Colts defense should have hands full in rematch with Titans

Ben Jones #60 of the Tennessee Titans lines up across from Kendall Langford #90 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Nissan Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Ben Jones #60 of the Tennessee Titans lines up across from Kendall Langford #90 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Nissan Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s difficult to sit through a Ted Monachino press conference and not walk away bullish on the Indianapolis Colts defense he oversees.

He doesn’t gloss over deficiencies – and there are many; remember, his defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in most significant categories – yet oozes confidence even with the Tennessee Titans and their diverse, dangerous offense on the horizon.

“Where we are right now is as good as we can be right now, 11 weeks in,’’ Monachino said Thursday. “You feel some confidence, but you have to go out and perform.’’

The Colts are coming out of their bye week, but their defensive health remains a mixed bag. They should be buoyed by the return of Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams and perhaps tackle Henry Anderson, but probably will be without two other front-liners. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (groin) and end Kendall Langford (knee) have yet to practice this week.

Monachino’s defense has had to morph on a weekly basis because of the spate of injuries, but he remains upbeat heading into the rematch with the Marcus Mariota-led Titans.

“Probably the most important thing is we’ve got to control their game-wreckers because they’ve got a few of them on this offense, and we’ve got to get off the field on third down,’’ he said. “Our best guys have to play best (and) our other guys have to know their roles inside and out and know the rules of every job they have and clarity in that.’’

Failing to do so is asking for a long Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Why?

“Right now this is as good an offense as there is in this league,’’ Monachino said.

Don’t waste time arguing the point.

The Titans offense ranks No. 6 in yards per game (386.1), No. 3 in rushing (145.2) and No. 8 in scoring (26.4). It features bona fide game-breakers in quarterback Marcus Mariota (21 touchdowns, eight interceptions, a 99.6 passer rating), running back DeMarco Murray (930 yards, eight TDs) and tight end Delanie Walker (42 receptions, 571 yards and five TDs, all team highs).

Coach Mike Mularkey has installed a no-nonsense approach, one based on a physical ground attack while still offering big-play possibilities in the passing game.

A few tidbits to keep in mind when assessing the Titans:

  • They’re running 48.5 percent of the time, the fourth-highest run percentage in the league. The Colts, who are built to throw the football, are running 38.5 percent of the time (24th).
  • They’ve cranked out 60 so-called “big plays’’ – runs of at least 10 yards, passes of at least 25 yards – which is tied with Atlanta for most in the league. The Titans have 38 rushes of at least 10 yards, including 25 by Murray, while 22 of Mariota’s 205 completions – 10.7 percent – have picked up at least 25 yards. Tennessee’s passing game ranks a modest 21st in yards per game, but a robust 5th in yards per attempt.
  • Since the Colts whipped the Titans 34-26 in Nashville last month, Mariota and the Tennessee offense have been tough to handle. In the last three games, Mariota has passed for 878 yards with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 124.7 passer rating. The offense is averaging 39.3 points and 444.3 yards, and has converted 21-of-40 third-down situations.

In a wildly inconsistent and too often unreliable season, the Colts defense did just enough in its first meeting with the Titans. It allowed Murray 107 rushing yards, but that required 25 attempts.

“You try to control DeMarco a little bit,’’ Monachino said. “He’s a really good player in the prime of his career and they feature him.’’

Mariota passed for 232 yards and two touchdowns, but was erratic on several critical throws that stalled drives. The Colts got to him for three sacks, and T.Y. McGill’s sack/strip with less than 2 minutes to play forced a fumble that linebacker Robert Mathis returned 14 yards for a sealing touchdown.

The Titans managed 331 total yards on offense, which matched a season-low allowed by the Colts.

“We played winning defense,’’ Monachino said, “and that’s what mattered.’’

Perhaps, but it’s difficult to have faith in a defense that ranks No. 30 in yards allowed per game (402.8), No. 31 against the pass (287.9) and No. 29 in scoring (28.4).

Speaking of tidbits to keep in mind, here’s one regarding Monachino’s bunch. The defense has allowed at least 22 points in each of the first nine games of a season for just the third time in the franchise’s 64-year history. On the other two occasions – 2011 and 1981 – the team staggered home with 2-14 records.

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