Colts at Texans? Big plays made, and not made the difference

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 21: Jacoby Brissett #7 throws a pass to Chester Rogers #80 of the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 21, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What we saw from the Indianapolis Colts’ 20-17 loss to the Houston Texans Thursday night at NRG Stadium.

Big loss: Just like that, the Colts find themselves in chaser’s mode in the AFC South. They fall to 6-5 with five to play, a game behind the 7-4 Texans. The Colts need to bounce back Dec. 1 at home against Tennessee. Houston stays home and braces for a Dec. 1 visit with New England.

For those keeping track at home, the remaining schedules: Colts (Titans, at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, home vs. Carolina, at Jacksonville; Texans (Patriots, home vs. Denver, at Tennessee, at Tampa Bay, home vs. Tennessee).

If the Colts and Texans finished tied atop the AFC South, Houston seems to have the edge in a couple of pertinent tiebreakers: conference record and common opponents.

“We’re far from out of this thing,’’ Frank Reich said in his post-game presser. “There’s five games left. Our focus is: win the next one. That’s all that matters.’’

Big plays (not made): At the risk of coming down too hard on a player who missed the last three games with a calf injury, T.Y. Hilton was unable to convert two key third-down situations in the second half. On a third-and-4 late in the third quarter, he ran a quick out and failed to secure a Jacoby Brissett pass. It was hard to determine, even after replays, whether Vernon Hargreaves got his hand in to bother Hilton. On the Colts’ next possession, early in the fourth quarter, Hilton was covered man-to-man by Johnathan Joseph down the right side. Again, the ball flicked off Hilton’s hands. Joseph had tight coverage, but a team’s Pro Bowl wideout has to make both plays.

“I let the team down,’’ Hilton said in the locker room. “Totally on me.’’

On the Colts’ final drive of the game, Reich naturally opted to go for it on fourth-and-7 at the Houston 47 with 3 minutes to play. Brissett avoided a sack and headed upfield, but was pulled down by Brennan Scarlett 1-yard short of the marker.

“I felt like everybody was covered at the time I made my decision to take off and run,’’ Brissett said. “They were playing a coverage where they were trying to force me to run. I thought I had a chance of getting it and the guy made a good play.

“I thought I had it. Then I got tackled. No excuses.’’

Brissett was in his second game back after spraining the MCL in his left knee at Pittsburgh, and wore a bulky brace on his knee.

“If he’s not wearing that knee brace, if he’s 100-100 percent, does he make that?” Reich asked. “He probably makes that if (the knee is) 100-100 percent.’’

Big play (not made, Part II): Reich took a conservative, run-heavy approach on offense even with Marlon Mack out with a fractured right hand. The Colts averaged a modest 4.6 yards per play. Nyheim Hines’ 19-yard run was the longest of the game. Brissett’s two 14-yard passes to Eric Ebron were his longest completions.

The offensive play-calling: 39 rushes (175 yards), 25 passes (121 net yards). The complete absence of chunk plays – gains of at least 20 yards – was telling. The Colts averaged just 4.6 yards per play. Brissett averaged 5.2 yards per attempt and 8.1 per completion.

Brissett never was able to incorporate his wideouts in the offense: 9 targets, four completions, 30 yards. Hilton finished with just 3 catches and 18 yards on six targets.

“We were just not clicking in the passing game,’’ Reich said.

Brissett generated 326 yards and four TDs in the Colts’ 30-23 win in Indy Oct. 20, but never threatened an injury-depleted Houston secondary. The Texans played much more zone coverage in the rematch after being gashed with their man-to-man approach earlier.

Big plays (allowed): Ask any coach and he’ll insist every play counts. But they’ll also concede some count more than others, and are more impactful than others.

Exhibit A: Houston finished with 396 yards on 55 plays. They had a staggering 236 yards on just seven snaps. We’ll save you the math. That means on the other 48 plays, they managed just 160 yards.

“Defensively I thought we started out strong, obviously gave up a few plays,’’ Reich said. “That’s football. Playing a talented team, they’re going to make some plays. We just wanted to hang in there and we had chances at the end.’’

DeAndre Hopkins was one of the most painful thorns with six catches, 94 yards and two TDs. He benefitted from what appeared to be a blown coverage on his first TD, a 35-yarder. Cornerback Pierre Desir was in zone coverage and released Hopkins deep, and safety Malik Hooker failed to pick him up. Hopkins was wide open in the end zone. On his 30-yard TD, Hopkins beat Desir down the left sideline.

Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 35-yard field goal in the second quarter was set up by Watson’s 24-yard completion to tight end Darren Fells on third-and-13. His 36-yarder in the third quarter was set up by Watson’s 51-yard hookup to Will Fuller. Fuller finished with seven catches for 140 yards.

Speaking of big plays, Watson averaged a fat 9.9 yards per attempt and 15.7 yards per completion.

Houston was limited to 99 yards on 24 rushes, but again, Indy allowed a couple of big plays to leak out: a 33-yarder by Carlos Hyde and a 19-yarder by Duke Johnson.

Nice encore for Williams: As we mentioned, the Colts stuck with their running game without Mack. Williams made his first career start and backed up his first 100-yard game against Jacksonville with another. He rushed a career-high 26 times for 104 yards and a touchdown.

The Colts’ commitment to the run was undeniable. Their two TD drives consisted of 18 plays. Seventeen were rushes.

“I thought Jonathan ran the ball well,’’ Reich said. “Obviously I thought the o-line played well.

“It’s crazy. You run for 175 yards, you’re 60 percent on third down (9-of-15) and you’re 2-for-3 in the red zone. You just feel like you should win that game.’’

Williams, by the way, joins Mack (in 2018) and Joseph Addai (2007) as the only Colts to rush for at least 100 yards in consecutive since 2007.

This and that: Placekicker Adam Vinatieri converted a 36-yard field goal and a pair of PATs. . . . Cornerback Kenny Moore II shared the team lead with 8 tackles and added an interception. . . . Rookie defensive end Ben Banogu notched the only sack of Watson.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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