NFL Nation: Case Keenum

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This morning's agenda at the NFL meetings included a media breakfast for the AFC coaches. I sat in on Bill O'Brien's hour with local and national media in which he discussed a lot of things but mostly the draft.

I'll get a little more in depth on what he talked about later, but first a few nuggets:
  • O'Brien, general manager Rick Smith and quarterbacks coach George Godsey will all be at Johnny Manziel's Pro Day on Thursday. This is separate from Texas A&M's Pro Day, one O'Brien called his "Johnny Day." While O'Brien likes having private workouts with quarterback prospects, when I asked if he has one with Manziel he said he doesn't think so.

  • Despite all the talk about what a bad Pro Day Teddy Bridgewater had, O'Brien thought he had "a decent day." He liked seeing the work Bridgewater had done to improve footwork and mechanics.

  • He'll meet several times with various prospects and what he's looking for from meeting to meeting is improvement. Did the guy learn something in the time between?

  • The plan right now is to take backup quarterbacks Case Keenum and T.J. Yates to training camp.

  • Asked about Jadeveon Clowney's work ethic, O'Brien said what's important is how he plays when it counts. "When the game's on the line, Jadeveon plays hard."

  • O'Brien loves watching J.J. Watt on film.

  • He values the ability to think quickly in a quarterback. O'Brien will ask for a lot of pre-snap decision-making.

  • Derek Carr's brother will have no impact on the Texans' evaluation of Derek Carr. "When we're thinking about a player, we're thinking about that individual player." The expansion Texans selected David Carr with the top overall pick of the 2002 draft and lasted five seasons before being waived.

    - O'Brien had dinner with Bills coach Doug Marrone last night. They laughed about how far they'd come together since their days at the bottom of Georgia Tech's totem pole. "We were laughing about, can you believe this?"
You knew when the Houston Texans signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a capable veteran who started last season in Tennessee.

But really, you knew long before that.

As soon as Matt Schaub threw his last pass of the season -- his last interception of the season -- the end to his story in Houston was written. The Matt Schaub era, once brimming with the promise of a fresh, young franchise hoping to establish itself, had ended.

There was just too much baggage between the Texans and Matt Schaub. It was time.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Matt Schaub signed a four-year extension worth $62 million in 2012, but was unable to keep his starting job with the Texans.
This morning, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported that the Texans are expected to trade Schaub to the Raiders for a late-round pick in this year's draft. The Schaub era ended with 46 wins and 42 losses, 124 touchdown passes and 78 interceptions that included a haunting streak of picks that were returned for touchdowns -- a pick-six in an NFL record four consecutive games. His arm strength showed signs of having weakened at that point, and the psychological impact of those plays was clear. You could see it in the way he pounded his fists on the grass after one pick-six, you could see it in the slump in his shoulders as bad turned to worse in inexplicable fashion. There was no reason to expect the issues Schaub had last season, and yet there they were.

Just two years ago, the Texans anointed Schaub with a four-year extension worth $62 million with $24.75 million guaranteed. The deal became final the day before the 2012 season began and preceded an 11-1 start that made the Texans the hottest team in the NFL for a while.

Schaub was coming off a 2011 season during which he had his lowest completion percentage as a Texan, but he also helped lead the Texans to their first of two division titles. He missed the 2011 playoff run after fracturing his foot but returned healthy enough to inspire the organization's confidence.

When the problems began, things got ugly.

There were cheers at Reliant Stadium as Schaub lay on the grass when he suffered an ankle injury against the St. Louis Rams, the injury that ultimately led to Case Keenum replacing him as the starter. A grocery store near Schaub's neighborhood made a Halloween cake in the shape of a gravestone, marking the death of Schaub's arm. One photo circulated of a car in Houston with a mannequin in a No. 8 jersey protruding out of the trunk, meant to look like Schaub's body stuffed in the back. And, in one of the more bizarre stories from last season, Schaub's family reported trespassers to the police in an incident that was initially reported by a local radio station as having involved angry fans.

The most damning result of the ugliness came on the field the next time the Texans dared play Schaub at home. The boos got so loud the home team had to go to a silent count. His teammates were furious, not just at the tactical disadvantage they faced, but also at the way a man they still respected and liked was being treated.

Schaub, who closed his Twitter account during the season, tried his best to seem unaffected. But he wasn't fooling anybody.

And so, it had to be done.

In the past few weeks, we've talked a lot about the Texans' options at quarterback and whether or not they could find someone better than Schaub. That depends entirely on your definition of better. If you're looking purely at ability and statistics, Schaub was comparable to the quarterbacks who were options for the Texans, including Fitzpatrick. But unemotional analysis isn't enough in this situation.

The Texans are taking Schaub's $10 million salary and roster bonuses off the books for 2014, but will only gain about $4 million in cap space.

What they'll really gain is a much needed fresh start.
Six months ago, many of us thought there was a decent chance the Texans would be preparing for the first Super Bowl in franchise history this week.

Instead, we continue to discuss what they might do with the top pick a little more than three months from now.

Let's get to it.

A few days ago a reader posed this question to me:

It's a reasonable thing to ask, and I promised an answer in a blog post. (As an aside, I'll do this more frequently during the offseason. Thoughtful questions that require more than 140-character responses might get posts.)

When Texans owner Bob McNair fired former head coach Gary Kubiak, part of his decision was influenced by Kubiak's seeming indecision with his quarterbacks.

The night before being fired, Kubiak had pulled Keenum from the Texans' loss in Jacksonville to try and win with Matt Schaub. It was the second time Kubiak had pulled Keenum during a game after declaring the first-year player his starter. Keenum had struggled in both of those games and wasn't seeming to get better, but Kubiak's waffling only seemed to make things worse. Upon firing Kubiak, McNair declared that Wade Phillips would be interim head coach and Keenum would start the rest of the season.

"We need to find out whether Case is capable of being a starter or whether he's capable of being a backup," McNair said that day. "And the way you find that out is by playing him."

What McNair saw in the next game, before a thumb injury ended his season, was a quarterback who had trouble adjusting to pressure and who tried to use his legs to get out of trouble far too often. Sure, when his improvisation succeeded the results were impressive, but those times were the exception. It wasn't that Keenum didn't know what to do. Both he and Phillips said he did. Keenum just didn't react in the ways he knew he should. He made the wrong decision repeatedly.

Keenum
Keenum
In my post about the Texans' offensive line, I noted that Keenum averaged about 3.7 seconds from snap to sack, which is a decent amount of time. One commenter suggested that time was because Keenum bought time for himself while under pressure. The problem is, if you're buying time and then getting sacked anyway, that's not good either. It's part of why he led the NFL in yards lost per sack last season, losing an average of 10.58 yards per sack.

Maybe Keenum stopped trusting himself. Maybe with the right coaches and a competition, he'll recover and improve. Sometimes a quarterback improves later in his career, though few are given the chance for that kind of growth these days.

The problem is you don't know. He's not there yet, at the point where he has established himself as a capable starting NFL quarterback. Sure, there would be unknowns with a drafted rookie, too. But in that case, the same thing that worked for Keenum in October could go against him now. The less a quarterback has had a chance to show, the greater his potential upside.
HOUSTON -- He suffered the sprained thumb during one of the four times the Indianapolis Colts sacked him. Texans quarterback Case Keenum isn't exactly sure when or how it happened, but he knows he finished the Dec. 15 game with his thumb not feeling right.

Keenum
Keenum
After missing one game, Keenum was back on the practice field on Thursday, able to grip and throw the ball again.

"I'm preparing to start," Keenum said. "I feel good. I'm ready to go. I just got through with some treatment. I want to win. That's my mindset."

In the grand scheme of this season, winning doesn't do a lot for you. But it's a good attitude for Keenum to have. The desire to win and stay motivated even when nothing can be gained from that is a good thing and will be part of how he's evaluated.

"I love playing," Keenum said. "I love competing. And I love winning. We all do. I have to give my team a better chance to win."

It's not something that would matter for everyone, but with a young player like Keenum, whose development is still in its early stages, attitude matters. It will matter for a few dozen other players on the roster.

Players like rookie Lestar Jean, whose rookie contract is up at the end of this year, cornerback Elbert Mack, who was signed to the active roster on Oct. 16, and linebacker Mike Mohamed, who has played in seven games, mostly on special teams.

Whether they're back with the Texans next season or not, they'll be evaluated in part on how they play Sunday.

Graham out for finale, Keenum possible

December, 26, 2013
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HOUSTON -- Tight end Garrett Graham missed the past two games with a hamstring injury and Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips isn't expecting him to play this weekend in Nashville.

Keenum
Keenum
Quarterback Case Keenum, meanwhile, was able to grip and throw the football on Thursday. Keenum sprained his thumb in Indianapolis and suffered ligament damage, which kept him out of this past Sunday's game. Matt Schaub started in his place, and the Texans lost 37-13.

Phillips said if Keenum is healthy, he will start. Part of figuring out if he's healthy enough will lie in examining how he feels tomorrow after taking his normal Thursday reps today.

"He looked okay," offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "Missed some throws, but he looked okay. We'll let it rest at that. See how he responds."

Phillips is also pessimistic about the fate of running back Dennis Johnson, who made his first career start last weekend against the Denver Broncos. Johnson, an undrafted rookie who spent training camp with the Texans, suffered a hip injury. He was cut in September, then returned to the roster in October. It's not surprising he's pessimistic, given that he's been saying all week that Jonathan Grimes, a second-year player signed last week, is going to start in Nashville.

Phillips was asked if he's worried about his depth. He chuckled a bit as he answered.

"Well let's see, we're down to our fifth running back, our third tight end," he said. "Yes, I'm worried about it."

Friday Conversation: Matt Williamson

December, 20, 2013
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Former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson isn't yet sold on Kirk Cousins for a simple reason: He needs to see more. Williamson is now ESPN's NFL scout, and provided insight into how someone in his position views Cousins and the Redskins. On Saturday, I'll post a story with his thoughts on Robert Griffin III.

What did you see from Kirk Cousins Sunday?

Williamson: There’s a lot to like. I don’t want to get too excited about him, because it’s such a limited amount of snaps so far. I feel like a quarterback is like a pitcher in baseball. Sometimes quarterbacks come into the league and get starts and look like Case Keenum did with the Texans. It’s like a pitcher in the first couple games going through the league, and then teams have tape on him and realize he doesn’t have a curveball. There isn’t enough yet of Cousins to where everyone knows how to defend him.

Do you like him?

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Nick WassESPN analyst Matt Williamson likes how Kirk Cousins has performed in his limited playing time.
Williamson: He’s talented. He has a good, not great, arm. He seems to have a good feel for reading defenses. He has some pocket presence. He will take risks. He’s not a checkdown specialist. He will throw picks in his time. He won’t be Alex Smith and have five or six interceptions a year if he’s a starter. I bet there’s a lot of interest in him around the league to see what he does the next couple games. But I’d have a hard time putting a true grade on him. It’s just not enough [of a sample].

How much is enough?

Williamson: That’s a tough call. With a quarterback you want to see more than you would with anyone else. I always felt when I was evaluating a college kid for the NFL that you’d want a minimum of four games and have them be spread out. At quarterback you want to see more. A rule of thumb was let’s see four college games from different points in the season. At quarterback you want to double that. These are the hardest to evaluate to begin with, because there are so many factors that can make it look better or worse. But I think he’s exceeding expectations every time he’s in there, and the offense seems to flow better with him in there.

What do you think of him in the pocket?

Williamson: He’s a decent enough athlete with his drops, and he’s light on his feet and feels pressure well. He’s not a statue back there. He’s not going to be confused with RG3 athletically, but I’d need to see more. It’s hard to say he has great pocket presence. There’s just not enough [games].

What do you remember thinking about Cousins before the draft?

Williamson: Nothing stood out in a good way and a bad way. I didn’t see a huge negative with the guy, and I didn’t see a massive positive with him. That’s a good thing. If you’re grading every attribute one through 10, he’d get a lot of sevens and eights and not a lot of fours and not a lot of 10s ... He doesn’t look overwhelmed [now]. He will push the ball down the field, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. That’s highly promising.

What are you still looking to see?

Williamson: I would like him to prove he can deliver the football accurately when his feet aren’t set. That’s a true test. Guys like Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco, when they can’t step into a throw can still throw strike on the sidelines because they’re a natural gifted thrower. RG3 can definitely do that. He can make throws like that even when conditions aren’t optimal. I don’t know if Cousins can. I’d like to see how he handles pressure, the blitz in particular, where you know this blitz is coming and will I make the right read and hit my hot receiver in stride and not flinch and not only make the right play mentally, but make the right play physically with big scary guys coming down on him. And the last thing would be consistency. Is he consistently getting better and is he doing something almost week to week? Andy Dalton is a great example. He’s still highly streaky. He’s not gifted enough to be highly streaky. I don’t want a roller-coaster quarterback who, when he’s down he’s too far down to win, or if he’s down in the playoffs we have no chance.

When you look at their defense, how much work needs to be done?

Williamson: A lot. They have a huge decision to make with Orakpo. He’s somebody I would like to keep. Kerrigan is a quality player, but I look at edge rushers like I look at wide receivers. Orakpo would be a No. 1. Kerrigan is a No. 2 pass-rusher, and if the No. 1 goes away, [Kerrigan] might go away, too. It’s imperative to keep [Orakpo], especially because of the state of the secondary. They used picks on guys, and not surprisingly none of those guys changed the course of the secondary in their rookie year. That doesn’t mean they won’t be decent players. You rarely see rookie corners play well, so I could see it being better in Year 2. But it’s still a bad secondary. You can’t ignore it. London is clearly done. Perry Riley is more like a No. 2. He’s fine, he’s a starter and he can play every snap. But he’ll probably never go to a Pro Bowl. I’m fine with him, but they have too many of those guys. I don’t think replacing Fletcher will be all that difficult. He’s a liability in coverage. They need more in the secondary, and I don’t think throwing another second-round pick at the problem is the best solution. They need to get a corner or safety coming off his first contract. That might cost a little, but at least you know he can play and isn’t over the hill.

What do you think of Barry Cofield?

Williamson: I’ve always been a fan, and I’m surprised he faded this season. But he’s not the problem. He’s capable of being very good. He’s not Vince Wilfork, but he’s an active nose guy and can play every snap and not embarrass you in pass situations. One more defensive end would be nice. They’re one of the few defensive lines with a three-man front that does not have a distinguished pass-rusher on the line, someone who when you go to your nickel you kick this guy down as a tackle with Rak and Kerrigan and he has a chance to make a play. If they had that and kept Orakpo, that pass rush would be a lot better.
Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

Keenum has MRI on right thumb

December, 16, 2013
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HOUSTON -- The line for MRIs was long this morning for the Houston Texans, and one of the players in it was quarterback Case Keenum.

Keenum suffered a sprained thumb against the Indianapolis Colts, Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips said. He said he would know more about Keenum's status for the game once he finds out the results of the MRI.

Keenum
Keenum
It wasn't the only way in which Keenum was beat up in that game, having played his worst game as a pro.

"Sometimes (young quarterbacks) have to hit rock bottom to bounce back up," Phillips said. "Some of them don't bounce back up, and don't end up good quarterbacks. We have to help him."

Phillips said Sunday that he wouldn't be sure exactly what went wrong for Keenum until seeing the film. His post-film assessment Monday afternoon was similar to his postgame assessment. It was just overall a rough day for the quarterback, who completed 18 of 34 passes for 168 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also fumbled in the end zone when Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis sacked him.

One issue for Keenum early on was recognizing blitzes. He's studying and learning how to do that.

"He saw the blitzes when they were coming," Phillips said. "But seeing blitzes and getting rid of the football is different than just seeing them. That and reading coverages. It's not an easy process, especially for a young quarterback to know. We've just gotta find the things that he really does well and we've gotta stick with those."

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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Reviewing four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 25-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Brown
Brown vs. officials: Texans left tackle Duane Brown didn't agree with two calls that went against him. On one, the official agreed. After calling him for a taunting penalty following Robert Mathis' strip/sack/safety, the official who did so apologized to Brown. "Another guy that came and jumped on me after the play, and then he came and slapped the ball out of my hand," Brown said. "He slapped the ball into my face. So I tossed it at him. I didn’t cock back and beam it at him, I just tossed it at him. Flag." Brown disagreed with a holding call he was tabbed with, too. "Me and Wade (Smith) had a double-team. Wade got a pretty good shot on the guy. ... I tripped over a foot and fell. Actually disengaged a guy to catch myself. ... The guy fell to the ground on top of me. They said I pulled him to the ground. It happens. I wish it didn’t happen. It’s part of the game."

Keenum
Keenum
Case Keenum will start the rest of the season: It's not about right now anymore. The Texans want to see what Keenum has, even after his worst outing so far. They want to give him every opportunity to succeed or fail so they go into the offseason knowing exactly what's before them. Without examining the film, Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips couldn't offer a clear explanation of why Keenum struggled so mightily on Sunday. Asked if he believes in Keenum still, Phillips replied: "Well, certainly, we have so far. It's eight starts in a row." Phillips also said plainly that Keenum will continue to start.

Posey injured: DeVier Posey suffered a high ankle sprain on Sunday. Phillips termed that the most serious injury to come out of the game. Posey was never targeted in the game.

Johnson one shy: It's been a season in which Texans receiver Andre Johnson has climbed through lists of receiving records. Johnson's long and illustrious career with the Texans hasn't included very many wins, but it has included a great many outstanding performances. Sunday wasn't one of Johnson's best, especially against the Colts. He caught four passes on 10 targets, two of them drops. He caught passes for a total of 18 yards and no touchdowns. Johnson entered the game with 95 catches. He left it one shy of reaching 100 catches in a season for the fifth time in his career.

Colts' defense has best game in 10 weeks

December, 15, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts needed something out of their defense. The sporadic play over the past seven weeks wasn’t going to cut it, especially with the playoffs only three weeks away.

It turns out a three-and-out possession on their first defensive series was a sign of things to come for the Colts against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Butler
The Colts held the Texans to 239 yards, sacked quarterback Case Keenum four times, and picked him off twice in their best defensive performance in more than two months in their 25-3 victory.

“We take it upon ourselves as a defense as a whole, because we feed off the front four and they feed off of us covering guys on the back end,” Colts defensive back Darius Butler said. “We had to all come together. Guys executed the calls today, and made plays when we had to.”

The 239 yards given up is the fewest the Colts have allowed since Jacksonville gained 205 yards against them on Sept. 29.

That’s a drastic change defensively for the Colts when you consider that they had given up an average of 31 points and 401 yards per game in the seven games prior to Sunday.

“Yeah, we played good football today,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “Kept mental mistakes to a minimum, and just able to get after it good and fast start and maintain it throughout the game.”

The Colts wanted to get back on track defensively for the stretch run of the season, but they also remember what the Texans did to them in the first half of their first meeting in Houston on Nov. 3.

Keenum looked like he was going to be the Texans’ quarterback of the future, and receiver Andre Johnson was going to break all kinds of records in the first half. Keenum threw for 208 yards, and Johnson had seven catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of the game.

It was the complete opposite Sunday.

Butler had both of the interceptions thrown by Keenum, including one where he baited the quarterback into attempting a pass to Johnson. Keenum finished the game 18-of-34 for 168 yards. Johnson had four catches for only 18 yards.

The Colts didn’t allow the Texans into the red zone all game.

“They did a great job,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “They practiced really well. They were bound and determined to make amends for what Andre did to us in the first ballgame down there, specifically in the first half. I’m really proud of the guys in the back end. They stepped up. D-Buts getting two interceptions was huge.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- As soon as the play was over, Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum knew his mistake.

It didn't take a conversation with teammates or coaches. He didn't need anyone else to tell him.

It was late in the third quarter of Sunday's 25-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Keenum took the snap from the Houston 7-yard line, caught it at about the 3, dropped back and held onto the ball as Texans left tackle Duane Brown blocked one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. Brown blocked the ferocious Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis for three full seconds -- an accomplishment against a player of that caliber.

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsCase Keenum needs to improve his decision-making to remain Houston's starter.
"I went through my reads down the field and didn't see anybody open," Keenum said.

So he did something he knew was wrong almost immediately after he did it. He ran to his left.

"You have to step up in the pocket," Keenum said. "You can't just try to escape out this way. It's up towards the line. And that was another bad decision on my part. That one was totally on me."

The result was a complete disaster.

Mathis barreled toward Keenun. He hit him on the fourth second after the snap, popped the ball out into the end zone, and notched a franchise record 16.5 sacks this season. Mathis has the most strip sacks in NFL history. Brown landed on the ball to limit the damage to a safety. They were the final two points scored in the game.

"We have to be in sync," Brown said. "We were out of sync on that play. It was supposed to be a quick throw and it didn’t come out as quickly as it should have. I gotta hold my block longer. We just have to be in sync."

It was an afternoon filled with plays like that one. None so disastrous as a sack-fumble and a safety, but repeatedly Keenum made the wrong decision in the heat of the moment, even though he knew the right one.

"I was bad today," Keenum said, softly delivering a dejected news conference. "My teammates deserve better and my coaches deserve better. There is stuff that they tell me during the week multiple times and something goes in the game and I just make the wrong decision.

"... If someone knew the answer, I would like them to tell me."

Sunday's game in Indianapolis marked Keenum's lowest passer rating of the season at 42.3. He completed just 18 of 34 passes for 168 yards throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions. He nearly threw a third that would have been returned for a touchdown had Colts cornerback Darius Butler not dropped it.

Without knowing what he's doing wrong, Keenum would have little hope of fixing it.

That he understands it is a good sign and a direct result of his tireless preparation. He's not shirking his studies at all. But that's not changing what happens on the field each week.

Perhaps it's a matter of getting himself into the right habits and undoing the bad habits that came with the success he had despite them in a college system that didn't require such complicated understanding.

Or maybe it's all too much too soon.

"He's going though a process," receiver Andre Johnson said. "He can't take all the blame. We've all played a part in it. I had two drops today."

Maybe Keenum needs more time and will figure it out eventually. There is no set clock for a quarterback's development. But what's becoming more and more clear is the Texans can't go into next season expecting him to be the starter. They absolutely have to have another option.

The Texans can't win with Keenum playing as he is. And nobody is exactly sure what will change that.

From small-college player to sack leader

December, 15, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The questions surrounding Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis' effectiveness started when his partner in crime for 10 years, Dwight Freeney, went out West to San Diego.

Can Mathis still be a dominating pass-rusher without Freeney?

How much did Freeney help Mathis become a Pro Bowl player?

Mathis started answering those questions when he became just the 30th player in league history to record at least 100 career sacks after he got to Seattle's Russell Wilson in Week 5.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsWith this sack of Case Keenum, Robert Mathis set the single-season and career sack records for the Colts.
Then, in front of a Lucas Oil Stadium crowd, Mathis moved past Freeney in the team's record books.

Mathis became the team's all-time leader for sacks in a single season (16.5) and career (108) when he beat Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown for a sack of quarterback Case Keenum in the third quarter of the Colts' 25-3 victory. It was only fitting that Mathis set the record with one of his trademark strip sacks.

"I enjoyed it to the utmost," Mathis said. "Never take it for granted because it is such an accomplishment. It's just still unbelievable. Just happy to have it."

Mathis needed a bounce-back game after the Cincinnati Bengals shut him down on Dec. 8. It took almost three quarters, but Mathis is too good of a player not to get involved after the Colts' defense was shutting Houston's offense down and already had intercepted two Case Keenum passes in the first half.

The Texans had the ball at their own 7-yard line when Brown kept Mathis away from Keenum for three seconds, but the Colts linebacker wasn't going to be stopped. Mathis got by Brown on the fourth second and ripped the ball out of Keenum's hands. Brown fell on the ball in the end zone. Mathis was given the ball and then acknowledged the crowd for giving him an ovation.

"Duane Brown is a very good O-tackle," Mathis said. "He's a very strong guy. Just had to stay with it and saw the quarterback roll out and was able to get to him. That was about it. Just make a play for the team."

Mathis will have to make room in his locker to put the ball next to the hundred dollar bill he has framed in there signifying his 100th sack.

Sitting at the top of the team's record books signals how far Mathis has come in his career after being told he wasn't talented enough and that he was too small to play in the NFL after coming out Alabama A&M, which was a NCAA Division I-AA school when he played there in 2003.

But Mathis has continued to prove the naysayers wrong. He did it while playing with Freeney, and now he's doing it even more without him.

"He should be, in my opinion and probably everybody else's opinion that's certainly a Colts fan and part of this organization, in the conversation someday to be in the Hall of Fame I would think," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "Doing what he's done for as long a period that he's done and the records that he has, who knows? We'll see. He's got my vote. I don't have one, but he's got it anyway."

Mathis doesn't plan on calling it quits anytime soon, so his next possible honor could be defensive player of the year.

That wouldn't be too bad for a player very few thought could give opposing quarterbacks nightmares.

"It's a bit surreal," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. "He's everything you could ask for in a leader, a locker room guy, in a veteran, the example he sets, his work ethic. He's one of those guys that all the great things that happen, he deserves because he puts the work in. He does go the extra mile for it."

Colts more prepared to face Keenum

December, 13, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The film of Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum was pretty limited for the Indianapolis Colts in the first meeting between the two teams Nov. 3.

Keenum
Keenum
Keenum, making just his second start against the Colts, finished the game 20-of-34 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.

The Colts feel more prepared to face Keenum, who replaced veteran Matt Schaub, this time around becuase they have more footage of him.

"Have to get him under wraps," linebacker Robert Mathis said. "You just can't let him get going and knowing he's the engine that drives their offensive machine. So, have to stay on him just as much as we can."

The Colts didn't get much pressure on Keenum, sacking him only once in the first game. You can expect them to try to rattle him some. The defense needs a bounce-back performance after allowing Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to sit back in the pocket and pick them apart and eventually win AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The Colts have given up an average of 31 points and 401 yards per game in the past seven games.

Keenum has completed 54 percent of his pass attempts and thrown for 1,592 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He's also been sacked 15 times in seven games this season.

"He's obviously had ups and downs as a young quarterback," Texans interim coach Wade Phillips said. "He's had brilliant time, certainly the first half against the Colts. But he had a tough time in the second half against them, so he's learning as he goes. But he's got talent. He's got talent to make big plays when everything's broken down, so that's what we like about him."

Double Coverage: Texans at Colts

December, 12, 2013
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J.J. Watt and Andrew LuckGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt's Texans aren't playoff-bound like Andrew Luck's Colts, but Sunday's hosts haven't had it easy.
INDIANAPOLIS -- This was supposed to be a game that had AFC South division title implications between a Super Bowl contender and a playoff team, one that could have even been flexed on the schedule.

At least that's the way it was envisioned when the season started.

Instead, it'll be a battle of two teams dealing with a number of issues when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts haven't beaten a team with a winning record since Oct. 20 and haven't had consistency on offense, defense or special teams in weeks. The Texans ... well, they've been a disaster this season. They are on an 11-game losing streak, benched their starting quarterback and fired their head coach.

ESPN.com's Colts reporter Mike Wells and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli weigh in on the two struggling teams.

Wells: Tania, obviously the big news -- really the only news -- to come out of Houston in the past week was the firing of coach Gary Kubiak. Wade Phillips takes over as the interim coach. Teams tend to rally around interim coaches or just shut them out. What do you think the Texans will do with Phillips?

Ganguli: I don't think they'll shut him out, but wanting to succeed for the coach was never a problem in Houston. They wanted to win the last Colts game for their head coach, who left at halftime in an ambulance. They wanted to win the following week in Arizona for their coach, who watched from home as he recovered from his transient ischemic attack. It's not a matter of wanting the win -- the process has gotten lost. Two weeks ago, the Texans made so much progress in fixing their issues and then last week they went to Jacksonville and completely lost their discipline, committing a franchise-record 14 penalties for 177 yards.

The Colts are now back on top of the AFC South. What was the mood like for the team upon clinching the division and a playoff spot?

Wells: It was a bittersweet feeling for them because they needed help from their good buddy Peyton Manning in Denver to win their first division title in three years. The Colts wanted to go into Cincinnati and win it by themselves so that they would be able to avoid getting it in the side or backdoor. That obviously didn't happen. But a division title is a division title no matter how you get it. That's how the Colts should look at it, especially since they were 2-14 just two years ago and many people thought the Texans wouldn't have a problem winning the division for the third straight season.

I'll be the first to say I picked the Texans to win the division this season. I'm sure there are probably a lot of reasons why they've been a major bust. But does one reason stand out more than others?

Ganguli: If I had to choose one, I would say the quarterback situation has been the biggest reason. It was completely out of the blue. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I don't think Matt Schaub played poorly most of the time, it's just that pick-6's are such dramatic momentum swingers. Really, though, it's been a combination of a lot of things. If you look at their stats, you'd expect the team to have a much better record. After Schaub, they went through Case Keenum's learning process, which is ongoing. Kicker Randy Bullock had a rough start, which impacted the team's record. He has improved lately, but by then the Texans developed other problems, like the loss of four important players to injury: inside linebacker Brian Cushing, safety Danieal Manning, running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels has a chance of returning this week. And of course, I mentioned the meltdown of discipline that led to what happened last Thursday in Jacksonville. That was a problem early in the season, but unusual for the Texans lately. They had four penalties in the previous two games combined.

I expected the Colts to be better than they are, too. Do you think this team has taken a step forward or backward from last season?

Wells: I thought the Colts had more talent this season but they wouldn't be able to duplicate their 11-5 record from last year. I was right about their record but wrong about their talent. Season-ending injuries forced the Colts to take a step back in the talent department. They're known for using the phrase "Next Man Up" when dealing with injuries. There really isn't a Next Man Up when it comes to replacing future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne, guard Donald Thomas and tight end Dwayne Allen. The Colts thought acquiring running back Trent Richardson would soften the blow of losing Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. That hasn't been the case. Richardson's struggles since coming to Indianapolis have been well documented. So injuries and players not living up to expectations are the main reasons why the Colts have taken a step back

We talked about the benching of Schaub prior to the first meeting between the two teams in early November. Receiver Andre Johnson made Keenum look pretty good in the first half of that game. Has Keenum shown enough to prove he's worthy of being the team's quarterback for years to come?

Ganguli: He's had good moments and bad ones. I think the bad moments are fixable, but whether he'll be able to fix them remains to be seen. The end of this season is an audition for him just as much as it is for Phillips. He has to show he's learning how to read defenses and make better decisions. There are times when Keenum hangs on to the ball too long because his internal clock isn't quite where it needs to be yet. He is learning that sometimes it's better to take the checkdown. He's learning that turning his back on the field when a rush comes at him reduces his options. If he stops growing where he is now, he'll have a career as a serviceable backup. If he continues to improve, he has the chance to be a starter.

To wrap up, let's talk about the quarterback up there, which I know we have before. How would you assess the season Andrew Luck has had?

Wells: Two words: A struggle. But it's not Luck's fault. The offensive line has been inconsistent all season. The running game has been more poor than good. The biggest reason behind it, though, is because of the loss of Wayne. Wayne was Luck's security blanket and nobody has stepped up to help him out. Luck is good, but you can't forget that he's only in his second season and is still learning. Rookie Da'Rick Rogers had a breakout game against Cincinnati (107 yards) last weekend and believes he can be Luck's third-down go-to guy.

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