HOUSTON -- It was the anatomy of a defensive failure, an epic breakdown of an unusually porous run defense.
Indianapolis Colts star running back Jonathan Taylor capitalized on a hole large enough hole to literally drive a truck through a huge gap in the Texans’ defense, busting through the line of scrimmage and quickly hitting top speed to accelerate away from pursuit.
It was a perfectly blocked and perfectly executed running play during the third quarter of the Texans’ 31-3 road loss at Lucas Oil Stadium that displayed Taylor's 4.39 speed. On that epic 83-yard run by Taylor, defensive end Whitney Mercilus, linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey and cornerback Desmond King all got blocked. And Taylor stiff-armed safety Justin Reid before cornerback Terrance Mitchell finally brought him down at the Texans’ 5-yard line. Three plays later, Taylor's touchdown run boosted the Colts’ lead to a commanding 24-3.
A year later, after Taylor embarrassed the defense by combining for 288 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 46 bruising carries, the Texans are determined to prove they're a much improved unit Sunday against the Colts in their season opener at NRG Stadium.
“I remember when somebody dominates," said Texans coach Lovie Smith, who doubles as the defensive coordinator and ran the defense last season during those setbacks against the Colts while being outscored by a combined margin of 62-3. "It’s a motivating thing as much as anything, for us to see exactly where we need to go. No, we don’t run from that at all. You can’t run from that past. We can do something. We can change our past. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
"They dominated us at their place and at home. We do remember that, but talk can’t get it done. A lot of what happened were things we did, all three phases. We feel like we corrected a lot of that. That’s why we can’t wait to see exactly how far we’ve come since that day.”
After finishing 31st in run defense a year ago, the Texans are confident that new additions in defensive end Jerry Hughes, rookie defensive backs in safety Jalen Pitre and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and increased discipline at gap control will lead to stouter performances against Taylor. Taylor is arguably the top running back in the NFL after rushing for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdown runs last season.
"We owe them one, so it's a matter of focusing on us and dominating the game plan," Greenard said. "He's a great back with great balance, maturity, IQ, a combination of everything. We've got our work cut out for us. We've really just got to execute the system. It's gapped out. Once we get out of our gaps and try to make every play, that's when every team has trouble.
"Last year, the totality wasn't good enough. Everybody understands what the standard is, what we're trying to get to. That wasn't it last year. We've got some work to do, but we'll be ready. We need to set the tone and show everyone else our identity on defense. Last year, we beat ourselves. It was a domino effect. We were embarrassed. We're a different defense now."
The Texans will run their traditional 4-3 defense favored for years by Smith.
They'll have four defensive linemen deployed at the line of scrimmage, starting Greenard, Hughes and defensive tackles Roy Lopez and Maliek Collins.
The key to the game is slowing down Taylor. The Colts were 0-7 last season when he didn't gain 100 rushing yards.
"We all know he's a good back that can take it the distance," Kirksey said. "We've got to play sound defense and everybody do their job. We've got to eliminate the big plays. Everybody has to run to their assigned gap.
"They beat us twice last year. This is the NFL. You're supposed to have short-term memories, but we're all competitors. We tend to remember things that happened to us and use it as fuel. I think where we are now I think we're a better team, a better defense. Looking back, we've come a long way."
It all starts: in the trenches and grappling with All-Pro offensive guard Quenton Nelson and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Ryan Kelly.
"It's an opportunity to show who we are, we're excited," Lopez said. "It's cool to play these type of games. It's hard-nosed football. We need to build a wall, make him make a decision, make sure everybody is in their gaps and arrive in a bad mood."
The Texans allowed 2,418 rushing yards and 25 touchdown runs last season. Most of the time, especially against the Colts, they either got defeated at the point of attack or they got out of their gaps.
That can't happen, especially against Taylor.
“Jonathan Taylor is a great running back," Texans linebackers coach Miles Smith said. "I think everybody knows that, but our defense isn’t set up to play individual players. We’re going to do what we do and we’re not going to scheme, create a different opponent. We’re going to stick to the fundamentals of football.
"Then, you can’t make football too difficult. Be where you’re supposed to be, run your butt off to the ball and make the play at the point of attack. Whether it’s Jonathan Taylor, or whether it’s anybody else, we’re going to do it the same way.”
In just two NFL seasons since being drafted out of Wisconsin, Taylor has piled up 2,980 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns with an average of 5.3 yards per carry. At 5-foot-10, 227 pounds, he has it all: speed, power and moves.
"Taylor is a great runner," said Pitre, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Yeat at Baylor. "He's downhill, has the speed to break away and also has moves inside. They have two great backs in Taylor and Nyhiem Hines. They complement each other. I'm looking forward to playing both of them."
An All-Pro selection, Taylor has 531 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in four career games against the Texans.
"For us, Jonathan Taylor is one of the best in the league, simple as that. We know the challenge that we face, but what is it going to take?" Smith said. "Gang tackle, need everybody at the point of attack. Discipline in your gaps, because if he breaks it, he’s faster than most people too. It will be a big challenge. We’re going to have big challenges each week. The challenge for us is to compete with them, because we didn’t last year. They dominated us last year. We have to show up this year.”
Grugier-Hill, one year after that long run by Taylor, is determined for a different outcome this time.
"I think we're on better footing," he said. "It's the same old stuff. You've got to stay disciplined and do our job. Anytime you get beat like that twice, you hold onto that one. We're excited."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.