Five keys for Sunday vs. Titans

Expect Colts' run defense to be tested as Titans try to establish ground game to take pressure off quarterback.

The Indianapolis Colts return to Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday to host the Tennessee Titans in a matchup of 1-2 AFC South Division teams. Here are five Colts keys.

Stuff the run — Titans quarterback Jake Locker is questionable with a right wrist injury and didn’t practice much during the week. If he can’t go, journeyman Charlie Whitehurst gets the nod. The latter has started just four games in nine seasons. Regardless of who takes snaps, the visitors will try to take pressure of the quarterback by challenging the Colts’ run defense. Running backs Shonn Greene (4.8 yards per carry) and Bishop Sankey (4.9 ypc) have been effective behind an O-line that is supposed to be a team strength. The Titans rank fifth in the NFL in rushing average at 5 yards per carry. And the Colts will be without defensive tackle Arthur Jones (high ankle sprain), who was excellent at clogging the middle and keeping linebackers free to make tackles. The Colts will also be without inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (hamstring), so it won’t be any secret what Tennessee must do to keep the clock running and keep Colts quarterback Andrew Luck off the field as much as possible.

Expect draws, screens — The Titans saw how Philadelphia rallied from two touchdowns down in the third quarter to beat the Colts with an array of screen passes and draw plays. Tennessee doesn’t have a Darren Sproles, but running back Dexter McCluster can make big plays if given space. The Titans will look to cross up the Colts defense when the home team has the down-and-distance advantage. The Colts can’t over-pursue or stray from their responsibilities, even if the personnel is more suited to pass defense. It won’t be surprising if the Colts load up the box to get the Titans in difficult third-down situations. The Titans are 31st in third-down efficiency, converting just 28.9 percent. But as long as Tennessee can stay in the game, coach Ken Whisenhunt will play it smart and look to exploit over-anxious defenders in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme.

Jump on ‘em early — The Colts never gave Jacksonville much of a chance last week, jumping on the Jaguars with scoring drives on each of their six first-half possessions for a 30-0 halftime lead. The Titans are better than that. And while the defense lacks impact playmakers, Tennessee ranks second in pass defense and fifth in total yards allowed. Part of that is because teams have been able to run on them. But the Colts have had issues when running in predictable situations. Passing first typically opens it up for the run. Whatever works, the Colts must get the early lead and finish drives to force the Titans to adjust. Tennessee can’t sit back and play field position and time of possession if it falls behind by too much too soon. Because the Titans are 24th in rushing yards allowed, the Colts will probably test that front seven early by running the ball. If that doesn’t prove to be effective, Luck will be counted on to move the offense by throwing. The Colts have scored 95 points, more than double the Titans’ 43, so scoring hasn’t been an issue so far.

Protect Luck — While the Colts’ O-line has improved in its pass blocking, Luck has been sacked five times and doesn’t always have enough time to throw to receivers running deeper routes. Seven Titans have accumulated eight sacks, led by captain Jurrell Casey with two. The defensive tackle is a tough one-on-one matchup. He had 10.5 sacks last season, which earned him All-Pro second-team honors and a new contract. If his teammates can’t generate consistent pocket pressure, the Colts can get away with double-teaming Casey, should he create problems. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano hasn’t said who will start for right offensive guard Hugh Thornton, who is doubtful with an ankle injury. It could be Joe Reitz, rookie Jonotthan Harrison or Lance Louis. Whomever the Colts use, expect the Titans to try for a strong push inside, including blitzes. The Colts have erred at times to pick up blitzes, allowing defenders to come free at Luck. The Titans obviously have seen this on film.

Ball security — The Colts didn’t turn the ball over at Jacksonville after having three interceptions and one lost fumble in the two previous games. The Titans have four interceptions and a recovered fumble, so it’s a given the visitors will be looking to capitalize on any Colts mistakes. Luck continually talks about his need to take care of the football and not make risky throws. He’s been hard on himself for the interceptions, although he leads the NFL with nine TD passes, and has mentioned how the Colts weren’t sloppy a year ago, when they had just 14 giveaways all season. Titans cornerback Jason McCourty has two INTs. There’s no need to take too many chances early and give the visitors some breaks. Even a punt is preferred as opposed to a dangerous pass that could be intercepted. RB Trent Richardson fumbled twice against the Eagles, losing one, so defenders will be looking to pry the ball loose. The Titans are +1 in turnover differential while the Colts are even.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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