By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Xavier Nixon never had taken a meaningful snap as an offensive guard.
Not in his college days at the University of Florida. Not during his time earlier this season on the Washington Redskins practice squad. And certainly not with the Indianapolis Colts, where he's been working as a swing tackle since late September.
But there the undrafted rookie was Sunday, filling in for Joe Reitz at right guard after a concussion forced the former Hamilton Southeastern star from the game in the first quarter. Somehow, he stood up to Houston's J.J. Watt — the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year — and helped a shuffled offensive line continue its upward momentum during a 25-3 win against the Texans.
"For him to be able to step in there and do what he did at guard and play a solid game really speaks to how mentally into it he is," Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo said Monday during a media conference call, "and just how valuable he is to go in there at either position."
Castonzo has been one of the few stalwarts on a line that started Sunday's game with its sixth different alignment of the season. Center Samson Satele was out with an elbow injury, and Mike McGlynn moved over from right guard to take his place.
Reitz was filling in for McGlynn largely because Jeff Linkenbach — who started at left guard for injured rookie Hugh Thornton the week before at Cincinnati — was sidelined with a quad injury. By the time Nixon entered the game, only Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus were playing the positions they were expected to man during training camp in August.
And, yet, the whole thing worked. Somehow.
Quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked just once by a fearsome Texans front seven, and he was hit on just four of his 32 pass attempts. The O-line also paved the way for 152 rushing yards, including a season-high 64 on 19 carries by much-maligned running back Trent Richardson.
"Guys are kind of dinged up right now," Richardson said on his own conference call. "We got guys coming back. Players just got to be in the best situation where we're ready all the time. We practice hard."
That was a common theme Monday. Castonzo also said solid practices during the week translated to solid performances Sunday.
And that could be the key to lighting the spark Indianapolis has been looking for.
The win against the Texans (2-12) improved Luck's record to 10-0 following a loss in his NFL career. But he and the Colts haven't fared so well after recent wins.
The team has alternated wins and losses for the past seven weeks, and head coach Chuck Pagano has been vocal about the need to begin stockpiling momentum for a playoff push.
The offensive line might have taken the first steps. Despite an ugly 42-28 loss at Cincinnati last week, Indianapolis did not allow a sack for the first time in 25 games. And the success continued Sunday despite a number of new faces being shuffled in and out of the lineup.
"I feel like as an offensive line we've put together two back-to-back pretty good games, at least the second half of the previous game and then this game against the Texans," Castonzo said. "We're starting to play as well as we should be, and we'd like to keep that going."
The benefits of the line's improvement are obvious in Luck's numbers. After throwing two touchdowns and five interceptions in the previous four games, the second-year star has six scoring strikes and just one pick in the past six quarters.
Those are the kinds of numbers that allow a team to dream about getting hot and making a deep playoff run. But Indianapolis has business to attend to still in the regular season.
The Colts (9-5) remain mathematically alive for the AFC's top seed and homefield advantage throughout the postseason, and they can rise as high as the No. 2 seed with victories in their final two games and minimal outside help.
The AFC South champions can do no worse than the fourth seed and a first-round home game regardless of the results in the next two weeks.
"Our goal is just win out regardless," Castonzo said. "Regardless of what happens with anyone else, we want to win the rest of our games and kind of be catching fire here at the right time going into the playoffs. We want to be playing our best ball regardless of what happens with any other teams."