The Texans (2-9) host the Colts (6-6) on Sunday at NRG Stadium. The AFC South foes last met in a Week 6 tussle in Lucas Oil Stadium, with Indianapolis coming out on top. Houston's coming off a 21-14 defeat at the hands of the Jets, while the Colts dropped a 38-31 decision to the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at noon CT.
1) O-line shuffling – The Texans saw OL Tytus Howard get his first career start at left tackle last Sunday, and by all accounts, it was a solid debut at the spot. He'd spent the rest of this season as the starting left guard and was the team's right tackle the two seasons prior.
Getting the opportunity to protect the blindside was a welcome challenge for Howard. Now, he wants to build on it and get better.
"It felt pretty good," Howard said. "It's good to get a chance to get back out there on the edge and play. I felt like it was a pretty good first game for me and a lot to learn from. The only job is to get better and move forward."
Justin Britt, meanwhile, will likely be back from a knee injury and will probably be back in his starting center spot for the first time since Week 7. Having the 8-year veteran back in the fold and snapping the ball to QB Tyrod Taylor is a welcome sight, according to OL Charlie Heck.
"We've been doing some rotating around," Heck said. "It's been good to get Justin Britt back out there. He kind of brings a consistency to the O-line, having that veteran in the middle there. That's been great for us this week."
2) Revive the run – The last time the Texans gained 100 rushing yards or more in a game was at Indianapolis in Week 6. Before that, the only other time was in the Week 1 home victory over the Jaguars. Different backs have carried the load, and they've had multiple starting offensive line combos, but Houston's still averaging 3.2 yards per carry.
Head Coach David Culley explained the struggles can't be blamed solely on the line or the running backs.
"It has something to do with everybody on the offense," Culley said. "The line, when the backs aren't always hitting the right hole, we aren't always making the right calls. It's a combination of things. It's not who is running the ball. It's how we are all executing it when we are out there running those plays."
The Colts gave up 147 rushing yards to Tampa Bay last Sunday and 179 yards to Jacksonville in Week 10. They want to get better up front defensively. DL DeForest Buckner, who is questionable for Sunday because of knee and foot injuries, remembers the mild success Houston had on the ground in October.
"The last time we played the Texans, they rushed for like what, 124 yards on us," Buckner said. "We know they're going to go with the ground game again, especially with Tyrod. We've got to tighten that stuff up."
3) Plus three...at least – The only two times the Texans have been victorious this season, they've been plus-3 or better in turnover differential. That's a tall order to expect. Houston currently has two more takeaways (20 total) than turnovers (18 total) in 2021, and they're 12th in the NFL in the Turnover Differential stat. They've only had a negative turnover differential in three games this year. They've been equal to their opponent in turnover differential in four other contests. They're 0-7 in those games.
When they've taken the ball away more than their opponent, they're 2-2, but the two victories came when they were plus-3 versus Jacksonville and plus-5 at Tennessee.
It'll be tough to make that happen against Indianapolis, as the Colts lead the NFL with a plus-12 turnover differential. Nobody has more than their 27 takeaways this season, but they're tied for 14th in the NFL with 15 turnovers.
"You've got to make sure you take care of the ball, more so because this team right here, whether it's causing a fumble or getting a takeaway in the pass game, they've been as good as anybody in the league this year," Culley said. "As a matter of fact, they're the best in the league right now in doing that."
The Texans defense has picked off a pass in three straight games, and Houston has 11 combined takeaways the last three weeks. Two have come via special teams, with the other nine courtesy of the defense. Culley explained why the defense has been able to get the ball back.
"They come when you're playing team defense," Culley said. "They're created by you doing what you should be doing defensively, and being in your position and doing your job. When a quarterback makes a mistake, especially when you're in zone coverage the way we have been a bunch, then those things happen."
4) Tame Taylor – Jonathan Taylor is on fire. The Colts running back has run for 100 yards or more in five of the last seven games, with 12 touchdown runs in that span. On the season, he's averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has caught 36 passes for an average of 9.3 yards per reception.
In the Week 6 loss, Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith saw his Texans allow 145 rushing yards to Taylor on just 14 carries, and he also caught a pass for 13 yards. This time around, Smith said the Texans defense must be "gap sound" and have multiple defenders flowing to the ball when he gets it.
"He has everything you are looking for in a great running back when you have a commitment to the run like they do," Smith said. "He has size. He has great vision in the hole. He can run in between the tackles. He's as fast as anybody on the field. I know he was a track star in high school. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, so every-down back that can do it all. It's a big challenge."
Taylor scored twice when the Colts beat Houston in October. Rookie DL Roy Lopez described who Taylor is and echoed Smith's instructions on how to limit Taylor's damage.
"He's a powerful runner with top-end speed that can change direction and everything," Lopez said. "We've just got to be gap-sound. You've got to take control of your gap and lean on each other and do your part. Be one of the 11 on the defense and make sure you've got your gap and make the play when it comes to you."
5) Look out for Leonard – Colts LB Darius Leonard is in his fourth NFL season. He was a Pro Bowler in each of his first three and twice an All-Pro selection. He rarely comes off the field. He's forced five fumbles in 2021, broken up six passes, picked off two more and is seven tackles shy of cracking the century mark in a season for the fourth straight year.
Against the Texans in October, he picked off a pass and forced a fumble, and was a big reason the Colts coasted to a convincing win. All-time versus Houston, Leonard has forced a trio of fumbles intercepted one other pass, and logged a combined 47 tackles in seven career games.
"You've got to know where No. 53 is, Leonard," OL Charlie Heck said. "They really focus on getting the ball, and they're really good at that. So, they're an impressive unit upfront. It's going to be a good test for us."
Catch the game on December 5 at NRG Stadium.Kickoff is set for noon CT. Click here for tickets.