Houston Texans: Defensive game plan to stifle the Colts

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 09: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans reacts after sacking Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at NRG Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 09: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans reacts after sacking Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at NRG Stadium on December 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

No matter how much pressure teams dial-up on defense, the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line has been resilient in keeping Andrew Luck clean in the pocket.

While slightly unusual, the Houston Texans should take a different approach on defense to the Wild Card matchup this weekend. The Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line has looked superb in the latter part of the regular season. Rookie offensive guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith have helped protect Andrew Luck as well as possible. Smith has even kicked outside to tackle, allowing new studs like Mark Glowinski to step in and make a name for himself. Since the Colts offensive line has turned it around, so has the team in general. After starting 1-5, they won nine of the last ten to close out the season at 10-6.

The Texans base defense, a 3-4, will have the regular three along the line. That would be J.J. Watt and D.J. Reader at defensive end with Brandon Dunn at nose tackle, according to the Texans depth chart. Whitney Mercilus, Bernardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and Jadeveon Clowney make up the four linebackers. Defensive backs Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Tyrann Mathieu, and rookie Justin Reid close out the 11 starters on the base defense.

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What the Texans should do is accept the dominant Colts’ offensive line, and prepare for the aftermath of Andrew Luck having time in the pocket. T.Y. Hilton has been absolutely dominant over the Texans in his career.

With that, the Texans need to make a serious defensive alteration to account for the Luck to Hilton connection, as well as for Eric Ebron at tight end, who has caught 13 touchdown passes this season.

The rotation should continue regularly along the line. Watt will play virtually every snap, and Reader may kick inside to nose tackle to allow for Christian Covington and Angelo Blackson to step in at defensive end as well. At linebacker, Clowney will continue to play as the JACK linebacker, and Cunningham and McKinney should see normal snap counts, but Mercilus should play sparingly. He will still be situationally effective, although, with these adjustments, his gameplay doesn’t necessarily match what the Texans are trying to do.

The Texans have several combinations of players that could start in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has continued to move players around the secondary as he’s looked to find for the best lineup with injuries affecting the rotation. Jackson and Joseph could be the boundary cornerbacks. Meanwhile, at safety, Reid and Andre Hal could start again as they did against the Jacksonville Jaguars with Mathieu getting a considerable amount of snaps as the nickel/slot cornerback.

The slot cornerback position has seen a lot of turnover with Aaron Colvin, Jackson, and Mathieu all seeing snaps at that spot. Colvin was brought in to solidify that position in free agency, but he has seen marginal playing time after coming back from his ankle injury. While it’s not unusual to see the Texans in the nickel package, this should serve as the primary defensive alignment for this weekend’s game against the Colts. This is all done to try to prevent Hilton and Ebron from making big plays.

Watt and Clowney have shown that they can win reps at the line without bringing additional pressure and Reader has shown flashes of that ability too. Basically, the front seven are sitting back and allowing the stars to win reps rather than bringing pressure, which the Colts have shown they can handle rather well. Bringing pressure would just allow for their receivers to go to work on less defensive backs. In this scenario, Luck will see just about the same amount of pressure as usual, while the Texans drop more defenders into coverage.

McKinney looks much improved in coverage this season and Cunningham is a rangy tackler. Mercilus will get his opportunities when the Texans do bring pressure, but the other two linebackers are more versatile for playing on the second level and beyond. In the secondary, the two cornerbacks seem like a rather simple decision. With regards to the nickel corner, it will be important to have an extra defender in coverage to help cover Hilton.

Texans don’t have a defensive back on the roster with the speed to keep up with Hilton, Reid and Hal have both made their case to play majority snaps this weekend, Hal has offers the secondary another veteran presence with an impressive turnover rate. In just limited time this season, Hal is tied for the team lead in interceptions.

It’s hard to visualize the Texans defense stopping the Colts offense, and that is why Hal will be important for the bend don’t break mentality. The Colts can pick up all the yardage they want, but some turnovers from the defense will be a massive step in the right direction for a win. Reid has shown his ability to create turnovers, and Hal has done so even better, having the same amount of interceptions in significantly less time.

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Again, Mercilus has been good for the Texans this year and in years past, and it may be difficult to lower his snap count in such an important game. General base defenses simply are not working against the Colts though, and while the gameplan will need to bring more than just a regular nickel package to get to the Colts, the aforementioned personnel should give the Texans the best chance at winning the game.