COLTS // TEXANS OVERVIEW
The Colts and Texans have met twice already this year, with the road team pulling out a close win in each contest (and with T.Y. Hilton lighting the Texans’ secondary on fire each time). A strong argument could be made for the Colts as the hottest team in football (they boast a 9-1 record since their 1-5 start), while that same argument could have been made for the Texans through much of the season. Ultimately, these are two closely-matched teams that each have a shot at making noise in a wide-open AFC if advancing. On a weekend with three games that carry an Over/Under of 43.0 or lower (i.e., three games we would not be targeting heavily on a regular season Main Slate), this game stands out for its Over/Under (48.5) and for the potential back-and-forth nature of this contest. Each defense boasts some strong pieces, but each offense is nevertheless capable of putting up points in the spot. The Texans have been installed as 1.5 point favorites.
As should be expected from Frank Reich: the Colts have been one of the most adaptable offenses in the NFL this year, adjusting their approach to fit the situation and the matchup as well as any team in football. To illustrate the Colts’ ability to win in different ways, here is a look at recent pass attempt numbers for Andrew Luck:
29 // 29 // 37 // 52 // 41 // 27 // 47 // 35
It is very much worth noting that one of Luck’s 29-attempt games came in a close 29-26 win, while his 52-attempt game came in a 0-6 loss. In other words: game plan, rather than game flow, tends to dictate the approach the Colts will take. It is also worth noting that the 29-attempt win and the 52-attempt loss both came against the same team (the Jaguars), while the Colts have gone run-heavy against the stout run defense of the Cowboys and pass-heavy against the bottom-barrel run defense of the Dolphins — signaling some level of inability from the outside to know exactly how Reich is scheming to attack a particular opponent in a given week. It would appear overwhelmingly likely that the Colts will lean pass-heavy in this spot (they threw the ball 62 and 41 times against the Texans this year — and unlike the Cowboys, who are also strong against the pass, the Texans show major vulnerability on the back end), but there is also a case to be made in tourneys for betting on variable approaches.
If betting on the Colts leaning run-heavy, it would be Marlon Mack taking on the tough run defense of the Texans (number one in both DVOA and yards allowed per carry). Mack has six games this year of 15 or fewer carries, though he has an additional three games of 25+ carries. He is not a stone zero in the pass game (he has one game this year of 33 yards receiving — though that was his only game north of 17 yards; he has one game of three catches — though he gained -1 yard on those three grabs), but you are mostly betting on him as a yardage-and-touchdown player in this difficult draw. The game against Dallas (27-139-2 on the ground) gives you some room for hope — but the downside he showed in his last game against the Texans (14 carries for 33 yards) needs to also be considered. Joining Mack in the backfield is Nyheim Hines, who has a middling matchup against a Texans defense that ranks 17th in receiving yards allowed to running backs. Hines stands out for his X-factor potential on this slate, though with recent target counts of 5 // 6 // 5 // 5 and only 10 red zone targets (two red zone receiving touchdowns) this year, he’s a hope-to-guess-right tourney play, rather than a player who can be isolated with confidence.
When it comes to players who can be isolated with confidence, there are not many on this small, four-game slate who stand out more than T.Y. Hilton. Hilton has shown a fairly broad range for target counts (across his last seven games: 9 // 10 // 13 // 12 // 8 // 8 // 6), but his importance to this offense and his flexible usage (with regular targets coming within five yards of the line of scrimmage each week, and with multiple targets most weeks coming 20+ yards downfield) make him one of the safer, higher-upside plays on the slate. Hilton has been targeted six and 12 times in his games against the Texans this year, going 4-115-0 and 9-199-0 in the two meetings between these teams. Hilton now has over 1400 receiving yards in 14 career games against the Texans, with 100+ yards in seven of those games. This is not a can’t-fade spot, as the Texans will sell out to try to slow down Hilton, whereas Hilton (six touchdowns this year) typically takes a back seat in the red zone in this offense. (The Texans have also allowed the third fewest touchdowns to enemy wide receivers this year.) But “can’t-fade” or not, Hilton carries as much upside as any player this weekend, and he’ll be involved enough in this offense to have a low likelihood of raw-score failure.
The Colts continue to rotate wide receiver snaps behind Hilton, with Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers, and Dontrelle Inman all playing 43 to 49 snaps last week (out of 79 total). None of these guys are exciting beyond hoping for a touchdown, but all three have a shot at seeing three to six targets, and any of them could luck into a broken play or a score — especially if the Texans are able to slow down Hilton.
Regardless of the efficacy of the other Colts wideouts, this team will also lean on Eric Ebron from the tight end position, where he has seen target counts against Houston of 10 and eight. Tight end defense has been a weak link for the Texans all year, with the second most yards and the third most touchdowns allowed to the position. While Mo Alie-Cox played the same number of snaps last week as Ebron (39), Ebron ran 34 pass routes to five for Alie-Cox. Ebron’s backup is a hope-for-touchdown dart throw. Ebron himself projects as a focal point for the Colts throughout this game.
TEXANS PASS OFFENSE
By season’s end, no team in the NFL had forced a shallower aDOT than the Colts, and no team had faced fewer targets to the wide receiver position than the Colts. In all, the Colts allowed the second fewest catches, the second fewest yards, and the sixth fewest touchdowns to wideouts this year — with this team essentially forcing opponents to beat them with tight ends and pass-catching running backs. While there is a big talent gap between DeAndre Hopkins and the Colts’ cornerbacks, the scheme-based elements presented by this matchup will make it a difficult spot for Hopkins to arrive at the ceiling his price tag implies. When these teams met in Week 14, Hopkins turned 10 targets into only four catches for 36 yards. The flip side of that, of course, is that this is DeAndre Hopkins we are talking about; when these teams met in Week 4, an admittedly still-green Colts defense allowed Hopkins to hammer them for a 10-169-1 line on 12 targets — good for 8.5% of the total wide receiver yards the Colts allowed all season. Consider Hopkins a risk/reward bet this week — with a lower floor than his name and talent imply, but with plenty of upside on what is sure to be heavy usage.
The Texans will finally be adding Keke Coutee back to the field this week in their vacant Number Two role. Coutee’s lengthy hamstring injury almost certainly impacted his conditioning enough that he cannot be counted on to play more than 50% to 60% of the Texans’ snaps, but this should still be enough for four to seven targets, with upside for more looks from there. Coutee is a strong bet to run the short-area routes that are likeliest to be open against this zone-heavy Colts defense; these short-area routes carry less upside than the downfield looks Hopkins will see, but Coutee does have enough speed and after-catch ability to post a strong day if everything goes right, with slim opportunity for one or two downfield looks to flow his way as well.
Hopkins managed to finish the regular season ranked sixth in the NFL in targets per game in spite of playing on the seventh run-heaviest team in football — illustrating the immediate dearth of targets available behind him. With Coutee returning as a reliable second piece, targets among Vyncint Smith, Ryan Griffin, Jordan Thomas, and Jordan Akins will be difficult to predict, with each likeliest to land in the “one to three looks” range. DeAndre Carter is likely to have his snaps cut significantly with the return of Coutee — with two to three targets the likeliest range for him as well.
TEXANS RUN OFFENSE
While the Colts’ run defense is not quite in the same class as the Texans, they have been one of the tougher teams to run on this year, ranking sixth in fewest yards allowed per carry while holding running backs to the ninth fewest rushing yards on the year. While Indy has largely slowed down enemy rushing attacks, however, they have allowed the second most receptions and the seventh most receiving yards to the running back position. With the Texans typically boasting one of the more run-heavy offenses in football and likely to dump off a few passes to Lamar Miller when they turn to the pass, Miller has at least some shot at mattering on this slate. In two games against the Colts this year, he has not topped 14 carries, but he did match his season high in receptions in this matchup in Week 14 (five), while his six touchdowns on the year give him some modest upside as well. Miller is never sexy, but he does at least have locked-in involvement on his side in this spot.
Behind Miller, Alfred Blue and possibly D’Onta Foreman will work in as nothing more than hope-for-something-crazy-to-happen options.
The likeliest scenario on the Colts’ side of the ball calls for them to lean pass-heavy in this spot, with Hilton and Ebron operating as the focal points, and with Inman, Pascal, Rogers, Hines, and Mack playing smaller roles behind them. Ebron has a great matchup and shapes up as the top on-paper tight end play on the slate, while Hilton still carries the not-quite-elite floor he always carries, but he also carries slate-winning ceiling. All three of the main pieces on the Colts (Luck included) are among the top on-paper plays on this slate, with Hilton carrying the clearest case among the three (though also the scariest worst-case scenario) for a strategic tourney fade.
On the other side of the ball, the run-heavy Texans seem likely to put this game into the hands of Deshaun Watson as the game moves along — especially as the Colts should do a good job slowing down Lamar Miller and the ground-and-pound side of this offense. This should open opportunities for Upside from Watson, Hopkins, and Coutee, with Miller, the tight ends, and possibly even Vyncint Smith seeing a few looks behind them. Given the matchup and the typically run-leaning nature of the Texans, none of these three are safe — but all three of Watson, Hopkins, and (to a lesser extent) Coutee can have a clear case made for them in tourneys this week.