Welcome to Wild-Card Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The first wild-card game of the 2018 NFL season will take place in Houston as the Colts will face the Texans. Here’s what to watch for:
INDY REBUILDING ON DEFENSE
Colts head coach Frank Reich – the former backup to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly – spent the early part of his coaching career working for Indy as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach. During that time period, his boss was another Hall of Famer in Tony Dungy, who believed in a straightforward Cover Two defensive scheme that allowed his guys to play fast and rely on execution rather than outsmarting the opposition.
Reich has returned the Colts to that mindset, bringing in staff members who have ties to the Dungy coaching tree in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, defensive backs coach Alan Williams and defensive line coach Mike Phair. The problem is they have very little depth on that side of the ball, which limits their creativity.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard is one of the best run-defending linemen in the league, but creating pressure in the pocket isn’t his strong suit. Conversely his counterpart Margus Hunt, a former project in Cincinnati, got off to a good start with four sacks in his first five games but has taken down an opposing quarterback just once since Week Seven.
Beyond those two, the only other defenders of note are second-year safety Malik Hooker and rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. Hooker, who was compared by some to Ed Reed when coming out from Ohio State, has had injury troubles in the pros, but when healthy, he has played well. Leonard is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Colts have blitzed more than usual lately in order to compensate for their lack of a consistent pass rush. Watch for them to attack the Texans with overload blitz concepts, especially with slot cornerbacks coming off the edge.
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri surpassed Hall of Famer Morten Anderson as the NFL’S all-time leading scorer earlier this season.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO – FOR THE MOST PART – LUCK
Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirriani – a Jamestown native and graduate of Southwester High School – had a tough task on their hands coming into this season. Coming off of shoulder surgery that kept him out of all of last season – and not having one of the NFL’s better offensive lines over his career to boot – quarterback Andrew Luck needed to change something in his game in order to stay healthy.
Rather than attempt most of his passes out of plays where he took seven-step drops and create on the run, it was believed that Reich and Sirriani would attempt to get him to take more three and five-step drops and get the ball out of his hands quickly and accurately. The problem with that approach is, it would take away from one of Luck’s greatest strengths.
According to Andy Benoit of the MMQB, “Luck is at his best when he extends plays. Most quarterbacks go sandlot when they prolong the action, but Luck understands which routes beat which coverages late, and he consistently spots receivers coming open by keeping his eyes downfield and moving within the pocket. His accuracy on tough throws is exceptional. You take those virtues away when you ask him to get rid of the ball sooner.”
So far, Reich and Sirriani have asked Luck to throw the ball a ton due to a lack of a consistent running game from second year back Marlon Mack and company. Which is a precarious position to put him in, given his health issues.
Luck’s best target is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who may or may not play due to injury. Hilton is reminiscent of former Bills wideout Lee Evans in that he is a one-trick pony, but he is one of the NFL’s best at that one trick – getting open on deep routes. The problem for Hilton is that he struggles against press coverage due to his smallish frame. If he plays, watch for the Colts to send him in motion to create more space between him and defenders.
The Colts’ offensive line is mostly young, save for veteran left tackle Anthony Costanzo. Center Ryan Kelly is only in his third year, and guard Quinton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith are rookies. The Texans may attack this by asking their defensive line to run a lot of twists, stunts and slants, and testing that young line’s communication.
Tight end Eric Ebron, formerly of the Detroit Lions, is a good route-runner and is explosive wherever he lines up – on the line, out wide or in the slot. But he’s such a bad blocker that when he comes into the game, defenses know it will likely be a pass.
Look for Indianapolis to attack the Texans’ 28th-ranked pass defense with dagger concepts – with one wide receiver going vertical to lift the coverage and exploiting the middle of the field – to attack Houston’s zone coverages.
TEXANS’ OFFENSE AN UPDATED PATRIOTS’ VERSION
With a large contingent of ex-Patriots coaches littering Houston’s staff – notably defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell, head coach Bill O’Brien, special teams coach Brad Seely and assistant special teams coach Wes Welker – there are bound to be some similarities to their work in New England.
Take their passing game. Typically one in which relies on matchups, option routes and the positioning of opposing defenders, it’s a system that has been proven to work time and again. The biggest beneficiary of the system has been wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who despite not being the fastest or quickest wideout in the league, succeeds with good route-running ability and excellent hands.
However, with the drafting of DeShaun Watson last year, O’Brien decided to ease in his rookie with misdirection concepts taken directly from his old playbook at Clemson. The results have been outstanding so far. Watson has accumulated more than 4,700 yards this year through the air and on the ground with 31 total touchdowns and throwing just nine interceptions.
Beyond Hopkins however, the Texans don’t have many targets that scare teams. Demaryius Thomas, acquired from Denver midseason and Will Fuller, the third-year receiver from Notre Dame, are both out for the season with injuries. The Texans have also allowed 62 sacks – worst in the NFL.
HOUSTON’S DEFENSE DIFFICULT TO PREPARE FOR
With the return of all-world defender J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus from injury – and the presence of former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney – Houston has three extraordinary pass rushers who can’t be blocked one-on-one. Their abilities helped the Texans rank among the top five teams against the run and also allow Crennel’s fabled “diamond” nickel front to generate tons of pressure in the pocket. (For more on this type of defense, read Andy Benoit’s 2017 NFL preview at: https://www.si.com/nfl/2017/08/29/houston-texans-defense-new-england-patriots-nfl-preview).
The one weakness in Houston’s defense is in their secondary. Cornerback Kevin Johnson is out for the season with concussion issues and nickel corner Aaron Colvin has played just 10 games this season. Safety Kareem Jackson has to play his old position again despite switching in the spring and Jonathan Joseph and Shareece Wright have also dealt with ailments. Safety Tyrann Mathieu – despite his trademark versatility – lacks the burst and quickness he used to have, due to multiple knee surgeries.
Crennel and Seely – whose special teams have been traditionally strong – each have had tremendous success while in the NFL. Each coach started their careers in the league more than 30 years ago, and have combined for 16 appearances in conference championship games, 11 Super Bowl appearances and eight Lombardi trophies.
THIS AND THAT
- Texans offensive line coach Mike Devlin was teammates with Frank Reich for two years in Buffalo (1993-94) and reach Super Bowl XXVIII together.
- Texans linebackers coach John Pagano – brother of former Colts coach Chuck Pagano – worked with Reich for the Chargers from 2013-15 and worked for the Colts from 1998-01 as a defensive assistant.
- O’Brien was on the New England Patriots’ staff from 2007-11 – with his time there intersecting with Welker from ’07-11 and Seely and Colts special teams coach Ray Ventrone from ’07-08.
- Seely worked for the Colts from 1989-93 as tight ends and special teams coach and also was on the same staff as Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman in San Francisco from 2011-14.
- Ventrone played for Seely from 2005-08 in New England, in Cleveland from 2009-10 and with the 49ers from 2013-14. While with the Browns, he crossed paths with Eberflus, who was serving as Eric Mangini’s linebackers coach, and also worked with Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in 2015 with the Patriots. He also was a member of the 49ers with Rathman.
- Sirianni was a colleague of Crennel’s from 2010-12 in Kansas City.