Expect Colts To Defend Texans With Makeshift Secondary

Phillip B. Wilson

While the Indianapolis Colts will welcome back linebacker Darius Leonard as its defensive leader for Sunday’s AFC South Division home game against Houston, a secondary ravaged by injuries is still a glaring concern.

Head coach Frank Reich ruled out nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II (knee) and said safety Malik Hooker (knee) is doubtful to end a two-game absence. Top cover cornerback Pierre Desir (hamstring) didn’t practice all week and is listed as questionable on the injury report, which means he’s a game-time decision.

That’s not an ideal situation when facing the likes of a Texans offense which ranks sixth in total yards and eighth in scoring. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, among others, are sure to test that makeshift lineup in the Colts secondary with Quincy Wilson and rookie Rock Ya-Sin starting at the outside cornerback spots and Shakail Taylor playing nickel. Taylor is an undrafted rookie who re-signed two weeks ago.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Reich said on Friday, when asked if he had enough healthy players in the secondary. “I think we’ve got enough bodies with how things will play out.”

The Texans (4-2) and Colts (3-2) are both coming off impressive road wins at Kansas City, the difference being the Colts have had a bye week to rest their wounded. That’s enabled Leonard, the NFL’s 2018 NFL tackle leader and a likely Watson spy, to be cleared after missing three games in concussion protocol.

The Colts defense was also without safety Clayton Geathers due to a concussion when it took a significant step in the 19-13 win over the Chiefs. George Odum and rookie Khari Willis made solid plays on the back line, corners played more man to man defense and the pass rush got after league MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

But the reality is the Colts haven’t played well defensively in two home games — hanging on after nearly blowing a 17-point lead for a 27-24 win over Atlanta and losing 31-24 to Oakland two games ago.

The Colts are 16th in total yards allowed, 17th in scoring defense and their 18th-ranked run defense is sure to get tested by a Texans offense that is fifth in rushing yards.

“We know it starts up front,” Reich said. “We have to get pressure, that helps and then we’ve just got to cover. We’ve got to cover. ‘Flus’ (defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus) and the defensive staff will do a great job of mixing it up and having a plan (with) the best way to attack this team. It’s different week-to-week. So you take a look at the matchups, the skill guys that they have and then you tailor the game plan for their guys.”

The offseason saw the Texans try to bolster an offensive line that allowed Watson to take a league-high 62 sacks last season. Most notable was the acquisition of left tackle Laremy Tunsil from Miami. Watson took 18 sacks in the first four games, but hasn’t taken one in the last two starts. As a result, he passed for 280 yards with one TD and ran for two scores in a 31-24 win over the Chiefs and had a monster game in a 53-32 home win over the Falcons, completing 28 of 33 passes for 426 yards with five TDs.

“They had a bunch of new pieces up front, so it just took time for them to get to know each other,” said Colts defensive end Justin Houston. “You brought in a (new) left tackle the first week of the season, so they didn’t have a chance to work together at all. I think it’s just getting comfortable with one another and knowing each other. So I think they’re starting to gel.”

Watson went to his first Pro Bowl last year. One of the league’s most adept scramblers, he has five rushing scores and is averaging 5.1 yards per rush. That’s where Leonard is key. He played against Watson last year and in college, so he knows him well.

“He makes plays with his feet and with his arm,” Leonard said Wednesday. “He has great weapons outside, running backs are playing well, he just has so many weapons that’s what makes him and that offense so dangerous.”

The Texans defeated the Colts 37-34 in overtime at Indianapolis in Week 4 last season as Watson completed 29 of 42 passes for 375 yards and two TDs while also rushing for 41 yards and one score. He did all that despite being sacked seven times. Hopkins caught 10 passes for 169 yards and one TD.

Hopkins had a combined nine catches for 73 yards and one TD when the Colts prevailed 24-21 at Houston later in the regular season and 21-7 on the road in the first round of the AFC playoffs. Watson completed 56 of 87 passes for 502 yards and two TDs with one interception in those games and took eight sacks.

So while the Texans are defending AFC South Division champions, they are ever mindful of recent history.

The Colts offense has changed dramatically since then with quarterback Andrew Luck’s retirement leading to the elevation of Jacoby Brissett, who doesn’t have Luck’s passing numbers but has usually taken care of the football and made smart decisions with 10 TD passes and just three interceptions.

The 2019 Colts will look to pound the ground with a fourth-ranked rushing attack led by running back Marlon Mack, who has 470 yards and is averaging 4.7 yards per rush.

One Colts constant who has been a pain for the Texans is four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. In 15 career starts against Houston, he’s caught 81 passes for 1,530 yards and nine TDs. Just last year in three games, he had 14 catches for 310 yards and five TDs. Seven career 100-yard receiving games includes nine catches for 223 yards and one score in 2014.

“It’s T.Y.,” Brissett said.