There’s much to ponder over the future of Texans’ defense

HOUSTON — As the Houston Texans‘ season abruptly and, to many in the locker room, shockingly ended with a 21-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday in NRG Stadium, much of the damage done in the team’s wild-card playoff exit could be traced to two big-ticket items.

The first was Colts quarterback Andrew Luck played every bit like a franchise quarterback, especially in the first half.

And the second was the fact Colts running back Marlon Mack did what no other back did this season against the Texans, including Mack himself in one previous try in 2018.

“We just dug a hole for ourselves. … Any time you dig a hole like that against a great quarterback it’s tough, in the playoffs it’s hard to come out of a hole like that,” Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson said. “The better team won today.”

In the end, the Colts piled up 422 yards against the Houston defense, went 9-of-14 on third down (that included 6-of-6 in the first half) and Indianapolis scored all three of its touchdowns over its first four possessions.

But it was Mack that may have bruised the Texans’ collective pride the most, and it will likely be Mack who has the team’s decision-makers shaking their heads a bit as they head into the offseason. That’s because Mack was the first running back this season to rush for at least 100 yards against the Texans’ defense as he finished with 148 yards on 24 carries to go with a touchdown as the Colts pounded out 200 yards rushing overall.

“Any time you rush for 200 yards you can pretty much do what you want as a playcaller,” Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “… We just couldn’t get off the field.”

And when all was said and done, the two defensive players the Texans had chosen for the Pro Bowl, defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, had combined for no sacks, one tackle for loss and had not forced a turnover. Couple that with the fact the Colts also stifled Jadeveon Clowney — no sacks, no quarterback hits, no tackles for loss — and Luck closed out the seventh game this season when he wasn’t sacked and the 12th game this season when he was sacked one or fewer times.

It was a significantly bitter pill for Watt, who just completed his eighth season and a highly productive return (16 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles) from the gruesome leg fracture that ended his 2017 season.

“I mean it sucks, I told the boys in there in sucks,” Watt said. “There’s no such thing as a moral victory. None of it really matters right now.”

For the Texans, it means they do face some high-profile decisions on defense as their cornerstone player — Watt, a two-tine defensive player of the year — turns 30 in March. Three of Saturday’s defensive starters will be unrestricted free agents this spring, led by Clowney, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Texans in the 2014 draft.

Clowney carried the team’s third-highest salary-cap figure this season at $12.306 million, behind only Watt and quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Jackson and long-snapper Jon Weeks are the longest-tenured Texans on the team’s current roster. The 30-year-old cornerback has started 124 regular-season and eight playoff games for the team in his nine seasons including Saturday’s, is an unrestricted free agent in March as is Mathieu.

Mathieu called the Texans “a good fit for me,” and said he hoped to return.

“I’d definitely love to be back,” said Jackson, who was Houston’s first-round pick in 2010. “I’ve built a lot here as far as off the field with my family, been in this organization for nine years. … It’s a great organization, I would definitely love to continue my career here, but at the end of the day that may not be in my control … [It’s] all about making the best decision for me and my family. But I would to be here for the duration of my career.”

If he’s back, he’ll want to be part of an improvement against the Colts.

In the previous meeting with the Texans this season — Mack did not play in the Week 4 game between the two teams — Mack had rushed for 33 yards on 14 carries. The Colts did it all Saturday with two rookie starters in the offensive line — left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith.

And until the wild-card loss, New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley‘s 82 yards rushing in Week 3 had been the most rushing yards the Texans had surrendered to a back all season. Overall, the Colts themselves had rushed for just 41 and 50 yards in the two previous meetings this season.

“It’s very frustrating when they’re able to execute and get their job done,” Watt said. “Obviously we have a couple big penalties early in the game as well, but you gotta overcome, you’ve got to find a way to win.”

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