The Indianapolis Colts will try and extend their lead in the AFC South tonight when they face off with the Houston Texans at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. The Colts (5-2) currently lead the Titans by two games and the Texans (2-5), who have lost five in a row, by three.
Andrew Luck and the Colts have gotten back to the basics this season, putting more of an emphasis on running the ball and playing more physical on defense. J.J. Watt and the Texans’ defense have done their job for the most part, but the offense has made too many costly mistakes and has struggled to put points on the scoreboard.
3 Things to Watch
Who Becomes Luck’s “New” No. 1 Target?
The Colts headed into their Week 8 bye on a high, beating the previously undefeated Broncos 39-33 in Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. The win didn’t come without a cost, however, as wide receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL, ending his season. Wayne has been Andrew Luck’s favorite target since the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft made his first start, as the two have combined for 144 receptions for 1,885 yards and seven touchdowns in 23 regular-season games. More importantly, Luck targeted Wayne on 252 of 851 pass attempts during that same span. To put it another way, three out of every 10 passes Luck has thrown in the NFL have gone to Wayne. Now those looks have to go to someone else, as Luck needs one of his other pass-catchers to emerge and become as reliable and productive as Wayne. The primary options are fellow wideouts T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey and tight end Coby Fleener. All three have caught at least 18 passes this season, but that was with Wayne on the field with them, drawing defenders’ attention away. What happens now will be key to how the second half of the Colts’ season plays out. And if there wasn’t enough pressure on Hilton, Heyward-Bey and Fleener already, tonight’s matchup with the No. 1 passing defense in the league is not exactly the ideal situation in which to “break in” a new passing attack.
Does Keenum Make His Case?
Matt Schaub’s problems in the pocket have been well documented. Earlier this season, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw an interception returned for a touchdown in four straight games. Then to make matters worse, after Schaub got hurt against the Rams in Week 6, backup T.J. Yates took over and made it five games in a row with a pick-six. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak then turned the reins over to undrafted, second-year pro Case Keenum. Although the Texans fell to the Chiefs, Keenum was solid in his first career start, throwing for 271 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, although he did lose one of his two fumbles. Still, Keenum apparently showed enough that he remained the starter after the bye. He will make his second NFL start tonight against an Indianapolis defense that has done a decent job against the pass. The Colts entered this week 13th in the league in passing defense and this is a unit that has already faced Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. If Keenum is able to make some plays through the air, lead the Texans on some scoring drives and protect the ball, he could secure his status as the Texans’ starter for the rest of the way, even though Schaub is healthy enough to play.
Houston’s Hurting in the Backfield
For all of their offensive woes, the Texans have still been productive in the running game. Although the numbers aren’t where they were last season, the Texans are currently 10th in the NFL in rushing at 127.7 yards per game. After a slow start, Arian Foster has picked things up, averaging 113.7 yards rushing per game during a three-game stretch in which the Texans played all NFC West teams – Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis. Unfortunately, Foster lasted just four carries in his last game before exiting with a hamstring injury. He was still limited in practice this week, even after the bye, and will be a game-time decision to play tonight. Foster has especially enjoyed facing the Colts, as he’s averaging 173 total yards in six games against them with six touchdowns. And the Colts have had some issues stopping the run this season. They enter this game 29th in the league in rushing defense at 122.3 yards per game. Foster’s not the only Texan back hurting either. His backup, Ben Tate, is dealing with four broken ribs, but he will play. So with Foster a question mark and Tate at less than 100 percent, Deiji Karim, who has yet to play a single snap this season, could be called on. Whoever ends up getting the ball, they must find a way to take advantage of the perceived weak spot in Indianapolis’ defense. Otherwise, quarterback Case Keenum’s job, in just the second start of his NFL career, is going to be a lot harder.
Indianapolis Key Player: Trent Richardson, RB
Three yards per carry and two touchdowns isn’t exactly what the Colts were hoping for when they sent a first-round pick in next year’s draft to Cleveland for Richardson. Since joining the Colts in Week 3, Richardson has averaged less than 46 yards rushing per game and his longest run has been 16 yards. Backup Donald Brown (5.9 ypc) and Ahmad Bradshaw (4.5), who is now on injured reserve, have both been more productive with their carries, as has been quarterback Andrew Luck (6.5). Richardson also hasn’t made any impact as a receiver out of the backfield, catching just two passes on seven targets for 19 yards. This will be Richardson’s sixth game with the Colts and he just had a bye week to help him get more comfortable with the playbook. The Texans, like the Colts, have struggled against the run this season, allowing 122.1 yards rushing per game. With Reggie Wayne lost for the rest of the season, the running game will need to maintain its production while Luck and the pass-catchers figure the new pecking order out. There’s a reason the Colts traded for Richardson, and tonight would be as good as time as any for the third overall pick of the 2012 draft to show everyone why.
Houston Key Player: J.J. Watt, DE
The Texans may be 2-5, but their defense is No. 1 in the NFL. Despite all of the problems on offense, Watt and his running mates have done everything they can to keep this team afloat. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year may not be making as much noise as he did last season, but he does have 4.5 sacks, 34 total tackles, three passes defended and a forced fumble in seven games. Watt is capable of changing the direction of a game on any snap, and a big play on defense may be just what this Texans team needs to get it going. Andrew Luck is a mobile quarterback who can move around in the pocket and make plays with his legs if need be, but he’s also well aware of Watt’s vast skill set. Unless the offense suddenly figures things out, the Texans will need Watt to have some sort of impact tonight if they want to end their five-game losing skid.
Headed into this season, most NFL analysts and pundits expected this game to feature the AFC South division leader. The only problem is that Houston was the team projected to be in first place, not Indianapolis. Even at 2-5, the Texans aren’t completely out of the wild-card discussion, but this is pretty much a must-win situation.
The Colts may be in first, but their offense has to figure out how to make things work without Reggie Wayne. Andrew Luck has been as good as advertised since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, but this will be his first game without his top target.
Even without Wayne, the Colts have a huge advantage at quarterback, as Case Keenum will be making his second career start tonight. Both teams are coming off of a bye, but the Texans are still pretty banged up, especially in the backfield. This will make it harder for them to take advantage of a generous Colts rushing defense.
The Texans put up a spirited fight in front of the home crowd, but in the end Luck and the Colts simply make more plays. Indianapolis’ defense forces Keenum into a critical mistake late in the game to help send the defending divisional champions to a potentially crippling sixth straight loss.
Indianapolis 27, Houston 23