Biggest sleeper of Colts-Texans: The rookie tackle charged with blocking J.J. Watt
There won’t be too many surprises when the Colts and Texans kick off the NFL playoffs on Saturday afternoon in Houston, but here is a sleeper player from each team for the wild-card game:
Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle Braden Smith
Following the first Texans-Colts meeting this season, Smith was a rookie who had played just 10 snaps in September. He was a guard through almost his entire college career. By the second Colts-Texans game on Dec. 9, he was the team’s established right tackle, blocking J.J. Watt in a 24-21 win.
Watt had a sack in that game, jab-stepping inside and then beating Smith outside to split a double-team block and get to Andrew Luck. But Watt, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who had 16 sacks this season, had just two tackles. The Colts would be happy if Watt were that quiet again Saturday, even with a sack.
Smith’s emergence has been a revelation for a Colts team getting a lot out of its rookie class. Smith played mostly guard at Auburn, and his transition to the NFL wasn’t expected to be smooth because Auburn runs a spread, hurry-up style. That’s a problem for many NFL teams evaluating college linemen. But Smith played some tackle in training camp and was ready to fill in at right tackle early in the season. He played well and remained the starter. He became part of a line that protected Luck well all season, a main reason the Colts are in the playoffs.
Being a right tackle in the AFC South means facing Watt, one of the great players of this generation, but the Colts had confidence Smith could do it.
“I think Braden stacks up physically really well with him,” Colts coach Frank Reich said before the Week 14 meeting, according to AL.com. “You know Braden is a big, strong man, and, obviously, so is J.J. Watt, so I think one-on-one in a strength-versus-strength — I think J.J. Watt brings a lot of experience and a lot of elusiveness. He’s not only strong, but he’s very good in everything. It’ll be a good challenge for Braden, but we feel confident he’ll be ready.”
The matchup between Smith and Watt will be a big one in Saturday’s game, but the Colts should feel their rookie right tackle won’t be overwhelmed.
Related: See each team's odds of winning the Super Bowl:
Houston Texans receiver Keke Coutee
The Texans have been shorthanded at receiver for weeks. Demaryius Thomas, a midseason acquisition in a trade with the Denver Broncos, tore his Achilles tendon. And rookie Coutee has been dealing with a bad hamstring.
Coutee could return this week, and that would be big for the Texans’ offense. Houston listed him as a full participant in practice on Tuesday, though that was an estimation because the team just had a walkthrough. Still, it’s a positive sign.
Coutee hasn’t played since Nov. 26, and has appeared in just six games all season. But the fourth-round pick out of Texas Tech has been productive. In the first meeting with the Colts, which was his first NFL game, he had 11 catches for 109 yards. He had 28 catches for 287 yards in his six games this season, doing most of his work in the slot.
“Definitely, I think he’s trending that way,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I think there’s a shot. We have to see how he looks in practice on a day-to-day basis, but there’s a shot there.”
If Coutee can’t play that will mean a big role again for DeAndre Carter, who had 12 catches for 149 yards in the Texans’ final three games.
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