HOUSTON — A simple truth is staring the Houston Texans in the face this week.
To secure the franchise’s fourth playoff win, the Texans have to do something — anything — to keep Andrew Luck from turning their postseason into a one-and-done affair on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Very smart, tough guy,” said Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. “… He never quits, never thinks the play’s over. Just a great player.”
Luck has certainly put himself on the inside lane for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award with 4,593 yards passing and 39 touchdowns in his return from almost two years’ worth of shoulder troubles, and a big chunk of that production came at the Texans’ expense.
Though Houston has rushed Luck better than most, he had his two highest single-game totals of the season against the Texans — 464 yards passing and four touchdowns on Sept. 30 and 399 yards and two touchdowns on Dec. 9.
Despite two rookies on the offensive line (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith), the Colts have surrendered just 18 sacks this season and were the first team since 2010 to not surrender a sack in five consecutive games. Luck had 11 games this season when he was sacked one or fewer times.
“I would just tell you they’re good,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien. “I think when you look at their offensive line with [tackle Anthony] Castonzo and Quenton — I’ve known Quenton, I recruited him at Penn State, [center] Ryan Kelly. They’ve got guys that are very athletic, very strong — very good offensive line that plays well together. So, it’s a big challenge for us.”
It puts the Texans in a quandary. They sacked Luck six times in the regular season — a third of the 18 sacks the Colts surrendered this season — but those sacks didn’t stop Luck from doing damage. The Texans survived Luck’s four-touchdown day in a Week 4 overtime win (37-34 in Indianapolis), but Luck powered the Colts to a 24-21 win Dec. 9 in Houston.
In the end, the Texans believe slowing Luck will require pressure in the middle of the formation — over Kelly, Nelson and right guard Mark Glowinski, who started nine games after Matt Slauson went to injured reserve.
“Well, I think we just got to do a better job on the back end, really ID’ing the coverages, ID’ing their players, then from there, everybody playing their technique, doing their jobs, getting pressure on him,” said Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu. “I think he’s a great quarterback, but I think if he struggles with anything, I think it’s when guys are in his face. I think he can make some poor decisions, but he’s a great quarterback, he’s a great talent. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
O’Brien said this week that he sees a better version of Luck post-injury — Luck missed the 2017 season after extended shoulder troubles, including surgery to repair a torn labrum. When asked this week if Luck is a different player after his recovery from surgery, O’Brien pointed to Luck’s physical health right now as well as the added experience.
“I see the same guy,” O’Brien said. “In fact, in some of the things he’s doing, he’s probably even better just from his experience. He’s got more experience now and he plays the game very calmly. He understands how to play the game with poise, get it to the right guys and does a great job.”
For the Texans, Luck’s ability to get the ball to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who led the Colts in both targets (120), receptions (76) and receiving yards (1,270) this season, has been especially troublesome. Of Hilton’s five 100-yard games this season, two have come against the Texans, including a nine-catch, 199-yard effort in the Colts’ win in December.
Also, in Frank Reich’s first season as Colts head coach, most in the league believes Luck has been quicker to get the ball out of his hands in the passing game.
“Well, they do some different things,” O’Brien said. “I think there are some schemes where, yeah, the ball’s coming out a little quicker. Then, other schemes where there’s a little bit more protection and not as many guys in the route where the ball can be held a little bit longer. They mix and match. Frank does a great job. It’s hard to get a bead on what Frank’s doing. He’s a really good playcaller, and they kind of do it all. They run screens, max-protect, throw it down the field, quick game, run the ball, run the ball with a bunch of different schemes — pull schemes, trap schemes, zone schemes. They basically do it all.”