Scouting the Titans: Defense

Will Manning and the Colts be able to protect the ball against the Titans on Thursday night? Brad Keller breaks it down.

Defensive Line:

Tennessee was missing defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and defensive end Dave Ball in the Week 14 matchup, which hurt their overall pass rush.  The past few seasons, they have rotated defensive linemen in and out of the game in order to keep them fresh through the balance of the season and in the fourth quarter of individual games.

They may be facing a bigger loss on Sunday, though, as right end Jason Babin has been held out of practice all week.  Babin leads the team with 12.5 sacks and had the game's only sack and two tackles in the first game.

Tennessee has recorded 39 sacks on the season and all but seven of those have come from defensive linemen, with five of the seven outlying sacks coming from linebackers Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath.

They rarely blitz and very rarely bring defensive backs on the blitz, so the offensive line should not have to deal with a lot of exotic looks and pressure coming from different directions.  What they will have to deal with, though, is the talented crop of Titans defensive linemen, which is quite a handful.

The Titans defensive tackles are very quick, active, and are also excellent pass rushers, which will not help the interior of the Indianapolis offensive line, though they have played better in the past two weeks.  Jeff Saturday will need to get more involved and Mike Pollak and Kyle DeVan — who have started together the past few weeks and that continuity has helped overall performance on the inside  — will need to get back quickly and lock down on their man in order to avoid the embarrassment of seeing the Tennessee defensive tackles in the backfield all day.  They did a fine job against Richard Seymour and Tommie Kelly in Week 16, so here's hoping they will be able to build on that momentum in Week 17.

As skilled as the Tennessee ends are as pass rushers, they struggle to seal the edge, allowing 7.27 yards per attempt around left end and 4.71 yards per attempt around right end.  With Joseph Addai finally back in the lineup and Donald Brown showing flashes of the potential Bill Polian saw in him when he drafted him in the first round in 2009, the Colts have the speed and talent at tailback to take advantage of this matchup.

When Mike Hart and Dominic Rhodes are also thrown into the mix, Indianapolis should be able to keep their running backs fresh throughout the game and hopefully be able to run the clock out with a big lead.  This is the first time all season that they have had a full complement of healthy backs — plus Rhodes, who seems to have found the fountain of pre-30 youth in the UFL — so they should run the ball as much as possible to keep the Tennessee defense off balance and to keep Peyton Manning upright against what is still a ferocious pass rush, even without Babin.

Linebackers:

Witherspoon is the star of this group, but they are all high energy players that are very capable pass defenders.  Tennessee used to be known for their big, physical linebackers, but they have gotten leaner and more athletic throughout the past few seasons and are now more like the Indianapolis linebacking corps than they are like their predecessors.  The key difference is that the Titans don't like teams to run on them up the middle, so even the outside linebackers crash inside, which leaves a natural lane to the outside. 

Stephen Tulloch is not the star of this unit, but he is most definitely its leader.  He has the quickness and instincts to get back in the passing game, but not the speed to get to the edge and stop Brown.  He has racked up 127 tackles already this season — a career high though he's only 12 games in — and the Titans scheme tends to funnel the ball carrier in his direction.  Tulloch will play a vital role in goal to go situations, but the primary objective for Indianapolis should be to make him less of a factor on the stat sheet and therefore less of a factor in the game.

The Titans stayed in their nickel defense, with Tulloch and Witherspoon in at linebacker in the Week 14 match-up and that is what they will most likely do on Sunday, since they don't fear the Indianapolis running game as much as they fear Manning and his receivers.  The two linebackers combined for 17 tackles and a tackle for loss in the first game, so expect them to be just as involved — if not more involved — in Week 17.

Tennessee ranks 24th in yards per game allowed, 23rd against the pass, and 22nd against the run, but they are eighth in points allowed.  They tend to clamp down in the red zone and especially in goal to go situations, forcing turnovers or making their opponents settle for field goals.  Indianapolis has been extremely effective in the red zone this year and almost automatic in goal to go, leading the league in both categories.

But, they were not as productive as the Titans in the last game, settling for two field goals in five trips inside the 20.  They were 3-for-5 in the red zone and 2-for-3 in goal to go, as opposed to a 4-for-4 effort by Tennessee.  Not being able to score touchdowns in the red zone will not decide this game for the Colts, but it certainly will help to influence early momentum.

If Indianapolis can punch the ball in early and often, they will start to take the wind out of the collective sails of the Titans, which will make it easier to grind the remainder of the game out and start to work on a game plan for the first playoff game.

Secondary:

The hallmark of the Titans secondary is that they're all very good tacklers.  They have allowed opponents to complete over 65 percent of their passes in the short left and short middle areas of the field and an astonishing 75 percent of their passes to the short right, but they rank third in the league in yards per attempt given up to the short left, where Cortland Finnegan plays, and are 16th in the short middle. 

They are 26th in the league in yards per attempt allowed on throws to the short right, though, where Alterraun Verner lines up.  Pierre Garcon — and, really, anyone that lined up opposite Verner — destroyed him in the Week 14 matchup, catching six passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns.  Blair White also experienced a great deal of success — albeit on shorter passes — when matched up against Jason McCourty in the slot.  Jacob Tamme was quiet in the first game and had been experiencing a bit of a slump until he posted seven receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown in Week 16 against the Raiders.

Reggie Wayne draws Finnegan, who is an easier draw for Wayne than Nnamdi Asomugha was last week.  Wayne caught four passes for 106 yards — he was the only receiver in the game to eclipse the 100-yard mark — and was mostly targeted deep, with a total of seven targets on the game.

Finnegan will probably follow Wayne wherever he goes on the field, but it would be a good idea for Manning and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen to try to isolate Wayne on Verner, as he is the weakest link in the secondary and by a fairly wide margin.

One of the reasons that Tamme finished with only four receptions for 36 yards in the first matchup is because safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin took turns covering him and both are particularly good at covering tight ends, since they are both fairly big, are physical players, and are usually faster than a tight end.

By exploiting Finnegan and Verner on the perimeter and dinking and dunking past McCourty in the slot, Manning should be able to get Hope, Griffin, and the Titans defense in general to spread out a bit, which would open things up underneath.  Hope and Griffin are also excellent "in the box" players and are eager to help in run support.  All of these factors add up to spreading them out, backing them up, then drawing them in with play action and hitting Tamme and White in the deep seam and Wayne and Garcon on deep posts. 

When the Colts have gotten huge chunks of yards and big touchdown plays in the passing game this season, it has mostly been to the deep middle of the field.  Manning has connected on over 45 percent of his passes for an average of 12.94 yards per attempt to the deep middle, which is the fourth-best average in the league and by far the most effective branch on the Indianapolis passing tree.

Finnegan, Verner, and McCourty can certainly be victimized and can be used to knock the secondary off balance, but the death blow will be dealt by a deep pass over the middle, with the safeties scrambling close to the line of scrimmage and the cornerbacks trailing the play.


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Tennessee was missing defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and defensive end Dave Ball in the Week 14 matchup, which hurt their overall pass rush.  The past few seasons, they have rotated defensive linemen in and out of the game in order to keep them fresh through the balance of the season and in the fourth quarter of individual games.

They may be facing a bigger loss on Sunday, though, as right end Jason Babin has been held out of practice all week.  Babin leads the team with 12.5 sacks and had the game's only sack and two tackles in the first game.

Tennessee has recorded 39 sacks on the season and all but seven of those have come from defensive linemen, with five of the seven outlying sacks coming from linebackers Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath.

They rarely blitz and very rarely bring defensive backs on the blitz, so the offensive line should not have to deal with a lot of exotic looks and pressure coming from different directions.  What they will have to deal with, though, is the talented crop of Titans defensive linemen, which is quite a handful.

The Titans defensive tackles are very quick, active, and are also excellent pass rushers, which will not help the interior of the Indianapolis offensive line, though they have played better in the past two weeks.  Jeff Saturday will need to get more involved and Mike Pollak and Kyle DeVan — who have started together the past few weeks and that continuity has helped overall performance on the inside  — will need to get back quickly and lock down on their man in order to avoid the embarrassment of seeing the Tennessee defensive tackles in the backfield all day.  They did a fine job against Richard Seymour and Tommie Kelly in Week 16, so here's hoping they will be able to build on that momentum in Week 17.

As skilled as the Tennessee ends are as pass rushers, they struggle to seal the edge, allowing 7.27 yards per attempt around left end and 4.71 yards per attempt around right end.  With Joseph Addai finally back in the lineup and Donald Brown showing flashes of the potential Bill Polian saw in him when he drafted him in the first round in 2009, the Colts have the speed and talent at tailback to take advantage of this matchup.

When Mike Hart and Dominic Rhodes are also thrown into the mix, Indianapolis should be able to keep their running backs fresh throughout the game and hopefully be able to run the clock out with a big lead.  This is the first time all season that they have had a full complement of healthy backs — plus Rhodes, who seems to have found the fountain of pre-30 youth in the UFL — so they should run the ball as much as possible to keep the Tennessee defense off balance and to keep Peyton Manning upright against what is still a ferocious pass rush, even without Babin.

Witherspoon is the star of this group, but they are all high energy players that are very capable pass defenders.  Tennessee used to be known for their big, physical linebackers, but they have gotten leaner and more athletic throughout the past few seasons and are now more like the Indianapolis linebacking corps than they are like their predecessors.  The key difference is that the Titans don't like teams to run on them up the middle, so even the outside linebackers crash inside, which leaves a natural lane to the outside. 

Stephen Tulloch is not the star of this unit, but he is most definitely its leader.  He has the quickness and instincts to get back in the passing game, but not the speed to get to the edge and stop Brown.  He has racked up 127 tackles already this season — a career high though he's only 12 games in — and the Titans scheme tends to funnel the ball carrier in his direction.  Tulloch will play a vital role in goal to go situations, but the primary objective for Indianapolis should be to make him less of a factor on the stat sheet and therefore less of a factor in the game.

The Titans stayed in their nickel defense, with Tulloch and Witherspoon in at linebacker in the Week 14 match-up and that is what they will most likely do on Sunday, since they don't fear the Indianapolis running game as much as they fear Manning and his receivers.  The two linebackers combined for 17 tackles and a tackle for loss in the first game, so expect them to be just as involved — if not more involved — in Week 17.

Tennessee ranks 24th in yards per game allowed, 23rd against the pass, and 22nd against the run, but they are eighth in points allowed.  They tend to clamp down in the red zone and especially in goal to go situations, forcing turnovers or making their opponents settle for field goals.  Indianapolis has been extremely effective in the red zone this year and almost automatic in goal to go, leading the league in both categories.

But, they were not as productive as the Titans in the last game, settling for two field goals in five trips inside the 20.  They were 3-for-5 in the red zone and 2-for-3 in goal to go, as opposed to a 4-for-4 effort by Tennessee.  Not being able to score touchdowns in the red zone will not decide this game for the Colts, but it certainly will help to influence early momentum.

If Indianapolis can punch the ball in early and often, they will start to take the wind out of the collective sails of the Titans, which will make it easier to grind the remainder of the game out and start to work on a game plan for the first playoff game.

The hallmark of the Titans secondary is that they're all very good tacklers.  They have allowed opponents to complete over 65 percent of their passes in the short left and short middle areas of the field and an astonishing 75 percent of their passes to the short right, but they rank third in the league in yards per attempt given up to the short left, where Cortland Finnegan plays, and are 16th in the short middle. 

They are 26th in the league in yards per attempt allowed on throws to the short right, though, where Alterraun Verner lines up.  Pierre Garcon — and, really, anyone that lined up opposite Verner — destroyed him in the Week 14 matchup, catching six passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns.  Blair White also experienced a great deal of success — albeit on shorter passes — when matched up against Jason McCourty in the slot.  Jacob Tamme was quiet in the first game and had been experiencing a bit of a slump until he posted seven receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown in Week 16 against the Raiders.

Reggie Wayne draws Finnegan, who is an easier draw for Wayne than Nnamdi Asomugha was last week.  Wayne caught four passes for 106 yards — he was the only receiver in the game to eclipse the 100-yard mark — and was mostly targeted deep, with a total of seven targets on the game.

Finnegan will probably follow Wayne wherever he goes on the field, but it would be a good idea for Manning and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen to try to isolate Wayne on Verner, as he is the weakest link in the secondary and by a fairly wide margin.

One of the reasons that Tamme finished with only four receptions for 36 yards in the first matchup is because safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin took turns covering him and both are particularly good at covering tight ends, since they are both fairly big, are physical players, and are usually faster than a tight end.

By exploiting Finnegan and Verner on the perimeter and dinking and dunking past McCourty in the slot, Manning should be able to get Hope, Griffin, and the Titans defense in general to spread out a bit, which would open things up underneath.  Hope and Griffin are also excellent \"in the box\" players and are eager to help in run support.  All of these factors add up to spreading them out, backing them up, then drawing them in with play action and hitting Tamme and White in the deep seam and Wayne and Garcon on deep posts. 

When the Colts have gotten huge chunks of yards and big touchdown plays in the passing game this season, it has mostly been to the deep middle of the field.  Manning has connected on over 45 percent of his passes for an average of 12.94 yards per attempt to the deep middle, which is the fourth-best average in the league and by far the most effective branch on the Indianapolis passing tree.

Finnegan, Verner, and McCourty can certainly be victimized and can be used to knock the secondary off balance, but the death blow will be dealt by a deep pass over the middle, with the safeties scrambling close to the line of scrimmage and the cornerbacks trailing the play.

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