When Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck began his film study in advance of the Colts’ AFC South Division showdown with the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday, he instinctively sensed someone was missing on the Texans defense.
The fifth-year pro usually must account on every play for No. 99, defensive end J.J. Watt. But the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is on injured reserve with a back injury. Luck conceded it’s odd not seeing Watt.
“Yeah, it’s a little (weird) for the first couple of minutes,” Luck said on Wednesday, “and then you realize, ‘OK, it’s a little bit different because he’s not there and he is such a premier player,’ (but) there are a bunch of premier players on that defense.”
One reality leads to another about the Texans’ fifth-ranked defense.
“Vince Wilfork in the middle has been doing it for a long, long time,” Luck said of the 13-year nose tackle. “What a great opportunity for (our) rookie center, Ryan Kelly, I know he is really excited. A lot of premier players on that team.”
Whereas Luck and Watt are the faces of their franchises, Sunday’s game will mark the third consecutive time one of the Pro Bowl stars has been sidelined. Luck missed both games last season because of injuries. The Texans (3-2) enter with a one-game division lead on the Colts (2-3) and Tennessee Titans (2-3).
Luck has won five consecutive games against the Texans after losing his first as a rookie at Houston, where he played his high school football. That he hasn’t completed 60 percent of his passes in any of those starts can be attributed largely to Watt, who has sacked the Colts quarterback 8 times, forced 1 fumble and returned another fumble 45 yards for a touchdown.
“He is a great, great player,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of Watt, “but they have a lot of great players. They sack the quarterback at a high rate, I think they have 13 (sacks). (Jadeveon) Clowney is playing at a level that is as good as any defensive lineman that we have seen right now in the National Football League. He is a game wrecker. (Whitney) Mercilus is a game wrecker. (No.) 75, big Vince in the middle is unblockable. (Linebacker John) Simon, a guy that probably nobody has heard of, 51, on the outside is a heck of a player. The two inside backers, (Benardrick) McKinney and (Brian) Cushing do a great job.
“The backend does a great job; they are tied together and communicate well. Like I said, they are suffocating and very, very stingy in a lot of areas. They make it very, very difficult to move the football and chains and to matriculate the ball down the field. They miss him, anybody would miss J.J. Watt, but when one guy goes down it’s next man up. All those guys have raised the bar and raised their level of play.”
Despite Luck taking 16 sacks in the Texans games, he’s also thrown 14 touchdown passes with just 3 interceptions. His passing-yard average against the Texans is 230.8, well below his 271.8 overall average in 60 NFL starts.
Luck has taken a league-high 20 sacks this season, which seems like an opportunity for Mercilus, who has 3.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits, and Clowney, who has 2 sacks and 6 quarterback hits. Clowney, the 2014 No. 1 overall selection, leads the league with 8 tackles for loss.
Clowney isn’t just an outside linebacker who can play defensive end. He’s assumed Watt’s role as a versatile defender capable of lining up anywhere.
“We play him in a lot of different places,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said. “We’ve got him off the edge, we’ve got him inside, we’ve got him over the center, we’ve got him at linebacker spots, he’s moving around a lot. He doesn’t just play from tackle to tackle, so he’s moving around quite a bit.”
Before Watt arrived, the Texans had never finished higher than 13th in total defense. They jumped to second in his rookie year and have been seventh or better in three of the past four years, including third last season.
Since Watt was selected by the Texans with the 11th overall choice in 2011 and Luck arrived in Indianapolis a year later as the No. 1 overall pick, they’ve played integral roles in division domination. Either the Texans or Colts have claimed the division each time, the Texans winning three years, including last season, and the Colts prevailing twice.
“A must-win game,” Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “We know what it takes. They’re the defending champs in the division. We’ve got to go get a crown back.”