The Colts and Texans have begun to separate themselves from the Jaguars and Titans in the AFC South, and the winner of this game will gain the inside track for the division title. Each team is coming off a win against the already-crowned Chiefs, with the Colts carrying an added advantage this week in that they boast one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL and have had an extra week to prepare for this game (while Bill O’Brien would have entered this matchup as the overmatched coach regardless). With this in mind, we’ll start our journey through this game on the Colts’ side of the ball, as this is the side likeliest to dictate the course of this game.
The approach for the Colts has been no secret with Jacoby Brissett under center, as the goal of this team is to play slow (30th in situation neutral pace of play), keep the ball on the ground (only the Seahawks, Ravens, Vikings, and 49ers have run the ball at a higher rate), and primarily stick to the short areas of the field (only six teams have a lower average intended air yards than the Colts).
On the year, the Texans’ run defense (which is not elite, but is decidedly above-average) has held both Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette under 3.5 yards per carry (while getting hit by both Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray when they played the Saints), while Marlon Mack (recent touch counts of 18 // 11 // 32) is used primarily on runs up the middle (where he is most effective, and where the Texans are strongest) and runs to the outside (where the Texans are weakest, but where Mack is weakest as well). Game flow is likely to have a bigger impact on Mack’s usage than the matchup will, though it is fair to expect the Colts to lean a bit more pass-heavy here, leaving Mack with a few red flags in regards to floor. (His big-play ability and red zone role, of course, keep ceiling intact if you want to chase in deeper tourney play.)
When the Colts take to the air, they will be attacking a Texans defense that has allowed the third most receptions and the seventh most yards to the wide receiver position, while allowing more touchdowns to the position than all but four teams (the Eagles, Falcons, Redskins, and Dolphins). There is obvious risk in leaning on a passing attack on a team that wants to slow down the game and run the ball (Brissett has topped 265 yards only once this year, and he has finished below 200 yards in three of five games), but if the Colts take to the air enough, they should be able to find success.
The focal point of this passing attack (and it’s not even close) has been T.Y. Hilton, with the Colts’ star receiver seeing 29 targets in his four games played, compared to 28 targets in those four games for all other wide receivers combined (that’s Devin Funchess // Deon Cain // Chester Rogers // Parris Campbell // Zach Pascal — failing to combine for more targets than Hilton has on his own). Even Jack Doyle (3.0 targets per game with Hilton on the field) and Eric Ebron (3.75 targets per game with Hilton) have fallen into “hope a touchdown lands in their lap” territory given how much this already-limited passing attack is centered around Hilton.
Hilton, of course, is not seeing expansive downfield work (his aDOT of 7.8 shares company with guys like Tyler Boyd and Michael Thomas, while barely separating from names like Cole Beasley, Dede Westbrook, and Mohamed Sanu), but his role gives him floor, while he not only retains his explosive after-catch ability but also ranks fourth in the NFL in targets inside the 10.
When the Colts defense is at its best, they disrupt rushing attacks in the backfield with their quick defensive line and keep blockers off Darius Leonard so he can move around the field and make plays, while executing a communication-strong Tampa 2 scheme on defense that filters passes away from wide receivers and toward running backs and tight ends. This defense has not been consistently “at its best,” however, allowing notable stat lines this year of ::
8-123-1 Keenan Allen
8-128-1 Julio Jones
6-66-2 Austin Hooper
6-103-1 Byron Pringle
The teams the Colts have held down through the air are the Titans and Raiders.
Uncharacteristically for the Colts, a lot of this production so far has come on downfield passes — and while the absence of Malik Hooker can be held up as part of the reason for Pringle’s day, Hooker was on the field for the games from Allen and Julio. Most of the production from Allen and Julio came on crossing routes, flag routes, and wheel routes that tested the communication of this defense; and while these are routes that both Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins can succeed on, it is Fuller who has been used heavily on these types of looks in recent weeks — with eight targets of 20+ yards across the last two weeks compared to only one for Hopkins. Things can change quickly in the NFL; but if usage holds, this is an intriguing spot for the way the Texans want to use Fuller. For his part: Hopkins went 10-169-1 the first time these teams met last year, before going 4-36-1 (on 10 targets) the second time around.
Houston has been leaning heavily on 12 personnel with Kenny Stills sidelined — with Jordan Akins playing 73% of the snaps last week and Darren Fells playing 89%. With Stills on track to return this week, we’re likeliest to see the recent spike in tight end targets dry up a bit, though there is an outside chance that one of Fells // Akins sees usage continue in this tight end friendly matchup. (Fells is playing more snaps, but he and Akins have run almost the exact same number of pass routes as one another over the last four weeks, making this a bit of a tossup on top of the guessing you have to do on usage in the first place.) Stills, meanwhile, should step back into three to five downfield targets, with an outlier shot at added looks from there.
The matchup on the ground has looked good against the Colts, though this defense is a completely different unit with Leonard on the field (he’s set to return this week after missing Weeks 3 // 4 // 5 with a concussion). Carlos Hyde should continue to get touches and will be a bet-on-touchdown play in this spot, while Duke Johnson will continue to spellbind when he has the ball, and will have the ball too little.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This is not a game I want to “load up on,” but the pieces that do stand out stand out a decent amount.
Hilton is a solid play for his role at a price on DraftKings and FantasyDraft that reflects the offense he’s in — and while his price is higher on FanDuel than his short-area role really justifies, FanDuel scoring is so touchdown-heavy that he remains in the conversation there as well. Without a broken play, he’s not going to reach 100 yards — so this is a “bet on broken play or touchdown” setup; but the floor is non-awful, and his skill set and role create enough “broken play and touchdown opportunities” for him to be kept firmly in mind.
On the other side of this game, Fuller and Hopkins both set up well; and while there is at least some risk that this defense as a whole improves with Leonard back on the field, there is “at least some risk” in pretty much any spot, on any slate. With so many attractive high-priced running backs (and more value available at wideout than at running back this week), I’m likelier to land on the more affordable Fuller than on Hopkins (especially as Fuller’s drop-filled followup to his Week 5 blowup may cause ownership to trickle down further), but both players will remain on my “tighter build tourney list” at the front end of the week. And with these guys in play, Deshaun Watson obviously ends up in play as well, with his ever-present “dud risk” remaining in place on the road vs a better-coached team that has had an extra week to prepare, but with more reasons to feel good about his ceiling than to be concerned about his floor.
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