The Indianapolis Colts (10-5) will look to finish their third consecutive season with 11 wins when they venture to Nashville, Tenn., Sunday to take on the Tennessee Titans (2-13) at LP Field. The Titans are tied with Tampa Bay for the NFL’s worst record. The Colts have won five in a row in the series, including 41-17 in Week 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Here are the Colts’ keys:
1. Don’t let them hang around — Sounds like a simple task, considering the Titans have lost nine in a row and are just finishing out a forgettable season. But we see this every week in the NFL. Washington couldn’t do anything right for weeks, then inexplicably knocked off Philadelphia to kills the Eagles’ playoff hopes. This game shouldn’t be close. The Colts should be able to move the ball and score against a defense that has allowed 29.9 points per game in the last eight outings. And they should be able to stuff a Titans offense that has scored just 15.6 points per game in the last 10 games. But keep in mind, the Colts aren’t confident right now. They haven’t been playing well. Before Sunday’s 42-7 loss at Dallas last Sunday, the Colts struggled to defeat teams when it shouldn’t have been as difficult. So don’t buy into any theory that this is a gimme. No such thing in the NFL. Let the Titans stay close on their home field and an upset is possible.
2. Get Andrew Luck untracked early — While it’s true the Titans have struggled to stop the run and the pass, playing it conservative will play into Tennessee’s hands. What we’ve learned after 15 games is the Colts’ offense doesn’t go anywhere if its quarterback isn’t setting the tone in the passing game. The Titans couldn’t stop Luck in the previous meeting and shouldn’t be able to do it now if he comes out firing. While Luck has had his problems with turnovers of late, he should have open targets if the O-line gives him time. And he’s a competitor. He will take advantage of whatever the defense gives him, be it the deep ball or a check-down throw to a running back. Don’t overthink it. Don’t insist on pounding away with a weak run game with the idea that the Colts must rediscover balance to win. That’s nonsense. There’s a reason Luck has set career highs in passing yards and TDs this season. Turn him loose and let him do what he does best. The run game will benefit as a result.
3. Turnovers are the equalizer — Careless decisions with the football are the easiest way to make this game more interesting than it needs to be. The Colts have 31 turnovers. Luck has 22 of them on 16 interceptions and six lost fumbles. He realizes he can’t keep making “stupid” mistakes, as he calls them. But that’s not all on him. Receivers need to get separation and hang onto passes when they’re open. The line needs to keep pass rushers from drilling their quarterback and separating him from the football. Play it smart, don’t take unnecessary risks, get a lot of pass catchers involved to create obvious mismatches in coverage. Do that and the Titans’ defense will falter. And Luck can’t try to extend plays if he’s wrapped up for fear of a game-changing fumble or try to fit passes into double coverage when the receiver isn’t open. He’s done that repeatedly later in the season. It must stop.
4. Limit the Titans’ run game — Rookie running back Bishop Sankey is a capable talent and the Titans will look to establish him early. The Colts have been stingy against the run games of weaker opponents and can’t let this guy get going. Sankey didn’t get enough touches in the previous meeting, but he ran for 37 yards on five carries (5.7 yards per carry) with one touchdown and caught two passes for 23 yards. The Titans are building for the future and there’s no reason not to give this kid a lot of work unless the Colts stuff him. As much as the Cowboys humbled the Colts defensively last week, it wasn’t because of the run game. Stick to your fundamental keys of gap responsibility and know where this guy is at all times. Take him out of the equation consistently and the onus to move the ball is then placed on quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. It’s basic situation football. Make an offense one-dimensional and you’ve already won half of the battle.
5. Bring the heat — When the Colts’ defense has excelled this season, it’s typically been because the 3-4 blitz has been unblockable. While the Colts must be wary of the Titans checking to quick-hit plays, draws and screens, to take advantage of the visitors’ obvious aggressiveness, solid defense on first and second down means predictable pass situations on third down. And forcing Whitehurst to throw quickly and have to make plays before he wants to is an obvious key. The Colts sacked Whitehurst three times last time. Sacks typically end drives and constant pressure can produce turnovers. He was intercepted once in the last game, too. There’s plenty of film out there on how to attack the Colts, but it still boils down to down-and-distance football. If the Titans aren’t moving the ball well on the first two downs, they’re at the mercy of blitz pressure in adverse situations. The Titans have allowed 38 sacks. They’ve committed 25 turnovers. Colts defenders should have an opportunity to make big plays.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.