Colts at Texans: What to look for Sunday

Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball downfield for a first down during overtime in the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Texans in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast:  CBS4

  • Changing focus: In the blink of an eye – actually, the twist of a knee – the complexion of the game changed. Dramatically.

When rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in practice Thursday afternoon, Houston’s high-powered offense lost its turbocharger and Indy’s No. 31-ranked defense caught a break. The Colts spent Wednesday and Thursday preparing for Watson’s multi-dimensional talents. Defensive coordinator Ted Monachino and his staff spent Thursday night trashing the Watson-focused game plan and coming up for one backup Tom Savage.

It’s virtually impossible to put into words the drop off in talent and threat. Watson, the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for October, did more in two months than Savage has done is three years. The Texans were 3-3 in Watson’s six starts, but don’t blame the offense. It averaged 34.7 points and a league-best 3.3 TDs per game. He passed for 1,699 yards and 19 TDs, and rushed for 269 yards and two TDs.

Savage? Coach Bill O’Brien opened the season with him at QB against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but clearly wasn’t committed to him. He pulled Savage at halftime with the Texans trailing 19-0. Savage had passed for 65 yards and been sacked six times.

With no other immediate options, O’Brien must go back to Savage.

“This is the halfway point of the season, so he’s had a lot more reps,’’ O’Brien said. “He’s improved since the last time he played.’’

In all honesty, that wouldn’t take much.

In three seasons, Savage has appeared in seven games and started three (1-2 as a starter). He’s passed for 650 yards with one interception and still is looking for his first NFL TD pass.

  • Don’t lose focus: So, a Colts opponent is missing a critical player. Where have we heard this before?

Well, there was the Rams without All-World defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Cardinals without Pro Bowl running back David Johnson, the Browns without first-overall draft pick/defensive end Myles Garrett, the Jaguars without first-round pick/running back Leonard Fournette. And let’s not forget the Titans with quarterback Marcus Mariota rendered to statue status because of a hamstring injury.

Now, the Watson-less Texans. Remember, this is a franchise that earlier lost a pair of defensive cornerstones in J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

The point is, the Colts must take advantage of the situation. Houston’s offense still features a pair of difference-making receivers (DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller have combined for 58 receptions, 885 yards and 14 TDs) and a legit back in Lamar Miller (426 yards, 2 TDs). In two Houston wins last season, Miller gashed the Colts for 256 yards and two TDs. Now, that offense lost its triggerman when it lost Watson.

Don’t pity the Texans. They don’t care one bit Indy has been without Andrew Luck all season and had to deal with key injuries to several other front-line players (centers Ryan Kelly and Deyshawn Bond, safety Clayton Geathers, tight end Erik Swoope).

Seize the moment. Allow Tom Savage to beat you the way Brock Osweiler did twice last season and Brandon Weeden did in week 15 of 2015, and shame on you.

  • Remember the receivers: Tight end Jack Doyle is coming off the best game of his career: 12 catches, 121 yards and one TD at Cincinnati. Good for him. He represents a security blanket for Jacoby Brissett.

But it’s going to be hard for the Colts to beat anybody if Doyle is consistently Brissett’s go-to guy. He’s a death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts receiver.

Did you catch Bengals coach Marvin Lewis’ response when asked about contributed to Doyle’s big day?

“I have no idea,’’ he said. “As long as 13 isn’t catching them, we are in pretty good shape. I would trade that any day.’’

  1. That’s Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton. His lull reached three games and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and Brissett have to ensure it ends in Houston. By far the quietest three-game stretch of Hilton’s career consists of five receptions and 61 yards on 19 targets.

Hilton wasn’t the only non-factor wideout in Cincy. Kamar Aiken had as many drops (two, and we could argue for a third) as catches, and Donte Moncrief had zero catches and was targeted only once. When targeting his receivers, Brissett was 6-of-15 for 57 yards with one interception and a 23.5 passer rating.

Part of the blame for the lack of productivity by Hilton and the wideouts has to do shoddy pass protection, which is forcing Brissett to rely on quicker throws and lean on his tight ends and running backs. Also, defenses continue to pay special attention to Hilton, making it riskier for Brissett to target him.

Sooner or later, Hilton and the wideouts must exert themselves. We prefer sooner.

Hilton has had some of his better games at the expense of the Texans. He’s slapped them with four games with at least 100 yards, including a career regular-season-best 223 in 2014, and a career-high three TDs in ’13.

  • Line dance? Again?: All eyes will be on Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo. An unspecified knee injury kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday, and limited him to roughly 15 snaps Friday. He’s questionable for the game.

If Castonzo is able to start, will he be able to finish? Will be effective when dealing with rush linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Ufomba Kamalu?

If Castonzo is unable to start, or finish, the Colts once again will be in scramble mode and this time it’s serious. No lineman on the roster has taken even a snap at left tackle in a regular season game. The most likely candidate is left guard Jeremy Vujnovich, who saw limited work at left tackle during the preseason.

And remember, the Colts already have allowed a league-high 33 sacks.

  • And the winner is: Colts 20, Texans 19. If not Sunday, when? If not against a team that lost its indisputable leader, when? OK, those aren’t real good reasons to predict an upset, but we’re doing it anyway. If the Colts are able to replicate their performance at Cincy – minus the pick-6, of course – they’ll enjoy the flight home Sunday evening.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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