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Eyes in the Backfield-Texans (full)

18 Things to watch for during Sunday’s Colts/Texans game

The Horse has been unkind to the Texans

Last week’s game was closer than we would have guessed, but a win is a win.  This week the Colts face a stiff test from division rival Houston.  The Texans come in hot, having won three in a row and four out of five games.  With two games still left to play with the Texans, Houston could jump back into the division race with an upset in Indy.  That makes this Sunday’s game a monster.  Be watching for:

1.  Watch for a flip flop.  Matt Schaub has 115 more yards and one more TD on the year than Peyton Manning (in one more game).  Schaub’s health this season is a major reason the Texans have a winning record.  His play has been stellar since week one.  Still, expect 18 to close those gaps this week and top Schaub in both categories as FO has the Texans at 27th in pass defense and Indy at 5th.

2.  Watch for the After-MASH.  We know that Indy had a brutal week injury-wise, but note that the Colts didn’t lose anyone nearly as important as the Texans did.  The loss of Owen Daniels to the Texans offense is devastating.  To put it in context, he has more catches and touchdowns than Dallas Clark on the season.  Having to replace his production from one week to the next is a tall order for Houston. Indy, on the other hand, only has to replace one ‘new’ player this week, Tyjuan Hagler.  All the Colts’ other injuries have been lingering all season.  The team that replaces its parts best will have the edge in this one.

3.  Watch for confusion. The Texans have no idea who their running back is.  Steve Slaton was the RB de jour around fantasy leagues before the season started, but Gary Kubiak has tried everything to replace him. Of course a 3.1 YPC and 7 fumbles certainly provided him with good motivation to do so. First he relied on Chris Brown, but he wasn’t much better at running or hanging on to the football.  Last week Ryan Moats jumped up with a big game against the Buffalo run defense (32nd in the NFL per FO).  Kubiak is rumored to want to split carries, but until someone proves himself, anything is possible.

4.  Watch the best WRs in the game.  Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne will make the top four of any list of best WRs you can find right now.  Johnson is a big, physical player who tortured the Colts in Houston last year to the tune of 9 catches 131 yards and a TD (against pretty good coverage).  Reggie Wayne has elevated his game to an incredible level.  If you like flanker play, these two are as good as it gets.  Considering that they are one and two in the NFL in yards and represent around 30% of their team’s passing offense, it’s a good bet that whoever comes out on top in this matchup will be on the winning side.

5.  Watch for the wild card. The Texans have a prolific passing offense, a suspect defense, no running game, and a white hot QB.  Despite their five wins, there are serious questions as to how good this team really is.  The Texans’ remaining schedule is all over the board.  They have the Titans, Seahawks, Jags, and Rams, but also play Indy twice and New England.  This team probably needs to split with Indy to get to ten wins and jump into the wild card hunt.  This game couldn’t be any bigger for the Titans.

6.  Watch for a reversal of fortunes.  When last they met, Mario Williams destroyed Charlie Johnson on his way to 12 sacks and a Pro Bowl.  CJ was on his way to left guard.  Now, more than a year later, Williams is struggling to get to the opposing QB (only 3 sacks in 8 games), and Johnson is firmly entrenched as the left tackle.  This is a major test for Johnson.  Williams made him look totally out of place in Houston last year, and if CJ can hold his own on Sunday, whatever lingering doubts about his ability to protect Manning will have been answered.

7. Watch for slippage.  Whenever there are injuries the first place you notice is on the coverage units.  The Colts have been excellent covering kicks and punts (thank you very much, Pat McAfee) coming in at 3rd and 8th in the league (via FO).  The Texans have had a good return game this year (6th in the league) with Jacoby Jones post good numbers and a touchdown.  Don’t be surprised to see a long return on Sunday and remember that it’s the natural consequence of injuries to the defense.

8.  Watch the upright. Last week Matt Stover went 4-4 on field goals, but a couple just barely slid home.  Glass half full says, “He hit four field goals!”.  Glass half empty says, “yeah, but the longest was only 40 yards, and a couple just barely went through”.  Stover got the job done, but did nothing to inspire great confidence with his performance.  He need to keep hitting the short kicks, because at his age, he’s unlikely to redeem himself by hitting a long one.

9.  Watch the outlet pass. One of the big reasons the Colts’ offense suffered last week was that Joseph Addai had to stay in the whole game to block.  That takes a big weapon away from Manning.  The Colts have to protect Manning with the front 5 so as to allow Clark and Addai the freedom to go out into patterns.  If Addai has to spend most of his day blocking, the Colts may well struggle to put up 20 points.

10.  Watch right guard. Mike Pollack was a mess in pass protection last week, giving up two huge sacks.  Kyle DeVan rotated in and looked bad on a key run play.  The position has been a problem for the Colts ever since Jake Scott left, and you have to believe that Howard Mudd has been giving it his full attention.  The Colts need to find a permanent answer at the position to stabilize the line.  So far, neither player has laid claim to the spot.

11.  Watch for the burst.  Don Brown will hopefully be back from a shoulder injury this week.  He did show up on the injury report yesterday, but everyone is expecting him to play.  The Colts need Brown to be healthy and contribute.  Two back offenses are better than one back Os, and not having Brown on the field puts Addai at greater risk of injury.  Brown adds a quick strike dimension to the offense that is crucial, and his return should signal more points.

12.  Watch the deep ball.  Manning looked long a lot last week with little success.  The Colts’ struggle to run the ball, which makes scoring via long distance all the more important.  Look for Peyton to hit at least two passes of 30 yards or more (in the air) this week.  His YPA has been declining steadily in recent weeks as teams have tried to keep Indy from going long.  Manning needs to hit the long ball to Garcon or Wayne in order to keep the offense clicking.

13.  Watch DZ bash his face against his desk.  The game is being called by the legendary team of Wilcots and Harlen again this week.  Their performance two weeks ago in the Rams game was horrible.  Nothing drives Deshawn as crazy as bad announcing. It makes him feel all stabby.  Seeing as how he’s thousands of miles away from the booth, he’ll probably just seek relief by concussing himself into oblivion.  Remember the final shot of Twin Peaks?  Oh, wait.  That show was on like 20 years ago. No one remembers the final shot of Twin Peaks.  Never mind.  Forget I brought it up.

14.  Watch for the loose ball. Houston has recovered 14 of 20 fumbles (O and D combined) this year, which says they have been lucky (fumble recovery rate is basically 50%).  Schaub has been sacked 14 times, which says the Colts can get to him with Freeney and Mathis.  Don’t be surprised to see the ball bounce free of a Texans player more than once on Sunday.  The Colts will be looking to strip sack Schaub and pound Slaton into giving up the rock.

15.  Watch the catch rate for Pierre Garcon. He’s only hauling in about 50% of the passes thrown to him, which is especially low considering the number of screens he receives.  I’ve been critical of Garcon’s performance most of the year, because it’s been so spotty.  With Gonzo out for another month, Garcon has to start making a bigger contribution.  Since making a good contribution against the Seahawks, Frenchy has posted 8 catches for 83 yards in his last three games.  Considering how often Manning has thrown his way, that’s terrible production.  He’s also had two more penalties in that span.  He’s been battling an ankle injury this week, and we really don’t want to see Hank Baskett on the field if it can be avoided.

16.  Watch for bad luck. The Outsiders track the ‘luck factor’ in special teams.  It’s the things that can’t be stopped like opponent’s field goal % and opponent’s punting and kickoff distance. The Colts and Texans rank 31st and 30th in the NFL in the ‘luck’ category.  Neither team has been able to catch many breaks this year.  Oddly enough, both teams could actually have an equally bad ‘luck’ day. If everyone hits all their FGs, and the kickers boom all their kicks, both teams will continue to kick the black cat who keeps walking in front of them.

17.  Watch for the warning signs.  This is it.  Four straight games against good passing teams.  How the Colts play in the next four weeks will go a long way to determining what kind of season this will be.  The rookie corners, Lacey and Powers, have been huge hits early, but now they will be tested by three QBs all with ratings of 95 or better.  They’ll face Johnson and Moss and Welker.  If they have a tough time handling the Texans tomorrow, it could be a long month.

18.  Watch for 14-1.  The Colts have never lost to the Texans in Indianapolis.  They are 13-1 all time against them.  This matchup is as lopsided as it gets in the NFL.  Houston is better this year than they’ve ever been, and they may well topple the Colts in Houston.  I’m not going to pick them to do it in Indy until it actually happens, however.  DZ says Colts 27 Texans 20.  Demond likes the Colts to win 30 to 24.