Colts at Titans: What to watch for Sunday


INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Tennessee Titans in Nissan Stadium in Nashville:

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4.
  • History lesson: It’s getting to be our weekly intro, and necessary with the Colts stumbling out of the gate. And trust us, it’ll get more dire until they regain their balance.

As it stands, Indy is looking to avoid its first 0-3 start since 2011 – you remember that awful season, right? – and its eighth since the 1984 relocation. It has never reached the playoffs after an 0-3 start and posted a winning record just once (9-7 in 1988). On five of those occasions, the Colts lost at least 13 games.

OK, we’re not predicting a similar death spiral, but history tells us an 0-3 start is a tough hole to climb out of. In fact, only five teams in NFL history have recovered from 0-3 and reached the postseason, and none since the 1998 Buffalo Bills. The other four: the 1995 Detroit Lions, 1992 San Diego Chargers, 1982 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the strike-shortened season and the 1981 New York Jets.

Since 2007, just 10% of the teams that started 0-2 (12 of 118) earned playoff spots. Eleven teams opened 0-2 last season, and not one advanced to the postseason.

“I’m a big competitor,’’ All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said. “You’ve got to find a way to win. You don’t want to start 0-3. Damn sure didn’t want to start 0-2.

“We’ve got to find a way to get a win so hopefully this place will loosen up a little bit, have some fun . . . get a win for the 317. We’ve got to find a way to get the job done and find a way to get a win so we can get this damn monkey off our back.’’

  • Who’s the QB?: The Colts took the expected precaution Saturday by elevating Brett Hundley from the practice squad to the active roster. The prevailing question: is he insurance should Carson Wentz not be cleared, or will he make his 10th career start and 1st since 2017? The team refuses to endorse 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason.

We vote for the insurance angle. We’re sticking with Wentz and his two sprained ankles. Crazy as that sounds, he’s still the better option.

Yes, the Colts must take a long-term view with Wentz and make certain they don’t endanger his availability for the rest of the season. But every game is precious and that’s been magnified by the 0-2 start. Fall to 0-3 and, well, if you’re still reading you noticed the first segment of this preview.

Wentz practiced on a limited basis Friday and Frank Reich said he “looked OK. We’ll see how he responds over the next 48 hours. He’ll likely be a game-time decision.’’

If that decision is to stick with Wentz, it falls on Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady to tailor the game plan for a less-mobile Wentz. Accentuate shorter drops and quicker throws to limit pressure opportunities for the Titans.

And it’s incumbent on Wentz to protect himself as much as possible in the maelstrom of an NFL game.

  • Helping that QB: The Colts insisted they never brought Wentz in to be Superman in this offense. They wanted him to be a complementary piece that would be greatly aided by a dependable offensive line and reliable running game.

Well, now’s the time for that o-line and run game to show up. Each needs to get out of its funk. We know injuries have been a factor – right tackle Braden Smith will miss his second straight game with a strained foot – but the o-line  hasn’t been very effective in pass protection or run blocking. Wentz has been sacked six times and hit on 15 other occasions. Taylor is averaging 53.5 yard per game and 3.3 per attempt. We don’t believe for a second Taylor has forgotten how to run.

The Colts’ longest ground gain in two games in Wentz’s 14-yard scramble against the Rams. Taylor had a 13-yarder against the Rams and a 12-yarder against Seattle. We’re laying the spotty run game at the feet of the o-line.

It’s time for that group to get its act together. Eric Fisher makes his second start at left tackle, and his game should solidify with each game rep.

  • Handling Henry: DeForest Buckner isn’t one to mince words or dabble in hyperbole. When he talks, we listen.

Buckner’s assessment of Titans running back Derrick Henry?

“Nobody’s like him,’’ he said. “Derrick is on a level of his own.’’

Henry has led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons and again sits atop the list after two weeks. Now, the 6-3, 247-pound blend of power and speed takes aim against a Colts’ defense that has been erratic against the run. It’s allowing averages of 120.5 yards per game and 4.3 per attempt.

Henry is one of the league’s dominant forces, and that’s been especially true against the Colts. The run defense has been the NFL’s 5th-stingiest since coordinator Matt Eberflus’s arrival in 2018: 97.7 yards per game, 3.92 per attempt.

But the breakdown is ridiculous. In 44 regular-season games that haven’t involved Henry, Eberflus’ D has allowed averages of 91.7 yards per game and 3.7 per attempt. In six games against the Henry-fueled Titans, those averages balloon to 141.3 and 4.9.

Eberflus’ defense has allowed only three 100-yard rushers in 50 regular-season games since ’18. Henry. Henry. And Henry. He has four career 100-yard games against Indy, including three straight.

The Titans have unquestioned firepower in the passing game with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wideouts Julio Jones and A.J. Brown, and we won’t be surprised if Jones and Brown each have 100-yard games. The first appearance of cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who missed the first two games with a calf injuries, helps a ton.

But the Titans prefer to ride Henry.

  • And the winner is: Titans 27, Colts 23. We’ll feel much better once Wentz goes out for pre-game warm-ups and is given the thumb’s up. He gives the Colts a decent chance to pull the upset and extend their crazy mastery of the Titans in Nashville (14-5 since 2002, including wins in eight of the last nine trips). But the offense wasn’t exactly lighting things up with a healthy Wentz and the defense has been erratic. It has allowed nine scores (seven touchdowns, two field goals) on 20 possessions and ranks 28th in yards per play allowed (6.7) and 30th in yards per pass attempt (9.6).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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