Andrew Luck has been sacked 32 times this year. The Houston Texans don't plan to wait for an invitation to join that party.
There's never a single facet of an NFL game that determines the outcome. That's why Luck – and thousands of players and coaches before him – call it the greatest team game. But …
If the Colts don't protect Luck and Luck doesn't protect himself and the ball, the Colts' trip to Houston on Sunday will look like some other road trips. Needless to say, the Colts don't want to add this to the Chicago, New York and New England collection.
“It's a concern every week,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “You've got premier guys, not one but two. Their outside guys are good, too, so anytime you go on the road and you're getting in a noise environment, protection is critical, as is communication in the running game. This is an excellent front, and they pose as much or a bigger problem than Detroit.”
The Lions, you may remember, intercepted Luck three times and sacked him twice. The Colts pulled out the win 35-33 with a last-minute drive and Luck touchdown pass to Donnie Avery.
Luck is tied with Saints quarterback Drew Brees for the most interceptions with 18, and only three quarterbacks have been sacked more times: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (42), Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (38) and San Diego's Philip Rivers (37).
Luck remains well aware of his troubles under pressure on the road. He has 13 of his 18 interceptions on the road, although the sacks have been relatively non-location specific: 14 in six road games, 18 in seven home games.
He's learning, and with Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (NFL-best 16.5 sacks), linebacker Whitney Mercilus (six sacks) and defensive end Antonio Smith (five sacks) giving chase Sunday, he'll need to make full use of past lessons.
Luck sounds like a guy who keeps improving in his recognition of the urgency of the right pass or the right scramble at the right time.
“One, understand your reads and, if guys aren't there, know where your No.2 guy is, know where your No.3 guy is,” Luck said. “Make sure you go through your reads in a timely manner and try to feel the pocket as best as possible.”
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo will like this next part:
“If you're stepping left,” Luck said, “make sure you're stepping left for a reason. Don't step left to put the left tackle in a bind. It'll be a fun challenge for the guys up front and us as an offense.”
The game, of course, has playoff-race implications. The Colts (9-4) can clinch a playoff berth with a win and remain in position to challenge the Texans (11-2) for the AFC South Division crown.
Houston is coming off an embarrassing loss at New England and will be itching to reclaim its spot as a true contender in the AFC race. The Texans were burned by the Patriots offense's ability to set up Tom Brady's passing game by using a strong running game.
While Colts running back Vick Ballard had his best game last week against Tennessee (19 carries, 94 yards), the rest of the backfield was hurt. The Colts signed Mewelde Moore and Deji Karim to bolster the running game.
Arians says it will be necessary for the Colts to establish a running game to take some of the heat off Luck. Brady was able to burn the Texans' secondary after the Patriots set up the play-action passing game with their ground attack. Houston's secondary is not as strong as its front line.
The Colts have been running the football better in second halves, including last week's game at Tennessee when they had to come from behind for the win.
“(We're) trying to stay away from being one-dimensional, because you're starting to get a lot of pass rush (in the second half), people thinking you're not going to run it,” Arians said. “And I think we just block better.”
The running game has also been pivotal in the Colts' five straight touchdowns in the red zone.
“I just think guys are more comfortable with the offense now,” Ballard said. “There are small things in the playbook. You don't notice them at first, but we're all picking up where players should be, learning our positions better.”
The Colts defense will have another tough challenge in defending running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, two players who have caused them grief over the years.
“We've faced a lot of great backs this year and we've shut a lot of guys down,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said. “Last week was another. Like I said, do your job. Set the edge, get up the field and pursue the ball, having not one but seven, eight, nine, 10 guys to the ball. Every week, it's stop the run, first and foremost.”
While there will be pressure on the defense, the Colts' road successes and failures have largely rested on Luck and the offense.
The Colts' win at Detroit, coming back late from two scores down, was a positive step two weeks ago.
Houston is a bigger deal than Detroit. The AFC South is on the line. The Texans got toasted by the Patriots on Monday night. They'll want to take it out on the Colts.
The Colts can turn this division race upside down with an upset win. It'll rest in large part on whether Luck stays upright.