INDIANAPOLIS — While the injury news on Anthony Castonzo’s MCL knee sprain suggests a return later this month, the Indianapolis Colts have a decision to make at offensive left tackle for Sunday’s game at the Houston Texans.
The first priority is always the same when devising a game plan against the Texans defense: How do the Colts block defensive end J.J. Watt?
Colts head coach Frank Reich said Monday that he thought backup tackle Le’Raven Clark settled down after needing a few plays to get acclimated when Castonzo exited Sunday’s 45-26 home loss to Tennessee in the second quarter. That’s an overly kind coach-speak assessment for the fifth-year reserve, who showed in a start for Castonzo at Cleveland as well as on Sunday that he struggles more often than not.
The painfully obvious deficiency at that position impacted the Colts offense dramatically. Quarterback Philip Rivers, who had driven his team to a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives with Castonzo, wasn’t the same after that. The 38-year-old quarterback couldn’t trust his protection, his internal clock sped up, and the throws were rushed and off-target too many times.
Because the Colts had just two running backs, and Nyheim Hines is a pass-catching threat who doesn’t have the size to block pass-rushers, Jordan Wilkins had to play hurt as a backfield blocker to try to shore up that line, specifically outside where Clark was having issues.
Reich was asked if the Colts might consider moving right tackle Braden Smith to Castonzo’s spot. But that’s not the answer. Moving one tackle from his natural position will likely mean both sides of the O-line will have problems. Remember, Watt moves around a lot, and he’s beaten Smith before.
That means Clark needs help on his side, specifically when Rivers is going to pass. Because it sure seems as if the Colts don’t have many options other than journeyman Chaz Green or Clark, alternate both of them at the start to see who is handling the job more efficiently.
But utilize two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle as a blocker on that side, if Watt is lining up opposite left tackle. Wilkins can also be there to assist, although once again, that will tip off the Texans somewhat. Perhaps rookie running back Jonathan Taylor will be activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list, and he's a bigger body who can also keep the defense honest in the run game.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year must be accounted for on every snap. If that simplifies what plays the offense can run, so be it. As Watt showed on Thanksgiving Day with an interception return TD at Detroit, he’s still plenty capable of wrecking games.
The Texans (4-7) have struggled on both sides of the ball this season, but they’re playing hard under interim coach Romeo Crennel. The Colts (7-4) will be facing a team that has gained some confidence with back-to-back wins.
As much as the Colts have endured because of solid roster depth, general manager Chris Ballard should have addressed the O-line more than just drafting Danny Pinter in the fifth round. It's worth noting the Titans prevailed Sunday with their third offensive left tackle making his first start at the position.
Pinter made his first NFL start on Sunday for injured Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly. While Pinter played offensive tackle in college, he’s been taking snaps at guard and center this season, so it would be unfair to think he can shift to left tackle.
If the Colts were to make that switch, that would speak volumes for how little they trust Clark or Green, all coach-speak aside.
The Colts can’t beat the Texans if Rivers is rattled. That was an obvious takeaway from Sunday. He hastily threw a pass to the right flat that should have been an easy pick-six, but it was dropped. Even simple check-down throws to running backs and quick hits to slanting wide receivers and tight ends were increasingly difficult because the quarterback sensed he needed to get rid of the ball more quickly.
It’s an important game if the Colts are going to hang onto at least an AFC wild-card playoff spot. They’re in the seventh and final position as of today.
Because the Colts are also missing key players on defense, most notably defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, it stands to reason a Texans offense which will be without its top wide receiver in Will Fuller V (tested positive for PEDs) can still move the ball because quarterback Deshaun Watson has played well recently. In his last six starts, Watson has 15 TD passes and no interceptions.
If the Colts are going to have any chance of scoring enough points with Rivers being comfortable in the pocket, how they handle left tackle is the most important question that needs to be answered. If they don't figure it out, Watt will drive that problem home.