Two weeks ago, the Colts hung on for a much needed win over the Redskins. Then they had a disastrous bye week filled with injuries and intrigue. This week, they face a huge Monday night rematch with the Houston Texans. The Texans drubbed the Colts in week one, and the Colts need a win to stay in the thick of the hunt for another AFC South title. This week, watch for:
1. Watch the Sherriff. Look, I hate that nickname, but it's Gruden time on Monday Night Football, so I'll live with it for another week. With Clark, Collie, and likely Addai all out and every receiver Indy has gimpy in some way or another. It's time to lean heavily on Peyton Manning. That doesn't mean he should throw 57 times, but it does mean he'll have to make the big plays and calls. If there is any consolation for Colts fans, it's that in night games, Manning's career passer rating is 100.1. Oh, and since 2003, Indy is 23-6 in night games. At home, Manning has lost twice at night since 2002 (and he only played in a couple of series of one of those games). So, um yeah. He's good in prime time (tip to Garrison for the stat).
2. Watch for Downtown Donald Brown. With running back Joseph Addai on the mend, look for Donald Brown to return to action in a big time way. Brown has also been nursing a lingering hamstring injury, and his status is uncertain.. Brown showed in week 2 against the Giants that he can produce when given the rock. Sharing touches with Addai, Brown ran 16 times for a 4.3 average and a touchdown. If there were ever a week for Brown to prove his value as a first round pick, this is it. If Brown can't go, the burden of carrying the ball will be on Mike Hart, so maybe we will see Peyton throw 57 times again. Sources have told Adam Schefter that Brown is close to coming back, the only question is how close?
3. Watch for the bargain bin doppelganger. Ok, ok so we all know that replacing superstar Dallas Clark is going to be virtually impossible. He simply does too much. However, in terms of a receiving tight end, Jacob Tamme fits the mold set by Clark. The former Kentucky Wildcat has stood out as an elite performer on special teams, but make no mistake, he has the goods. He made incredible catches in college, but simply hasn't had the opportunity to produce on offense, instead finding his niche on the special teams unit. This week Tamme might well get his chance.
4. Watch for the quiet 10,000. Reggie Wayne will go over 10,000 yards for his career with just five more yards. With Clark and Collie out, the pressure is all on Wayne. It's too bad he's only on pace for 1,600 yards and 120 catches this year. The last time that Wayne had to carry the load for the offense, he responded with the best season of his career (104, 1510, 10). Big production from Wayne will be the key if the Colts' offense is to keep clicking. Somehow, everyone seems to be forgetting about Wayne, perhaps because he only has two touchdowns on the year.
5. Watch Foster. Arian Foster burst on to the NFL scene with the Texan's week one win over the Colts, but he's stayed in the spotlight ever since. He's fourth in the NFL in rushing, and leads in DYAR and is second in DVOA, and the Texans as a team lead the league in yards per carry. Overall, the footballoutsiders rank Houston as the best offense and best rushing offense in football. The Colts absolutely have to limit the damage by Arian Foster. If the defense doesn't do a better job wrapping up than they did against the Redskins, Foster could have another big day.
6. Watch for the shutdown. Andre Johnson might be the best wideout in football, but he's facing a tough matchup this week. Indianapolis has the best defense in the league against #1 wide receivers. That's a good thing, because Indy's past defense has been mediocre against everyone else. A huge part of that performance has been due to the lockdown work of Jerraud Powers, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level. If the Colts can get out to a lead (they fell behind early in Houston) and force the Texans to throw the ball, the coverage work on Johnson could be the key to protecting that lead all game long.
7. Watch the punter. With McAfee suspended for sleeping with the, uh, I was going to say fishes, but there aren't really any fish in the canal are there? I mean, if there were, I wouldn't really want to sleep with them. Or eat them. Or know about them. Ugh, the more I think about it, the more I can't believe McAfee only blew a .15. I'd have to be a lot drunker than that to get in the canal. Of course I don't really drink ever because I don't like the taste of alcohol, so I'd have to be drunk in order to drink enough to get drunk enough to get in the canal. How did I get drunk in the first place if I had to be drunk already in order to get drunk? Good question. Let's say, it was aliens. Or maybe I was high on life. I don't know. The point is that no one wants to watch punters, so I'm just filling space. Hopefully, McAfee's suspension will mean Caldwell will go for it more. The real thing to watch will be AV on kick offs. Ugh. Now I do need a drink.
8. Watch for heroics. Dwight Freeney hasn't had a sack in a while, but he's been playing at a high level. Teams are doubling and tripling him more than ever and he has managed to be disruptive despite a lack of sack numbers. The Texans don't do a good job protecting Matt Schaub (24th in sack rate), so watch for lots of play action as well as rollouts and boot legs designed to frustrate Freeney. Dwight loves the spot light, so watch for him to force a turnover with pressure on Monday night. The Colts need big plays from the defense to get the Texans off the field, and Freeney is just the man to provide them.
9. Watch for time. The Colts' offense will be fine as long as Manning has time to throw. Manning has been sacked per throw less than any QB in the game and has been rarely hit. On the other hand Mario Williams and the Texans line battered Peyton repeatedly in week one. Since then, the line has largely improved, and I doubt that Jeff Saturday will have the kind of struggles he did early in the year against the Texans. The only way I can see Houston stopping Indy is by harrassing Peyton all day. If he has time, the Texans won't win.
10. Watch for the Unsung Hero. As Paul Kuharsky of ESPN noted earlier this week, “The Colts are depleted by injuries. Watch an unlikely hero emerge Monday in crucial AFC South game vs. Texans.” I agree completely with Kuharsky's assessment. Look for Blair White, Brody Eldridge, or even Gijon Robinson to step up in Monday night's game. Remember last season, week 11 at the Ravens, when we were hobbled with injuries? In that game Tom Santi hauled in six catches for 80 yards. Peyton doesn't care who you are – if you're open, you're getting the ball.
11. Watch the gaps. The Colts defense was gashed for big plays by the Texans thanks in large part to terrible gap discipline by Session and Brackett in week one. The Texans used a lot of simple cut backs to rip through the Indy defense and gain yards. All season, Session has struggled not to over-pursue plays and mind his responsibility. If the Colts linebackers can stay home, Houston might still get a lot of four and five yard runs, but they won't wrack up many 10-20 yard runs.
12. Watch for “White Lightning” aka Kevin Walter. Honestly I have no idea if this is Walter's nickname or if he even has a nickname. But Kevin Walter is a tall, speedy wide receiver who can find the open space. Oh yeah, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub likes throwing the ball his way as well. Walter doesn't average a ton of catches or yards a game, but he comes up big when Schaub needs him. He boasts a solid 12.1 yards a reception and hauled in 11 catches for 144 yards in a week 2 come from behind victory. He also has three touchdowns on the year, including one in the week one match up against the Colts. I think Jason Whitlock coined his nickname, I'm not sure.
13. Watch for juicing up on the sidelines. Get out your binoculars and spy down on the Texan's bench to make sure that the Texans aren't playing with pill bottles or syringes during timeouts. We all know the story on Brian Cushing. He tested positive for the roids and, in short, blamed it on working out too much. Yeah, that reminds me of the time I lost weight eating pizza rolls and drinking beer. With fellow linebacker Demeco Ryans out for the season, and the Texans shoddy secondary, somehow, someway, Cushing will have to find a way to step it up against Manning and crew. Meanwhile the Texans also lost Duane Brown to a performance enhancing substance. At some point, someone has to keep an eye on these guys.
14. Watch for humiliation. At the time Jaworski made his ill-conceived statements about Manning getting old, I posited that he had just watched a few throws from the Kansas City game. As it turns out, I was right. Jaws said,
"He's my favorite quarterback in the history of the NFL, but I just don't make comments up. When I said that, I was looking at the Kansas City game and there were some throws that he can make blindfolded that he missed."
Whoops. Making such a bold statement on the basis of about five throws in the second half of an otherwise good game is foolish. After Jaworski is forced to analyze how Manning shreds the Houston secondary on Monday night, expect him to be a tad bit humbled by his knee jerk reaction.
15. Watch for never. As in, the Texans have NEVER won in Indianapolis. Early in the season, I wondered if this Texan team might not be really good. They aren't. They have an incredible offense, but no defense. They remind me of the 2004 Colts in a way. The Outsiders tell us that Houston has the 3rd worst defense in football. In order to beat Indy in Indy, their offense will have to function flawlessly. I can't see it happening. Houston has never won in Indianapolis, and I can't see it happening on Monday night.
16. Watch me struggle. The biggest problem I have writing Eyes each week is trying to find the balance between hitting on big talking points and not being obvious. Oh, Dwight Freeney is important? You think Peyton Manning needs to play well? Nice calls, Einstein. However, if all I do is write about Fili Moala and Blair White, you won't get a good feel about where this game will be won and lost. My solution is to try and go stat heavy to provide a little insight into the matchups that everyone already knows about. All in all, it makes Eyes the hardest, most time consuming article of the week. Then I go and waste space on stuff like this, which is a mistake considering I haven't even brought up Gonzo yet. Then again, we've all fixated on Gonzo for two weeks already, so maybe it's too easy to say, "HE HAS TO COME UP HUGE!". Arrrgh. Hang on tight, Nate, you've only got two more left to go!
17. Watch the ceremony. Tony Dungy is being inducted in the Ring of Honor. My feelings about Dungy are well documented. I feel we'll never see a better coach in Indianapolis, and his performance in 2008 might have been his best. The next stop for Tony is Canton. Every game I'm not in Indy hurts me, but not being there to see Tony on this night breaks my heart. He's the first member of "The Run" to be recognized like this. It should be a special moment. Before Dungy, the playoffs were a novelty in Indianapolis. Now they are a birthright.
18. Watch for gut check. It sounds over dramatic to say the Colts are staring into an abyss. After all, they could lose on Monday and still rip off seven wins in a row to follow. Still, everyone has a sense that if the Colts are serious title contenders they simply have to beat the Texans at home. 0-3 in the division is not an option. Indy is banged up offensively, but will come up with enough big defensive stops to win. Colts 34 Texans 27.