The Colts have a major challenge on Sunday night: Keeping the Texans and defensive end J.J. Watt away from franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
Watt, the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, sacked Luck three times in Houston's win over the Colts last December. In two games against the Texans last season, Luck was sacked six times.
This season, Watt has 4½ sacks. He needs a half-sack to set the franchise record for most sacks by a Texans player in his first three seasons.
"He's got the physical attributes and the strength and speed," Luck said. "His motor runs all the time. He's chasing guys down 30 yards away. He's making plays everywhere."
Watt does the dirty work, too, taking on extra blockers and still making plays against the run. Watt has 54 tackles this season, including 12 for a loss.
"He has a great combination of power, speed and determination to wreak havoc in your backfield," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "He's not just a good pass rusher, but he's hell to deal with as far as trying to run the football. He takes on double teams, he splits double teams. He finds ways to get into your backfield and disrupt your run game. "
Watt anchors a unit that ranks No. 1 in both total defense and fewest passing yards allowed. The Colts expect to face a tough unit, even though linebacker Brian Cushing, the team's leading tackler, is on injured reserve (left knee).
"You look at the film, and it's obvious you're facing one of the best defenses in the NFL," Hamilton said. "I don't know if they have a weakness."
Hamilton said his staff is putting in extra time trying to figure out how to keep Watt's damage to a minimum.
"Of course, we'll have some schemes to account for J.J.," Hamilton said. "That's good on paper, but we've got to go out on the field and execute on game day."
Houston coach Gary Kubiak said Watt expects the extra attention. After all, Watt had a franchise record 20½ sacks last season, one of the best seasons for a pass rusher in NFL history.
"Naturally, as the guy plays and the longer he plays, especially you play him over and over again in your division, people are going to game-plan him and do different things to account for him," Kubiak said. "So yeah, he's seen a lot of different things."
Kubiak added Watt has become more comfortable in Wade Phillips' defense.
"He's been consistent, he's still making his plays," Kubiak said. "We haven't made some of the big plays defensively that we were making a year ago, and that's something that we're searching for."
As good as Watt is, he also has a difficult task. Watt will have to get through a Colts line that has kept Luck on his feet for the most part. The Colts went into the offseason focused on improving Luck's protection, and Hamilton said the revamped unit has done a solid job. Luck has been sacked 15 times in seven games.
"Our offensive line, considering that we've had to shuffle and juggle that lineup quite a bit, those guys are continuing to build that continuity that they're going to need for the long haul," Hamilton said.
Luck also is one of the league's most athletic quarterbacks. He has rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns. His elusiveness has given his speedy receivers, especially T.Y. Hilton, more chances to make big plays.
Luck will face one of his toughest challenges yet against the Texans, and not just from Watt. Antonio Smith, who made the Pro Bowl last year, has 2½ sacks from the other defensive end spot, and a reputation for creating problems for offenses.
"Them guys there, they're some head-bangers, and they're athletic," Colts running back Trent Richardson said. "They're doing everything they can to rush the passer. Especially in the passing game, you've got to mind your Ps and Qs."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org