They kept getting in bad down-and-distance situations (third-and-18, third-and-10, third-and-13) and not being able to hide Rivers’ deteriorated arm strength. But there were only three targets that were at Hilton that weren’t caught, and one of them was a dropped screen.

When we talk about how stubborn this franchise is, there are a lot of things that come to mind immediately from just the last few years. Refusal to fire Bill O’Brien after he’d taken the Texans as far as he could. Refusal to deal with whatever irrational hatred they had of DeAndre Hopkins’ personality and practice habits.

But for my money, it’s amazing that they still haven’t figured out that they have nobody that can defend T.Y. Hilton and continue to just look on in amazement as he dusts them game after game after game, regardless of quarterback, place in standings, or anything else.

2) Zone-heavy coverages left Watson peppering the middle of the field

This was a big game for Chad Hansen, the former practice-squad receiver, and Keke Coutee — but what this really was to me was a game that showcased Watson’s growth as a thrower and his understanding of defenses. Both Coutee and Hansen made great adjustments to balls thrown in zone coverage.

Hansen’s line is a little inflated on a ball that was tipped off of Xavier Rhodes to him, but he still showcased good instincts to catch it as it fluttered towards him. Here’s Coutee adjusting to a ball that had to be thrown where it was because of the zone coverage:

Finally, I want to appreciate this rocket throw to Brandin Cooks that nearly pushed him backwards. This is a tight-window throw you have to push at an NFL level, and Watson checked that box:

In his career against the Colts, Watson has had some big games — notably Week 4 in Indianapolis in 2018. He’s also had games that were a little more muted. He’s taken 16 sacks against the Colts, and with three more in today’s game, that ties for the most he’s had against any team — in just five games. They destroyed him and the O’Brien offense in the 2018 playoffs. In this one, he showed a lot of poise from the pocket and attacked the middle of the field zones:

The one interception here was, in my opinion, total bullshit. Not to say that Watson didn’t make some risky throws that deserved to get picked off, but I think the Texans got hosed on that call. That looked like Cooks was down and then the ball was wrested from his grasp. Watson tore up the middle of this field with only one of the receivers he played with circa Week 5.

It’s an encouraging long-term sign for his development and where he’s at, and I’ll stop to appreciate it even as the result of this game leaves a bitter taste to it.

3) “You just don’t normally see this at this level.”

To their credit, Houston’s defense played pretty well outside of Hilton’s explosion. J.J. Watt and Jacob Martin both got sacks through backup backup tackle Chaz Green. Charles Omenihu broke up a pass. The run defense came to play other than a small stretch of the fourth quarter.

But in a game where a lot of what came to the Colts was hard-earned, what stood out to me on remembrance was this garbage fourth-and-3 play. Stop them right here and you win this game, and the Texans completely lost Jonathan Taylor. Rich Gannon’s words were: “Somebody has to account for the running back in the passing game, you just don’t normally see that at this level. Just a blown assignment on the part of this Texans defense.”

Well, you know what I remembered? When the Texans left Juju Smith-Schuster completely uncovered in Pittsburgh for a touchdown, in a game they lost by one touchdown. When Adam Humphries was left completely uncovered in a coverage snafu, in a game that Rich Gannon also covered:

When Jake Luton threw a touchdown to D.J. Chark. When Adam Thielen was left completely uncovered on play-action in the Minnesota game. When the linebackers didn’t cover Derrick Henry in overtime in Tennessee.

This defense busts coverage figuratively at least once per game. It’s a major problem. I don’t know how you address it — I would guess off-hand that moving your corner to safety before the season might not help — but these mental mistakes show up constantly. They are, as Gannon points out, college mistakes. They do happen often. They can make a big difference in close games!

The players have talked about Anthony Weaver simplifying things over the last couple of weeks. I think they’ve clearly improved. But plays like this are just far, far too common this year. Someone’s got to answer for it.

4) The interior offensive line got their asses kicked

If I had written a preview of this game, the majority of it would have focused on the return of DeForest Buckner and how the interior of the Colts line is loaded for bear against a Texans interior that has had a challenging season. Sure enough, the three sacks that the Colts picked up are mostly on the interior. Zach Fulton — in particular — just can’t seem to pick up stunts effectively. Here’s the safety:

After the game Watson would say that he knew that Akins was cutting across the field here, but didn’t want to throw the ball blind. He couldn’t see him through the rush and didn’t want to risk getting intercepted this deep in his own territory. Four-man rush, Justin Houston was barely touched on his way to the quarterback.

Watson did his best to make what the interior gave him look good. I still have no idea how he avoided a sack on this play:

Here’s one of the other two sacks, with Kelemete getting beat one-on-one, Fulton and Martin … what the hell are they doing on this one?

I am not going to use this column to shovel shit on Nick Martin. He’ll hear plenty about the big error. He’s honestly not the biggest problem this interior has. But that play … woof. I don’t know if both he and Fulton got fooled into thinking this was a fake rush and both thought they could let the guy go or what. It was a disaster. This is a game where the Texans honestly could have taken five or six sacks easy had Watson not made it his personal goal to dunk on them:

There aren’t many areas for evaluation on offense for whoever takes over this team’s day-to-day. Watson is set. You’re probably keeping Fuller. The tackles are set. You probably get another running back. But other than Fulton, I am very curious how they decide to deal with the offensive line. I actually want to see Hjalte Froholdt get some run down the stretch just to see what’s going on back there.

It was another game where the Texans juggled Scharping and Kelemete. The biggest weak link all year has been at right guard, which makes the fact that they keep punishing Scharping feel extra weird.

But, you know, nothing about this season is normal. So join me this time next week when we discuss how another top-notch performance by Watson was ruined by, oh, I dunno, an Eric Murray bobbled pick-six that winds up in Allen Robinson’s hands for a touchdown somehow.


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One Reply to “Four Downs: Colts 26, Texans 20”

  1. Rivers,

    That’s a great analysis and fun to read. The videos are instructional. I learned a few things reading your column and am now certain of what I had suspected the last couple of weeks — this team is better than their record, and with
    some decent additions could be great, but its future is cloudy until the McNairs get their heads screwed on straight. God knows if that will ever happen.


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