The thing about swimming in deep water is you just never know if or when the predators beneath are coming.
The Houston Texans' offense learned that lesson late in Sunday's 2022 season opener against the Indianapolis Colts. The Indy defense, under first-year coordinator Gus Bradley, certainly made its share of plays in the first three quarters, but a couple of gadget plays, plus a lack of a consistent pass rush up front, allowed Houston to score 10 points each in the second and third quarters, respectively, to go into the final period of regulation up 20-3.
But that's when the Colts as a team started to get hungry — and especially on defense. In the fourth quarter alone, Houston had just 25 total yards of offense and were unable to convert a single third down on five attempts. The Indy offense also caught fire, helping spark a 17-0 run to tie the game and force overtime.
And when the game went into that extra period, the sharks really started to swarm, as second-year pass rusher Kwity Paye ruined any chances of a Texans walk-off victory to open the period with two key sacks.
The game would end in a 20-20 tie — certainly not the result the Colts wanted, but, had it not been for those late-game efforts, the team would instead be heading into next Sunday's game on the road against another divisional opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, lamenting a loss.
"It is frustrating. But we dug ourselves in the hole, and we just tried to fight out of it," said veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who made his Colts debut on Sunday. "The offense made some plays at the end, we had some big stops, but I think if we wouldn't have dug ourselves a big hole in the beginning we would've been better off. But you've got to just watch the film and learn from it and get better from there."
The Colts (0-0-1) had a fine defensive showing in the first half, allowing just 10 points in the first two quarters and just 144 total net yards. But the unit wasn't doing much to make Texans quarterback Davis Mills uncomfortable, either, as the Colts had just one quarterback hit and zero sacks heading into halftime.
That theme continued to start the second half — and the Texans started to pull away. After receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter, Houston got 42 yards on its very first play from scrimmage by utilizing a flea flicker, as Mills found wide receiver Brandin Cooks wide open over the top to get to the Indianapolis 33-yard line. Indy limited Houston to a field goal on that drive, but after a Colts lost fumble on their ensuing drive, Mills cashed in, connecting with tight end O.J. Howard for their second touchdown of the day, this time from 22 yards out, and putting the Texans ahead 20-3 midway through the third quarter.
The Colts finally put their foot down at that point. The offense shocked the Houston defense with a run-heavy approach with All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor and kept scoring points on its end. But that was all set up by the defense; with 10:02 left in the fourth quarter, linebacker E.J. Speed, sent on a blitz, was left untouched off the edge and crushed Mills from his blindside, knocking the ball loose, which was recovered by defensive tackle DeForest Buckner at the Houston 20-yard line.
Four plays later, Taylor was in the end zone with a two-yard run, and all of a sudden the Colts were within seven, 20-13, with 7:46 left in the fourth quarter. The Indy defense would force a punt on the next Houston drive, and the Colts would tie the game seven plays into their next offensive possession thanks to a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Ryan to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
The Colts lost the overtime coin flip, setting up the potential for a walk-off Texans win if they were able to score a touchdown on their opening possession of the extra period. But Paye, the second-year edge rusher out of Michigan, made it clear he wasn't going to let that happen.
His first sack of the drive came on first down, as Paye simply bull-rushed his way through a tight end to get to Mills and bring him down. Paye's second sack of the drive, on 3rd and 22, featured some nifty footwork from the big fella, as he saw a chip block headed his way, so he countered by spinning out of it and right back into the face of Mills.
It's the first multi-sack performance of Paye's career after earning four total sacks as a rookie last season.
"It's definitely encouraging," Paye said. "I started working in January — as soon the season was over, I took a weekend off and I went straight back to work. Huge credit to the guys who I worked with, with Eddy (McGilvra) and Mark Hall and B.T. Jordan, and big credit to Matt Raich and Coach Nate (Ollie), all those guys that have helped me take that next step. I'm just trying to help this team as much as I can."
The Colts' defense then held the Texans out of field goal range on their final possession of the ballgame to complete an impressive final two periods of play.
"We just started swimming in deep water. We spoke about swimming in deep water — first quarter, second quarter, third quarter — and the fourth (quarter), that's when we really went to go hunt as D-linemen, and had a, 'Just go get it,' mentality," Paye said. "It wasn't a great start, but second half, we came out and we started ballin'. We just couldn't finish, as well. So we're just going to go back to the drawing board and work at it this week."
Linebacker Zaire Franklin led the Colts on Sunday with eight total tackles, while Paye was one of four Colts defenders — joining Speed, linebacker Bobby Okereke and cornerback Kenny Moore II — with seven tackles. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart had two tackles for loss to go along with his five total stops.