INDIANAPOLIS —The Indianapolis Colts look to earn their first win on the road and in AFC South Division play on Sunday, when they travel to Houston to take on the Texans.
The Colts (2-6) are coming off their narrow 24-23 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Texans (3-4), meanwhile, fell in a shootout to the Seahawks, 41-38, last week in Seattle.
So what should fans be looking for in this Colts/Texans Week 9 matchup on Sunday at NRG Stadium?
1. Savage Steps In
Deshaun Watson had been putting in perhaps one of the greatest seasons by a rookie quarterback in NFL history when it ended way too abruptly this week. At Thursday's practice, as Watson and the Texans continued to put in preparations for Sunday's Colts game, the Clemson product suffered a torn ACL — in a non-contact drill — and has since been placed on IR and is expected to undergo surgery. The Colts' defense had spent all week preparing for Watson's dangerous skillset, which includes a terrific throwing arm (19 passing touchdowns), as well as his dangerous running ability, but abruptly had to change course to now prepare for Tom Savage, who will get the start on Sunday. Savage is more of a traditional pocket passer, but he doesn't have much experience in his four years in the NFL, having played in seven games with three starts, and completing 63-of-105 passes (60 percent) with no touchdowns to one interception, and fumbling five times, losing four of them. So while the Colts dodge a bullet by not having to face Watson, the potential unknowns that Savage brings to the table will definitely be something to watch.**
- Can Castonzo Play?* Anthony Castonzo has been one of the most durable members of the Colts' offense since he was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. While Indianapolis has seen several, several different lineups along its offensive line since that time, Castonzo has been a near-lock each and every week at the left tackle position. But Castonzo was unable to practice on both Wednesday and Thursday of this week with a knee injury, and on Friday he was limited; head coach Chuck Pagano said Castonzo played about 15 snaps during the session, and that he will likely be a gametime decision. If he can't play, there could be an awful lot of shuffling up front against the Texans. Starting offensive linemen Jeremy Vujnovich (left guard), Le'Raven Clark (right guard) and Joe Haeg (right tackle) were all listed at potential candidates to slide over to left tackle, if needed, but that would then create a hole in their respective spots. So if No. 74 isn't in the lineup Sunday, look for a plethora of moves up front for the Colts' offense.3. More Hilton? Opposing defenses have done a good job of late containing Colts No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. In his last three games, all Indy losses, Hilton has just five catches for 51 yards, a trend that continued against the Bengals, when he was targeted seven times, but came away with just two receptions for 15 yards. There are several factors that go into this recent lull — solid defense, extra coverage, the quarterback not finding him, too much pressure up front, etc. — but for the Colts to be successful, they know how important it is to find some way — *any way *— to get the ball in their star receiver's hands. That will be easier said than done against the Texans, who have Mike Vrabel as their defensive coordinator. Vrabel, of course, learned his craft from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has always prided himself on shutting down a team's best weapon, and making you beat him in other ways. Against the Bengals, the Colts found success instead going to tight end Jack Doyle, who had a career day with 12 receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown, but on Sunday, against a division rival, the law of averages indicate Hilton is due to break out sooner rather than later.4. He's (Hopefully) Back Rashaan Melvin has been perhaps the most consistent playmaker on the Colts' defense this season — and the numbers show it, as the cornerback ranks tied for second in the NFL with 11 passes defensed. But a concussion suffered two weeks ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars kept Melvin out of last Sunday's game against the Bengals, and without rookie Quincy Wilson — who continues to battle a nagging knee injury — the Colts went with fourth-year veteran Pierre Desir at the No. 2 cornerback spot. Desir had a solid outing with four tackles, but it appears Melvin has just one more hurdle to clear in the league's concussion protocol — being cleared by an independent league neurologist — before he can officially return to the lineup on Sunday against the Texans. If Melvin can play, then that takes a little heat off the entire secondary, which is already without free safety Malik Hooker (season-ending knee injury) and is trying to hold down the fort until strong safety Clayton Geathers, who is working his way back from offseason neck surgery, can make his 2017 debut.*
- Dangerous Receivers** With or without Watson at quarterback, the Texans still feature two of the more dangerous wide receivers in all of football in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V, each of whom are tied for the league lead with seven receiving touchdowns apiece. Now, Vontae Davis, the Colts' No. 1 cornerback, has actually had a good deal of success in the past against Hopkins, picking off three passes and batting down another four passes thrown his way, and Hopkins is yet to catch a touchdown among his 42 career receptions for 562 yards in eight career games against Indianapolis. But Fuller V, who is more of a straight-line speedster for the Texans, is the wild card here after an up-and-down rookie season and then missing the first three weeks of this season with a collarbone injury. He's made his catches count so far through four games this season, catching touchdowns on seven of his 13 receptions and hauling in two touchdowns in three of his four appearances, so now the task gets even tougher against this Houston offense — *if *Savage can get on the same page as his two talented receivers.6. Frank & Mack Attack Colts offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said this week that he believes his unit is starting to find the right balance in its 1-2 punch at running back, with veteran starter Frank Gore and rookie speedster Marlon Mack. Last week against the Bengals, Gore had his best outing of the season, running the ball 16 times for 82 yards (5.1 yards per carry), while Mack had 11 carries for 27 yards, but he also had a 24-yard touchdown reception. The key to their success, Chudzinski said, was the fact that the Colts were able to convert third downs — they had a 50-percent success rate (8-of-16) on the day — which allowed for a more well-rounded offensive attack. Now, the Texans are no slouches against the run, as they rank ninth in the league by allowing just 96.6 rushing yards per game, but with Gore's workhorse, straight-ahead style, and Mack's break-it-outside capabilities, the two are proving to be a tough matchup even against the best of defenses.7. Milestone Watch
Here are several milestones to look for on Sunday, courtesy of Colts PR:
• Cornerback Vontae Davis needs three passes defensed to reach 100 for his career.
• Running back Frank Gore, with a 100-yard rushing performance, would tied O.J. Simpson (42) for the 16th-most in NFL history; he needs one rushing touchdown to tie Tony Dorsett (77) for 21st, and two touchdowns to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 20th on the league's all-time list.
• Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton needs nine receptions to pass Bill Brooks (411) for the fifth most in franchise history.
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri needs to convert one field goal from 30-39 yards to tie John Carney (165) for the fourth-most made field goal from that distance in NFL history; he needs to convert one field goal from 50-plus yards to pass Josh Brown (37) for the eighth-most made field goals from that distance in league history; and he needs one point to pass Gary Anderson (2,434) for the second-most points in NFL history.
Colts @ Texans 2017 - PRACTICE 11/2