The Texans (4-7) welcome the Colts (7-4) to town this Sunday for a Week 13 showdown. It's the first meeting of the AFC South rivals in 2020, and here are five things to watch when they kick off at Noon CT inside NRG Stadium. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Less Fuller house – Losing receiver Will Fuller V (and cornerback Bradley Roby, who we'll discuss later in this article) is a major setback. The fifth-year pass-catcher is suspended for the rest of 2020, a season in which he caught eight touchdowns in 11 games, averaged 16.6 yards per catch, and tallied five games with 100 receiving yards or more.
He was on pace for nearly 1,300 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns on the year, and even though he's gone, quarterback Deshaun Watson said the offense can't backslide.
"For the passing game, we're just going to continue to do what we do," Watson said. "The mentality and the standards are going to stay the same. For me, just find the open guy and keep pushing."
Luckily, the Texans have Brandin Cooks in the fold. In his first season as a Texan, the veteran receiver's caught 52 passes for 719 yards. 12 of those catches have been for 20 yards or more. Cooks leads the team, and is fifth in the AFC in that category.
Cooks said Fuller will "definitely be missed", but he also had a message for the rest of the receivers group.
"The biggest thing I told the other guys that's stepping in is just be who you are," Cooks said. "Have that confidence, practice hard and typically that leads over to the game. Don't try to do anything out of the ordinary, just do your job the best way that you can and let everything else take care of itself."
The importance of Keke Coutee is also magnified, and the Texans might also use Steven Mitchell, Isaiah Coulter and/or some of the practice squad receivers.
Regardless, the Colts say the Texans will still operate with the same mindset.
"I'm sure they think just like we think, it's got to be the next man up and you have high expectations of the guy coming in," Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. "You lose a valuable player like Fuller, a guy who's been a playmaker and he's playing really good football. You certainly lose that contribution, but you have a lot of confidence in the next guy up."
The last time Fuller faced the Colts, he caught seven passes for 140 yards in the Texans' Week 12 win at NRG Stadium.
2) Pair of Johnsons – Outside of the wide receivers, the Texans have a quartet of tight ends they can throw to, as well as their veteran running back duo. David Johnson's been on injured reserve, but he practiced this week and should be available to play on Sunday. How he's used with Duke Johnson, who's started in David Johnson's absence, gives the Texans offense more options as far as alignments and ball distribution.
Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said David Johnson's looked "great", and that the Texans are looking "forward to working him back into the mix." Before he was injured in Week 9 at Jacksonville, Johnson was averaging 4 yards per carry, and 10.1 yards per catch. He touched the ball an average of just under 15 times per game.
Duke Johnson, meanwhile, enjoyed his best performance of the season in the win at Detroit. He caught his first touchdown of the season, and ran nine times for 37 yards in the victory.
His scoring catch at Detroit was a 33-yarder from Watson, and it was a reminder of just how effective he can be going deeper as a receiver.
"He has the ability to make some tough catches down the field because that one that he made down the field was an unbelievable catch," interim head coach Romeo Crennel said.
Running back C.J. Prosise, who caught a touchdown against the Lions, won't play Sunday because of a non-COVID-19 stomach illness.
3) Speaking of Deshaun… - Deshaun Watson continues to shine in what's been a tough autumn thusfar. When the dust settled on the Thanksgiving Day romp over the Lions, Watson had tossed four touchdowns and completed 68 percent of his passes.
On the year, he leads the NFL in passing yards per attempt at 8.82, and he's second in the League with 46 completions of 20 yards or more. He remains willing and able to go deep successfully, but his judiciousness in spreading the ball around has been a driving force behind his improvement.
"There's not one guy that I'm just trying to target," Watson said. "It's all the guys. I'm just being that quarterback and that surgeon back there just finding what the defense is trying to give and taking that and keeping the chains moving."
The Colts' Justin Houston, who's sacked the quarterback 94 times in 10 NFL seasons, has 4.5 this year. He pointed to an underrated aspect of Watson's game as another reason the young quarterback is so successful: his strength.
"When you get to him, you have to get him down to the ground," Houston said. "You see plenty of times that he breaks several tackles. I think he's one of the hardest quarterbacks to get a sack off of just because of his power. He doesn't look as strong as he is, but he's very strong and he knows how to move in the pocket well."
Watson's been dropped for a sack 28 times this season, after being sacked 62 times in 2018, and 44 times last season. That strength has been helpful in avoiding sacks in 2020, as has his willingness to get rid of the ball a bit quicker than in years past. But Watson said the credit goes to the big guys up front.
"That's just the o-line," Watson said. "Those guys are having a hell of a season, so I give all that to the o-line and the chemistry and the communication and the film study they've been doing, and keeping me upright and everything."
Watson's also been picked off just five times this season, and hasn't thrown an interception since the Week 5 win over the Jaguars in Houston.
4) Defense without Roby – Losing Roby for the season hurts. However, the Texans were able to get a win earlier this season at Jacksonville without the cornerback, who stayed back in Houston. Defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver acknowledged how good a player Roby is, but also explained how his absence affects the defense.
"Nothing changes," Weaver said. "The expectations don't change. We're just going to do everything we can, and the next man has to step up to go out there to try to get a win."
Keion Crossen, who leads the team with 11 special teams tackles, might see more time this week at cornerback, along with Phillip Gaines. Regardless of who plays in place of Roby, safety Justin Reid described the collective effort necessary.
"Roby is one of our best man coverage players but there's going to be an opportunity for Keion or Phil or whoever else may be in out there on the field to step up and take some of that effort," Reid said. "It's not going to be something that's going to be replaced by one guy. It's going to be split between those responsibilities between all the DB's in the backfield. We're going to make the most out of it."
5) Rivers is for real – That defensive backfield, and the defense as a whole, gets a mighty test in the form of Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers. After 16 years with the Chargers, Rivers is enjoying a fine season in Indianapolis. He's completed better than 67 percent of his passes for 2,978 yards, with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Defensive end J.J. Watt has seen something a bit different in Rivers this year as opposed to last, when the Texans beat the Chargers in Los Angeles in Week 3.
"He's getting the ball out of his hands extremely fast," Watt said. "He knows exactly where his guys are. He knows how to get it out of his hands when he's got pressure. Obviously, they have schemes and setups where he can get the ball out of his hands fast."
On top of the quicker distribution, Reich also said Rivers has another luxury or two with the Colts that he didn't last year.
"We're good up front," Reich said. "We have a very good offensive line. We haven't run the ball at the same level that we have the last two years, but we've run it well enough and our protection has continued to be top notch in the league."
Rivers has played in NRG Stadium twice, and he won both times.