What to watch for: Important for Colts to extend mastery of Titans
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts meeting with the Tennessee Titans Sunday in Nissan Stadium:
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Must-win? Again? Yes, again. For those keeping score at home, the Colts are staring at their third must-win game in seven weeks. First, it was a home meeting with San Diego after an 0-2 start. Next, a game with the Bears in Lucas Oil Stadium after that failed business trip against the Jaguars in London.
Now the Titans, who for so long have served as a convenient pick-me-up for Indy. The Colts have won nine straight and 14 of the last 15 in the series. Last season, they kept their season from completely unraveling by overcoming a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit and winning 35-33 to avoid an 0-3 start. The Colts then salvaged an 8-8 finish by completing the sweep in the season finale.
And who can forget Dec. 22, 2011? Indy was 0-13, but avoided 0-14 with a 27-13 over the Titans. The starting QB: Dan Orlovsky. Tennessee’s last win in the series also came in ’11, a 27-10 nod. The starting QB: Curtis Painter.
Chuck Pagano was zero interest in a history lesson.
“We’re certainly not looking at anything but what they are right now and who we are and where we’re at,’’ he said. “History doesn’t have anything to do with this ballgame.’’
We agree. But one more bit of history. The Titans are working on a modest two-game winning streak. The last time they won three in a row: games 2-4 of ’11.
Yet another line dance: You would think the Colts are doing this on purpose, maybe to make it more difficult for an upcoming opponent to effectively scout them. In the seventh game of the season, Andrew Luck will operate behind a fifth different starting offensive line. It marks the 34th different starting group of his 62-game regular-season career.
We understand if you’ve had trouble keeping up. With left guard Jack Mewhort out with a triceps injury, the lineup will be: Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, rookie Joe Haeg at left guard, rookie Ryan Kelly at center, Denzelle Good at right guard and Joe Reitz at right tackle.
Luck always has his O-line’s back. His usual refrain They fight their butts off. Fine. But this latest group had better do more than fight. They’d better win more often than not. The Titans are led by defensive guru Dick LeBeau and feed off of outside linebacker Brian Orapko. He ranks third in the NFL with 7 sacks, which is one fewer than the Colts have as a team. Tennessee has 18, and undoubtedly will come at this latest combination with a variety of blitzes and stunts.
Disciplined, or else: The numbers speak for themselves: 411 yards and 29 points allowed per game. Consecutive games yielding 936 yards, the third-most in back-to-back games since 2000, and at least 100 yards to a running back. There have been assignment mistakes – how many times have the Colts failed to set the edge against the run? – and more missed tackles than you’d see in a high school game.
Keep that up Sunday and the Titans will make Indy’s defense pay dearly. They feature a “three-headed monster’’ – those are Robert Mathis’ words – in quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Mariota is a master at running the read-option, which attacks the perimeter of the defensive front. He forces players to remain disciplined, and exploits them when they aren’t. If an outside linebacker with containment responsibilities dives inside to attack Murray, Mariota keeps the football and does the damage. That was the case on the first play in last Sunday’s win over Cleveland. The Browns’ defense collapsed on Murray, so Mariota tucked the ball and scooted 41 yards around left end.
The Titans will do their damage. They’re that good at the skill positions. But if Erik Walden, Mathis, Kendall Langford, D’Qwell Jackson and others continue to play sloppily, it’s going to be a long afternoon.
Offense? Ouch! Injuries that have impeded the progress of the defense have spilled over to the offense. Along with Mewhort, the Colts will be without tight end Dwayne Allen (ankle) and wideouts Donte Moncrief (shoulder) and Phillip Dorsett (foot/hamstring).
Pagano was optimistic the healthy receivers will step up.
“We are in great shape at receiver,’’ he said, quickly rattling off “13, 80, 81, 17. They are going to play good.’’
We have to admit we had to check the roster to align names with numbers. Of course T.Y. Hilton is 13, and most fans recognize Chester Rogers as 80. No. 81? That would be Devin Street, who’s yet to be active after being signed off of the Patriots’ practice squad Sept. 21. No. 17? That would be rookie Tevaun Smith, who was added to the active roster from the practice squad this week.
One suggestion for coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Even though the running game ranks a lackluster 17th (101.8), Frank Gore has been effective. He ranks 8th in the league with 434 yards, is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and snapped the team’s 61-game streak without a 100-yard rusher Sunday night in Houston.
With his receiving options limited, Luck needs a legitimate running game to keep the Titans’ defense from teeing off on him.
And a bit of trivia. The last time the Colts had a 100-yard rusher in consecutive games? Joseph Addai in 2007: 100 yards in game 7 against Carolina and 112 the next week against New England.
And the winner is: Titans 27, Colts 20. As we’ve mentioned this week, this is a bad matchup, and we’re expecting a bad conclusion. The Colts will have trouble sustaining anything on offense and have too many breakdowns on defense. Unrest among the fan base will increase.