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Thursday Night Football Preview: Better Luck Next Time

With Luck likely out for the Colts Thursday night, how will Indy fare against the Houston Texans?

On the Colts' side of the field in tonight's Thursday Night Football game, all eyes are on the quarterback position, as Matt Hasselbeck is expected to draw another start for the injured Andrew Luck.

And standing across from them will be the Houston Texans, who currently sit 1-3, yet could actually move into a tie for first place in the division with the Colts if they can beat them tonight.

Such is the state of affairs for the AFC South through the first quarter of the season.

So when these two teams meet on Thursday night, the question on everyone's mind will be whether the Colts can rediscover their luck in Houston, or if the Texans will instead two-step their way to the top of the division standings.

The Pre-Game Rundown

The biggest storyline for Thursday night's game revolves around Luck and his intensively scrutinized shoulder.

And the reason for this is obvious -- the team just isn't the same without their franchise quarterback taking snaps under center. When backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck played in his place this past Sunday, the Colts barely eked out a win against the Jaguars, requiring an Adam Vinatieri kick in overtime to put Jacksonville away and move to 2-2.

With the release of emergency quarterback Josh Johnson coinciding with reports that Luck was seen throwing passes in practice, there were some positive signs that Luck may be able to suit up for this contest. However, conflicting news released the same day saying the Colts' signal-caller may be suffering a partially separated shoulder began to cast some doubt as to how effective he might be against the Texans 12th-ranked pass defense, according to our metrics.

Indeed, Luck's shoulder injury may explain his lack of efficiency to start the year, with a 0.08 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back that pales in comparison to his 0.17 per attempt mark last season.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our signature metric here at numberFire. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation you receive a positive NEP, and a negative score when you do the opposite.

So, in other words, compared to last season, Luck is needing twice as many drop backs to produce the same number of points for the Colts.

Perhaps in an effort to let Luck's shoulder heal and regain his 2014 form, reports now suggest that, while Luck will test his shoulder out in pre-game warm ups, Hasselbeck is expected to draw a second straight start.

For all the hype and hoopla the Colts two highly-touted veteran additions generated this offseason, both Frank Gore and Andre Johnson have failed to make good on all the early excitement. Gore looks to be a shell of his former self, continuing the decline he saw in his last year in San Francisco. Gore recorded a below-average -0.06 Rushing NEP per attempt in 2014, and has now followed this up with a -0.09 mark through the first four games of this year.

For Johnson, his decline last season that led to his release from the Texans -- his Reception NEP per target of 0.38 in 2014 actually ranked him as the 86th out of 87 wideouts to receive at least 50 targets last season -- has gotten even worse this year, as he's recorded just seven catches for 51 yards on the season, failing to record a catch in the Colts last two wins. This has coincided with the rise of second-year man, Donte Moncrief, who currently sits second on the team with 35 targets, behind only T.Y. Hilton and his 41.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts have vastly underperformed, ranking 25th and 20th in efficiency against the pass and run, respectively, according to our advanced schedule-adjusted metrics. The return of number-two corner, Greg Toler, who has missed the first month of the season with a neck injury, should certainly help the secondary, but in turn the team may be losing Vontae Davis as he was spotted with his foot in a boot after Sunday's game.

While the short week may hamper the Colts' ability to field a roster at full strength, it may be something the Houston Texans will actually welcome after finding themslves on the wrong end of a 21-48 blowout against the Falcons. With eyes now turned to division rival Indy, the team is hoping to put last week's performance well behind them.

With the loss of Arian Foster early this season, the team has been forced into a pass-heavy game script to start the year. The team leads the league with 209 pass attempts and, unfortunately, when your two options at quarterback are Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, that is definitely not a good thing.

Houston's two quarterbacks have combined for a 52.7% completion rate and a -0.06 Passing NEP per drop back (the historical average for all quarterbacks since 2000 is 0.03 per attempt, if you're wondering), and with neither signal-caller doing anything to keep hold of the starting job, the Texans coaching staff will be forced to play the lesser of two evils.

The lone bright spot for the Texans offense has been wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who currently ranks fifth in the league in receiving with 409 yards through the first quarter of the season. However, this stat is a bit misleading; the king of garbage time so far, Hopkins has gained 71% of his receptions and yards when the team has been trailing, includign a whopping 39% of his receptions and 47% of his yardage in the fourth quarter.

Now, with Foster back at presumably full health, while some believe the team could try to implement a more balanced, ball control-style offense, the question is whether or not the team will have that luxury of doing so if they once again fall behind early.

Fortunately for the Texans, while this team isn't operating at the level they were last season -- when the team led the league in defensive efficiency according to our advanced metrics -- powered by All Pro defensive tackle J.J. Watt, Houston still boasts a top-half unit that ranks 12th against the pass, 16th against the run, and 13th overall. And if this team hopes to win any more games this season, with the state of the offense and their quarterback position, the defense will unfortunately need to step up and carry more than their fair share of the load.

The Texans' Game Script

The Texans haven't run much this season, first because its hard to run when you're in catch up mode, and second because, quite frankly, they haven't been very good at it. Houston as a team holds a Rushing NEP per attempt of just -0.07, which falls well below the historical average of -0.03 for all running backs since 2000.

That could all change if Foster is a full go this week, however. Last season, Foster averaged a stellar 0.03 Rushing NEP per play to rank as the ninth most efficient tailback last year, right alongside DeMarco Murray. Having Foster in the backfield to help move the chains with the ground game could take some much needed pressure off  the team's passing game and allow the team to fall back to its play-calling tendencies from last season that led to a winning record at 9-7 for them.

Indeed, the team's 1.95 pass-to-run ratio this season is a far cry the 0.93 ratio they held last year as the league's most run heavy team in the league.

However, even if the Texans find a way to call a less pass heavy script, Hopkins will likely see his usage remain roughly the same against the Colts. With Colts' top corner Davis potentially out or limited, Hopkins could take advantage of the Colts secondary for some big plays.

And with Cecil Shorts likely out due to a dislocated shoulder suffered in Week 4, Hopkins may be asked to shoulder an even bigger load in the passing game (if that's even possible). Someone's going to need to absorb the 9.8 targets per game Shorts has seen this season, and with Nate Washington also ruled out for this contest, Mallett (or Hoyer) could look Hopkins way even more.

If the Texans are forced into another pass heavy game script, look for fifth-round rookie wideout Keith Mumphery to soak up some of the targets that spillover from Hopkins as he could start opposite him in Shorts' absence.

The Colts' Game Script

Predicting how the Colts game script will go this game begins and ends with who will start at quarterback. And, unfortunately for the Colts, Hasselbeck is a big downgrade from Luck.

Hilton loves playing the Texans. In his six games against them, he's has averaged 5.8 receptions for 110 yards and one touchdown, including a 223 yard day in Houston just last season.

Unfortunately for Hilton, however, if Luck is unable to go, the team could once again utilize Hilton as nothing more than a quick outlet in the short passing game (he caught 7-of-13 targets last week, but his low average depth of target resulted in just 67 receiving yards on the day). And on that note, expect the Colts to dial up a number of dump off plays to Gore as well.

One player who may have a good game agnostic of quarterback could be Colts current number-two wideout Moncrief. With Johnathan Joseph likely shadowing Hilton, Moncrief could draw number two corner Kareem Jackson in coverage.

So far on the year, Moncrief has put up 23 receptions on 35 targets for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season, which would put him on pace for a 92-1,100-12 line for the year, and includes averages of 6 receptions for 76 yards and 0.7 touchdowns over the last three contests. Combine this with the fact that the Texans secondary has given up an average of 67 receiving yards and allowed two touchdowns to opposing teams' number-two wideouts over the last three weeks -- including a 6-103-1 line for Leonard Hankerson last weekand -- and you have a nice recipe for success for the Colts emerging sophomore receiver.

Two weeks ago, Luck and the Colts said they wanted to get the tight ends more involved. And last week the team did just that, relying heavily on Coby Fleener to move the chains, as evidenced by his 0.63 Reception NEP per target last week. And with Dwayne Allen on track to return this week, he and Fleener could give the Colts' quarterbacks a pair of big, reliable targets in the short game and down the seams.

Fantasy Football Implications

As we have just discussed, the fate of Indy's offense -- and the fantasy football values of all those involved -- lie almost entirely on Luck's status for this game.

And with Luck likely to sit out this contest, while the top three playmakers for the Colts -- Hilton, Gore, and Moncrief -- could still make decent starts with relatively high floors, expectations for upside should be severely tempered. Moncrief could be the safest bet given of this group due to his short, past history of success with Hasselbeck (he caught 6 for 75 yards last week with Hasselbeck under center) and, as mentioned earlier, with the recent vulnerability of the Texans' defense to number two wideouts.

At the tight end position, if Allen is active for this game, he and Fleener could eat into each other's targets and production just enough to render each other irrelevant. 

The Texans are learning the hard way that they're not built to win as a passing team. With stud tailback Foster back in the fold, expect the team to lean on him heavily both in the run game, and if this team falls behind in the score, in the hurry up offense catching passes out of the backfield. Last season, the Texans lead back averaged 23 touches and 4.5 targets per game. With Foster leaving last week's season debut no worse for wear, and as the team looks to establish the run and keep Indy's offense off the field, expect Foster's workload to continue to trend closer to his 2014 numbers.

The number one, two, and three option in the Texans passing game, Hopkins is once again a must start. Beyond his 15.3 targets per game -- which leads the league by a full 2.3 targets over number two Julio Jones -- Hopkins gets an even bigger boost with Davis hobbled by a foot injury.

Unfortunately, with Mallett and Hoyer playing musical chairs with the starting quarterback job, it'll be hard to trust any other options in this passing offense for fantasy purposes.

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