INDIANAPOLIS – The defense the Colts will face this weekend in Houston will be a challenge. It always has been. To expect anything less would be a mistake.
When the Colts line up on Sunday, however, they may see something different across the scrimmage line. Houston has added a new defensive coordinator in the talented and affable Wade Phillips. What Phillips has installed is a new set, and he hopes to implement a defense that is anything but friendly.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell and his players do see a difference.
"Schematically they've changed tremendously," said Caldwell. "They went from a four-down team to a three-down. They have (Mario) Williams playing a little different location, usually he's played end in the four-down look. Now, obviously, he's an outside linebacker, so his rush angles are different. There's quite a bit of difference there in terms of what they're doing. They're a team that will bring those outside linebackers and bring some inside linebackers from time to time. They do have perimeter blitzes in their package. It's a versatile, flexible 3-4 that could really give you problems, particularly when you look at the people he has rushing the passer, and the people he has playing the scheme up front. It's a tough unit."
Houston poses a difficult front seven that is rich in talent. Colts center Jeff Saturday knows the challenge ahead.
"I think they did a good job of maxing out their personnel," Saturday said. "They'll have (Antonio) Smith and (Shaun) Cody on the inside, I'm sure, when they go to nickel but other than that, you're going to have that 3-4 look. Those guys can get after the quarterback. They can bring pressure. Wade's (Phillips) normal game plan is bringing 'Sam' and 'Mike' every time so you have five-on-five, or whatever you're blocking scheme is. I don't foresee him making any changes with the personnel they have. You have (DeMeco) Ryans and (Brian) Cushing back in the back. Those guys can run well. What he's doing with the defense, is going to help them be a better defense. He does a good job. He has a penetrating defense. He gets in that 3-4 and they try to shoot the gaps, kind of cause some chaos in the backfield. He's going to try to bring one more than you can block and make the quarterback throw on time. To them, that kind of eliminates big plays. The truth is you have to match up. You have to block."
Ryan Diem could be starting at guard rather than the right tackle position he has manned for years. Diem has seen Houston and Phillips a few times over his career, and that means preparing for different defensive fronts, something commonplace for the Colts.
"It's something we prepare for a lot," said Diem. "We see different fronts all the time. They're going to jump into a 'prevent,' a four-down look all the time and mix it up a little bit for us. We anticipate a lot of 3-4, but it's not something we haven't seen before. We've faced Wade Phillips and his defenses before, so we have a lot of film to look at."
A player for whom any opponent facing Houston must plan is Mario Williams, who has been moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. Rushing or dropping into coverage? Diem knows what to expect doses of on Sunday.
"It's no secret that they're going to keep rushing him," said Diem. "I don't think there's any reason to drop a 300-pound guy into coverage. I think he's definitely going to be rushing (the quarterback). In what we've seen, that's the way they approach it. They basically rush their front five, so it will be five-on-five and 'manning' it up."
Quarterback Kerry Collins will start for the Colts this Sunday, and he is a veteran of AFC South battles. Collins has a regard for Phillips as well for the past occasions when they have battled.
"He believes in what he does, and he does it well," said Collins. "You watch them on tape and they're in the right place most of the time. They're very sound, and they're a very good defense."
Collins knows playing the Texans and Phillips means the Colts should prepare for everything, and he knows the challenge ahead.
"Yes, not a ton of it," said Collins when asked if a previous Houston strength was trying to create pressure. "They certainly mix it in so it keeps you on your toes. I know we're working hard on a lot of the blitzes and a lot of the pressures they do. Obviously, we're trying to come together with the best game plan we can, but also realizing we are facing a familiar opponent with a different kind of defense. They've changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4. It seems like they've taken to it really well. Playing hard, playing fast. It's going to be a big challenge for us come Sunday.
Collins' Sunday counterpart, Matt Schaub, has seen a difference since the arrival of Phillips.
"I think a lot of guys across the board, throughout the offense and everything, have noticed it, and really embraced the changed," said Schaub. "With the new defensive coaches coming in and what they've seen on the practice field, it's really helped us all out. The receivers notice it with the coverages and some of the things they are doing. The linemen with some of the games, the blitzes and some of the things they are seeing. So it's made us all a better football team."
Houston head coach Gary Kubiak believes the response to Phillips by his players has been good once they got around him in camp.
"Well it took three or four months to react because we didn't see him, so that was what was so interesting about it," said Kubiak. "You know we had him here and we're ready to go, then all of the sudden the lockout occurs. But since we came to camp, since it was time to go, we got things worked out, and they reacted very well. Players are like anybody else, they walk in a room and they've got meetings and some of the coaches talk to them. When a guy is a guy with the credibility like Wade has, the guys are going to listen. So we've got a pretty young football team from that standpoint, and I think they've responded to him and his leadership very well."
As for Caldwell, facing Houston in the opener provided the Colts with a good chance to prepare for the changes in advance.
"It gives you a little bit more of an opportunity to get prepared because it's your first game," said Caldwell. "Obviously, you can work on it in the early part of training camp, which we did. Fortunately, we saw a couple of teams (in preseason) that actually utilized it, so we had an opportunity to do it. It's tougher oftentimes when you have to go from a 4-3 system one week and the next week you're actually looking at a 3-4. Then, there's a little bit of an adjustment to make. This being the first game gave us a chance to work on it a little bit more. What we have to do is put that to action and be able to apply it. It gives you its own little set of nuances, angles of rush, things of that nature, where we consider the soft spots to be. You attack it a little bit differently than you ordinarily would, maybe a 4-3 system. We've had a chance to look at those things and see if we can get into plays that best suit us against that particular look."
Caldwell has matched wits with Phillips before and while that provides a level of familiarity, the difference in personnel in working sites means a difference in on-field implementation of a scheme.
"Everything is different in terms of his surroundings," said Caldwell. "He has different personnel that he's working with. I think that may have something to do with how he adjusted. We look at all those things (where a coach has been in the past), but we do know a lot of things are personnel-driven. He may have a tendency to do something a little bit different with this particular group of guys. Where he used DeMarcus Ware (in Dallas) before, how will he use Mario (Williams)? It varies…He'll be able to blend some of those things together."
Caldwell and his staff will keep full attention on Williams wherever he is on the field. Previously an end who played with a hand down, Williams now stands upright.
"He comes (rushes) the great majority of the time," said Caldwell. "Oftentimes when you denote 'linebacker,' you think of a guy who's going to drop (into pass coverage). He doesn't drop a whole lot. He's got his ears back, and he's coming a great majority of the time. He's still doing the same things he's been doing. He's been powerful. He's been disruptive, and he's a formidable pass-rusher. That hasn't changed."