It is almost impossible to narrow a football game down to one key matchup. But Saturday’s AFC Wild Card opener comes very close. The winner will most likely be determined by the Texans’ ability to get enough pressure on Andrew Luck.
The Texans do not cover extremely well in their secondary, and that is their greatest vulnerability on defense. They play a lot of 2-shell (2 deep safety looks) and disguise their coverages well. This helps out their corners. Still, they are largely reliant on their pass-rush to slow down the passing game. If Andrew Luck has time, he is smart enough and talented enough to be able to work past Houston’s disguises and consistently make plays.
We saw Luck shred Houston in their two regular-season meetings (863 passing yards in two games). However, Houston was able to win the first matchup by making enough disruptive plays up front. Luck was sacked a season-high 4 times, and the Texans forced two turnovers deep in Colts territory.
One of the advantages the Texans do have on defense is that they can stop the run (3rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, 1st in yards per carry) and this adds to the tremendous pressure they can put on quarterbacks.
In their Week 14 matchup, the Texans shut down the run early, leaving the Colts facing 3rd-and-10 on their second drive of the game. The Texans didn’t want to give Luck time to work through his progressions and push the ball downfield. They brought a terrific disguised blitz that fooled running back Marlon Mack in protection and allowed a free rusher to get to Luck, forcing an incompletion.
Look how far the blitzing defender came from.
He wasn’t even creeping towards the line of scrimmage. Instead, he looked like he would be dropping into coverage, and he held his position until the ball was snapped. 3rd-and-long gives the defense the ability to bring a blitz from this distance because routes typically need more time to develop downfield. This creates a better chance for a successful disguise, and it’s a situation Romeo Crennel wants to find his defense in on Saturday.
The Colts were able to avoid too many more situations like this in Week 14 because Head Coach Frank Reich made the necessary adjustments, like good coaches do. On subsequent possessions, the Colts made sure to spread the defense and get the ball out of Luck’s hands quickly.
Spreading the defense out did a couple of things. It enabled Luck and his protection to better identify where any potential blitzes were coming from. It also allowed Luck to have an easier time seeing what coverage Houston was playing. Coverage definition enables the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly and to the right place. With the defense more clearly defined and the ball out of Luck’s hands, Houston’s fierce pass rush was limited.
The Colts effectively were able to use these short passes as a running-game substitute.
Houston could have countered by playing more man-press coverage, potentially eliminating those easy short completions for Luck. But as we mentioned, the Texans generally don’t want to do that too often based on their coverage personnel.
Don’t let Indy’s short passing game fool you. They will still look to take their deep shots. On the below 1st-down play in Week 14, they did a good job of selling the run with both their personnel (6 offensive linemen and a tight end staying in to block) and play-action. This was another way they were able to slow down Houston’s pass rush.
Notice here that the Texans didn’t get their hands on T.Y. Hilton at the line of scrimmage. He was given a free release instead, which allowed him to build up speed and attack the safety who was responsible for him in this quarters zone coverage. That’s a tough spot to be in for a safety, and it’s not a matchup the Texans want to find themselves in too often this weekend. They had no answer for Hilton in either game this season.
The Colts will likely be able to have plenty of success through the air on Saturday. The big question will be whether or not Houston can generate those game-changing defensive plays with their pass-rush. We expect Deshaun Watson and the Texan Offense to be able to put up some points on Indy’s D. But if Houston doesn’t find a way to get pressure on Luck, the Colts will win this game.
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