The Indianapolis Colts rode a strong first half offense and some timely defensive plays to overcome injuries and the Cleveland Browns to move their record to 3-3 and remain in the middle of the AFC playoff picture. The next stop on their journey to a quick turnaround is Tennessee, where they'll take on a Titans team who has overcome a slow start to add their name into AFC Wild Card hopefuls.
Will the young Colts finally be able to put up a good road performance and move over .500 for the first time in 22 months, or will their division rival deal a big blow to their playoff aspirations? We'll take a look at the key stats, injuries and match-ups to this game after the jump!
Tale of the tape
How do the Colts and Titans measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.
When the Colts have the ball
Indianapolis Colts Offense
Tennessee Titans Defense
87 WR R. Wayne
91 DE D. Morgan
80 TE C. Fleener
94 DT S. Marks
74 LT A. Castonzo
99 DT J. Caset
72 LG J. Linkenbach
95 DE K. Wimbley
64 C S. Satele
56 OLB A. Ayers
75 RG M. McGlynn
52 MLB C. McCarthy
69 RT W. Justice
92 OLB W. Witherspoon
83 TE D. Allen
30 CB J. McCourty
11 WR D. Avery
26 SS J. Babineaux
12 QB A. Luck
33 FS M. Griffin
33 RB V. Ballard
20 CB A. Verner
What's wrong with Andrew Luck? Why is he only completing 53.6% of his throws? Did the Colts make a mistake when they drafted Andrew Luck instead of Robert Griffin III? It's understandable for some of these issues to be explored given the 24-hour media world we currently live in - and if you're wondering, the answers are: nothing, because his receivers didn't catch the other 46.4%, and NO - but the length, depth and credibility all of these questions are being given is absurd.
When you look at the context - context, by the way, is one of my favorite words, and something that far too few mainstream media types pay enough attention to - Andrew Luck has been incredibly impressive. Consider: Luck plays in the most vertical passing offense in the NFL, his receiving targets - outside of Reggie Wayne - are either young and inconsistent, or just plain average , and his offensive line has been less than stellar (ProFootballFocus ranks it 27th in the league after 7 weeks). Despite all of this, Luck has been able to guide his team to a 3-3 record (QBWINS!!!) while leading an offense in the top half of the league by both conventional yardage stats and by DVOA.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the key to the Colts success on Sunday will be the play of Andrew Luck. And, as luck would have it, Sunday's opponent, the Tennessee Titans, provide the perfect scenario for Luck and the Colts offense to put a stop to all of the questions. Not only do the Titans rank near the bottom of the league when it comes to covering opposing team's #1 WR (enter Reggie Wayne) and TEs, but the Titans also rank near the bottom of the league in most pass rushing metrics. This means that not only should Luck's three favorite targets be open, but Luck should also have the time necessary to make good throws.
The Titans defensive issues aside, the Colts coaching staff should look to adjust their scheme and philosophies to make life a little easier on their rookie QB. As we mentioned, the Colts currently run the most vertical passing attack in the league, and interim HC Bruce Arians noted this week that he likes to throw deep more than any coach in the league. That's all well and good, as the Colts should look to become a dynamic, dangerous passing offense, but mixing in some more screens, as well as short and intermediate routes could go a long way towards making Luck's life easier.
First, the Colts offense currently lacks the offensive line and true deep threat at WR to run such a vertical passing attack. Second, as good as Luck's been - and I believe he should be the leading candiate for rookie of the year, neckbeard of the year, QB of the year, and POTUS - he's still a rookie, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with allowing him to get into a rhythm with some easier routes.
When he's not throwing the ball, Luck and the Colts offense may receive a boost in the potential return of RB Donald Brown who has missed the last 2 games with a knee injury. While RBs Vick Ballard and Delone Carter performed admirably against the Browns, it was obvious that they not only lack Brown's vision and decisiveness, but also his explosive, big play ability.
If he plays, Brown should find room to run against a Titans defense that ranks near the bottom of the league in run defense. The Titans are especially susceptible on runs up the middle and to the left, which not only suits Brown's one-cut run style, but would allow him the opportunity to run behind the Colts best run blocking OL, LT Anthony Castonzo.
A successful running game will allow the Colts offense to further exploit the Titans defense by utilizing the play-action pass. This is an especially important (and, thus far, underused) tool that the offense can use to help the receivers gain separation from the back-7.
Perhaps the most important adjustment the Colts offense can make will come after they've scored some points: the coaching staff has shown in 2 of their victories (Minnesota and Cleveland) and 1 of their losses (Jacksonville) an alarming willingness to sit on (rather small) leads. This is simply not the best way to call a football game, and the Colts, should they find themselves in the lead on Sunday, should be looking to aggressively increase that lead at every opportunity. If they do that, not only will it help relieve the pressure on their undermanned defense, but they will put themselves in great position to move to 4-3 on the season.
When the Titans have the ball
Indianapolis Colts Defense
Tennessee Titans Offense
90 DE C. Redding
85 WR N. Washington
99 DT A. Johnson
89 TE J. Cook
94 DE D. Nevis
66 LT M. Otto
92 OLB J. Hughes
76 LG S. Hutchinson
53 ILB K. Conner
61 C F. Velasco
50 ILB J. Freeman
64 RG L. Harris
93 OLB D. Freeney
76 RT D. Stewart
23 CB V. Davis
88 TE C. Stevens
28 SS T. Zbikowski
18 WR K. Britt
41 FS A. Bethea
8 QB M. Hasselbeck
25 CB J. Powers
28 RB C. Johnson
I briefly considered copy-and-pasting this section from the Jets or Browns preview, or even hopping in a time machine and sampling from the defensive preview I'm bound to write in the coming weeks for the Dolphins and Jaguars games. You see, the Colts are in the midst of a 5-week stretch where they face very similar offenses: a strong desire to lean on the running game while getting what they can out of a mediocre quarterback.
This week's version of that offense comes in the form of the Tennessee Titans, who will look to rely on the legs of former 2000-yard rusher and MENSA candidate Chris Johnson, while asking QB Matt Hasselbeck to be little more than a caretaker in the passing game. Hasselbeck, who is no longer on the level of the quarterback who lead the Seahawks to the 2006 Super Bowl, has a 78.2 QBRating while completing 61.5% of his passes along with 5 TDs, 4INTs and a paltry 5.97yards-per-attempt average.
For the Colts to have consistent defensive success on Sunday, they must contain Johnson and the Titans running game on 1st and 2nd downs, putting Hasselbeck in a position where he needs to complete longer passes to sustain drives. At first blush, that may appear like a tall task for a Colts defense which ranks near the bottom of the league in rush defense, but Indianapolis has been one of the few teams that Johnson has had consistent struggles against in the past, running for only 3.67YPC in his career against the Colts.
Johnson thrives on cutback and misdirection runs, so much so that, when those runs aren't available, Johnson seems to run with less intensity and physicality. The key, then, for the Colts defense - specifically the linebackers - will be gap responsibility: playing smart, fast football, while resisting the urge to over pursue and leave Johnson any cutback lanes. The return of DE Cory Redding and LB Pat Angerer will be a major boost in this area. If the Colts can do this consistently in the first half, they will likely frustrate Johnson and the Titans offense to the point where the game is put in Hasselbeck's hands - which would be a major in-game victory for the defense.
When the Titans do pass, the Colts secondary should play tight, aggressive coverage, forcing Hasselbeck to throw into tight windows. The secondary can only do so much, however, and must get more help from the pass rush than they have in the past 2 weeks, when QBs Mark Sanchez and Brandon Weeden were given far too long to sit in the pocket and make comfortable throws. The possible - though unlikely at this point - return of OLB Robert Mathis would be a huge boost here, as he, along with OLB Jerry Hughes and DE Cory Redding, are the only players who have shown an ability to get any sort of pressure on opposing QBs.
One adjustment I would like to see the Colts defensive coaching staff make is in the area of blitzes. Against Cleveland, the coaches attempted to mask the lack of a pass rush by calling numerous blitzes. This was an understandable and perfectly logical adjustment, but, more often than not, the Colts blitzes failed to hurry Weeden, let alone produce a sack. Instead, Weeden was able to sit comfortably in the pocket and choose between 1-on-1 match-ups in the secondary. Against the Titans, if the Colts fail to get a pass rush from their front-3 or 4, try the blitz, but if it fails to result in pressure, adjust by playing max coverage schemes, which may lead to a Hasselbeck mistake.
If the Colts can't contain and frustrate Johnson, if they allow him to run for 4-5ypc, the Titans offense will be put in very manageable 2nd- and 3rd-down situations, the type of down-and-distance that Hasselbeck and the Titans offense has found success in this year. And if that happens, the Colts may find themselves in another shoot out, and, worse, a game below .500.
Five key match-ups
1. Colts Pass Rush vs. Titans OL - The Colts entered their game against the Browns with the (correct) plan to shut down the running game and force rookie QB Brandon Weeden to beat them. They successfully executed the first part of their plan, holding the Browns to just 55 yards on 17 carries, but didn't count on Weeden nearly leading his team to victory.
So why did the Colts nearly fall victim to their own best laid plans? Not to take anything away from Weeden - except for early retirement - but most NFL quarterbacks will be able to look good when they have the kind of time in the pocket that Weeden had on Sunday. The Colts secondary is a talented bunch, but there are very few DBs in the league who can hold up for long in 1-on-1 coverage.
Stopping Chris Johnson is only half of the battle on Sunday. The other, equally important half, is the Colts pass rush to get Hasselbeck, causing him to rush his throws and make mistakes. If they can get pressure on the Titans QB, they should have the opportunity to create some big plays: in limited time this year, Hasselbeck has already thrown 4 interceptions and taken 10 sacks.
And file this away: starting LT Michael Roos will miss Sunday's game after a Monday-morning appendectomy, meaning the Colts pass rush will be going against a backup at the most important OL position. If they can't generate a pass rush this week, you have to wonder if they ever will.
2. LBs Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, and Pat Angerer vs. Chris Johnson - While he's struggled to perform over the past season and a half (don't let his 2012 totals fool you, they are ridiculously skewed by one amazing outing against the Bills), Johnson still has the ability to take over a game. And nothing the Colts do against the Titans passing attack will matter if they allow Chris Johnson to play explosively.
If he does perform like the dangerous, dynamic player of 2010, putting the Titans into manageable 2nd and 3rd downs, or worse, breaking off long touchdown runs, it will allow the Titans to cover up the deficiencies in the passing game. To counter this, the Colts will need to make their own explosive plays on defense. This starts with the rotation at ILB, where Kavell Conner, Pat Angerer, and Jerrell Freeman will split duties.
The good news for the Colts is that all 3 players excel at playing smart and fast and making the sure tackle. If they can play that way on Sunday, they have a chance to contain Johnson - who has displayed a penchant for shutting down if things don't go his way early - and the Titans running attack, and stymieing their entire offensive game plan.
If the Colts can't contain Johnson, it may not result in a loss - the Titans D is bad enough that the Colts offense should be able to put more than a few points on the board - but it will mean the Colts have to beat another bad team in a shootout, not a positive sign for their 2012 playoff hopes.
3. Colts OL vs. Titans Pass Rush - While the Colts offenses features some talented, dynamic weapons, it is still being held back by an offensive line that is allowing the opposing defensive line to disrupt the rhythm and timing on far too many passing plays and to penetrate the backfield on far too many running plays. This week, the OL gets a bit of a break as it takes on an underwhelming Titans DL that has recorded only 9 sacks and is allowing the opposing running game to pick up 134.7ypg. The unit may also get a boost by the return of LG Joe Reitz, who appears ready to finally come back from a knee injury that has sidelined him for the entire season (though IHC Bruce Arians says that he's unlikely to replace LG Jeff Linkenbach as the starter, more on this shortly).
The Colts don't need their OL to be dominant, simply average should be good enough to get the job done. If they can live up to that lofty goal of mediocrity, Andrew Luck should have plenty of time to pick apart one of the worst secondaries in the league and Donald Brown should find enough room to run to daylight. And the Colts should find themselves all alone in a playoff spot come Monday morning.
4. Bruce Arians vs. Bruce Arians - No, that's no typo. Think of this one as an awkward, Colts-related Superman III, with less hair, a slightly bigger belly, and no Richard Pryor.
It's no secret that I've had an issue with some of Arians' coaching decisions since day 1. I'm not really a fan of his play-calling, his blocking schemes, or the way he utilizes (or doesn't utilize) the tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Don't get me wrong, these are mostly stylistic concerns, and Arians is an accomplished NFL coach who has forgotten more about football than I will ever know.
That said, this week Arians made two more statements that made me dislike his coaching even more. The first came when talking about Andrew Luck, the passing game, and completion percentages. Arians admitted that he is a lover of the vertical passing game (so am I), and that because of his propensity for calling deep passing plays (more so than any other OC in the NFL this season), Luck's completion percentage would suffer.
I personally don't care what Luck's completion percentage is, but what I do care about is the Colts rookie QB being put in the best position to succeed. And given the lack of talent on the OL and lack of experience at WR, I simply don't believe that such a vertical, deep offense is the best situation for Luck at this point in time. Don't misunderstand - I don't think they should abandon the vertical game entirely - but the Colts desperately need to find a way to be more balanced with screens, short, intermediate, and deep routes.
While this will have the unnecessary side effect of raising Luck's completion percentage, it will also accomplish a more important task: getting Luck and the offense into a rhythm and help them sustain longer, more successful drives. Arians has shown that he can coach an offense to a championship, but he needs to remember that these players need to learn to walk before they learn to run a marathon.
The other statement I took issue with came Wednesday, when the IHC was talking about (former?) starting LG Joe Reitz. Arians said that Reitz likely wouldn't unseat LG Jeff Linkenbach as the starter unless Reitz "knocked my socks off in practice." Now, I wasn't at the press conference, so perhaps I'm misunderstanding Arians, perhaps he meant that he wasn't 100% convinced that Reitz was healthy and ready to go. If that's the case, please, ignore my irritation.
I don't believe that's the case, however, as Arians would go on to talk about cohesion along the OL and how playing the same unit two games in a row (against the Jets and Browns) helped the Colts run better against Cleveland. This line of thinking is enough to make a blogger's head explode.
First, the Colts ran well against the Browns relative only to their own inability to run the ball. Against the Browns, the Colts ran the ball 37 times (talk about trying not to lose) for 148 yards and a 4.0ypc, compared to their yearly average of 3.7ypc. That 4.0ypc, while an improvement, is still below the league rushing average of 4.2ypc.
Second, the Colts success likely had more to do with the fact that Cleveland features one of the worst starting defensive lines in football, and by the time Sunday's game ended, 3/4ths of that line was out with injuries. In other words, the Colts were able to get a minor uptick in running success by exploiting horrific backups.
Finally, the LG position has been one of the worst positions on the entire team this season. Both Seth Olsen and Jeff Linkenbach have struggled mightily in both run and pass blocking. While Joe Reitz may not be a Pro Bowler, he's been above average when he's been healthy, and Bruce Arians' first concern should be getting the best players on the field, THEN worry about cohesion.
5. The Indianapolis Colts vs. Their Insane Desire to Constantly Get Injured!!! - Entering week 8, the Colts find themselves in a position only the most dedicated homers thought they would be in: 3-3 and smack dab in the middle of the AFC playoff race. What's more, they've gotten into this position despite the kind of injuries that have programmed fans into asking "who got hurt?" immediately after they asked "who won?"
The Colts remaining schedule sets up nicely for a playoff run, with games against Tennessee (twice), Jacksonville, Miami, Kansas City, Buffalo, and perhaps a resting Texans team in the final week of the season.
In order to take advantage of the schedule and get to the 8-8 or 9-7 that would be necessary to make the playoffs and complete the remarkable turnaround, the Colts are going to have to be able to get the maximum performance out of their best players. This starts by keeping Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Donald Brown, et al healthy and on the field. It means catching some breaks and having NT Josh Chapman (the most amazing NFL NT to never play an NFL snap) getting healthy sooner than expected and anchoring the DL. It means having some of these tears, sprains and breaks turn into minor bumps and bruises.
In other words, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts are going to have to stop acting like the Indianapolis Colts when it comes to injuries. If they can do that, if they can get a little "Luck" on their side, the Colts may just do the impossible.
The injury reports
NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.
LB Pat Angerer
RB Donald Brown
CB Darius Butler
LB Dwight Freeney
DE Fili Moala
NT Martin Tevaseu
OLB Robert Mathis
LG Joe Reitz
DE Cory Redding
QB Andrew Luck
NT Antonio Johnson
RT Winston Justice
S Jordan Babineaux
LB Patrick Bailey
WR Kenny Britt
DB Tommie Campbell
LB Zac Diles
RB Chris Johnson
QB Jake Locker
LB Colin McCarthy
OT Michael Roos
TE Craig Stevens
LB Will Witherspoon
RB Javon Ringer
Note that these are regular season stats! :)
The Colts and Titans have met 34 times, with the Colts holding a 21-13 series lead.
Once again, Colts rookies Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, and/or LaVon Brazill have yet to face the Titans, so there are no series stats for those players. Check back in week 14!
WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Titans 20 times in his career, and has amassed 90 catches for 1208 yards and 8 touchdowns in those games.
DE/OLB Dwight Freeney has 13 sacks in 13 career games against the Titans. Robert Mathis (who is questionable) has 6 sacks in 10 games against the Titans.
QB Matt Hasselbeck will be making his 4th-career start against the Colts on Sunday. He's 67 of 94 for 615 yards, 3TDs and 2INTs in his previous 3 starts.
RB Chris CJ1.5YPC Johnson has faced the Colts 7 times and has rushed for 463 yards on 126 carries (3.67YPC) and 2 TDs in his career.
WR Nate Washington 25 catches for 293 yards and 2 TDs in 7 career games against the Colts.
WR Kenny Britt has 14 catches for 188 yards and 2 TDs in 4 games versus the Colts.
TE Jared Cook has caught 22 passes for 237 yards and 0 TDs in his 5 games against the Colts.
The Titans starting DL of Morgan, Marks, Casey and Wimbley have all played at least 2 games (each) against the Colts, and have combined for 0 sacks in those games played.
Identifying the coverage
Who(Visually): Bill Macatee and Steve Tasker
Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM
Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford
Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at The506 will be able to tell you.
Colts - 27, Titans - 17
Robert Griffin III
New York Jets