Everything the Titans do on defense starts with their talented and active front four. Neutralizing them is the key to neutralizing the entire unit. The only problem is that it's incredibly difficult to do that and few, if any, teams have been able to do so this season.
On the right side of the defensive line are the two stars for Tennessee, right end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Albert Haynesworth. Both players are exceptional two-way defenders, use their hands well, and are very adept at penetrating the line of scrimmage. Tony Ugoh and Ryan Lilja will have their hands full, particularly in the running game, where both Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth seem to know just the right time to attack the line or hold at the point of attack and allow the linebackers to flow to the football.
In the passing game, Ugoh will need some help with Vanden Bosch, most likely from Kenton Keith, since Joseph Addai will probably only play a series or two in order to keep fresh, but rest himself for the playoffs. Tight end Ben Utecht will contribute here as well.
David Garrard throws the ball away while getting hit by Vanden Bosch
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
While none of the members of the Tennessee defensive line are particularly talented pass rushers, they all have nonstop motors and are relentless in their pursuit of the ball carrier — Vanden Bosch in particular. Ugoh, Lilja, Jeff Saturday, Jake Scott, and Ryan Diem — but mostly Charlie Johnson at right tackle, since Diem will be rested as well — need to be just as diligent, because even though Keith and Jim Sorgi are backups, they are still important to the team and need to be protected.
Given the relative lack of quality depth along the offensive line, everyone but Diem should play three full quarters in order to ensure the safety of the men backing up Addai and Peyton Manning.
They don't get the headlines that Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch enjoy, but tackle Tony Brown and left end Antwan Odom are both fine players in their own right. Out of the 28 total sacks generated by the Titans front four — they tend to rely solely on their defensive line to create pressure and coordinator Jim Schwartz rarely blitzes — ten of them belong to the left side of this group.
If there is a weak link up front, though, it is these two gentlemen. There isn't really a good area to run through against Tennessee, with Haynesworth taking away the middle and Vanden Bosch taking away the left side of the offense, but Indianapolis should experience the most success running to their right, directly at the lesser pair of Titans linemen.
Albert Haynesworth hitting Eli Manning as he gets a pass away
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Vanden Bosch accounts for 12 of those sacks, but also has 101 tackles on the season — an incredible number for a right end in any system — which speaks to the intensity and mentality of the defensive line as a whole. In order to have success on Sunday night, especially in the early going, before Manning and Addai become spectators, the offensive line needs to match this intensity and tenacity.
Weakside linebacker Keith Bulluck is still a tremendously talented two-way defender, as evidenced by his five interceptions to go along with 85 tackles. Since Dallas Clark will likely line up on the other side of the formation, per usual and also to steer clear of Bulluck, Tennessee will probably take advantage of his coverage skills by dropping him into a zone to give cornerback Cortland Finnegan some assistance with Reggie Wayne in the short middle area.
Bulluck has excellent instincts and sure hands and, with Indianapolis avoiding his side of the field in the running game, his contributions in the passing game will be integral to the Titans' overall effectiveness on defense.
Former Colt David Thornton patrols the strong side of the formation and, given his time under Tony Dungy's tutelage, has some coverage ability of his own. He still does not match up well against Clark, but no linebacker in the league does. He will present a stiff challenge for the Colts' talented receiving tight end.
Clark needs to create separation at the snap in the passing game and block down hard on Thornton in the running game. His dominance of Thornton in both phases is a big key to the game and will go a long way in determining who wins the battle of the line of scrimmage, as well as helping to eliminate the considerable edge the Titans hold over the Colts in their defensive line vs. the Indianapolis offensive line.
Avoiding Bulluck and eliminating Thornton will allow the Colts to isolate on middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who is the only player in the front seven that presents a favorable matchup for Indianapolis.
Tulloch is a fine young player with potential, but he is undersized, does not play well in space, and tends to shy away from contact. If the outside linebackers can be taken away and Lilja, Saturday, and Scott can get a good push off the ball, Keith or Addai vs. Tulloch in the open field will almost always be a winning combination for the Colts.
If they can isolate on him up through the middle of the defense and the running back gets a clear path to the second level, Indianapolis can do a lot of damage in the running game.
Success in the running game will set up the play-action passing attack that both Indianapolis quarterbacks run so effectively. And it will allow them to exploit the only area in which they hold an decided advantage — Tennessee's injury-ravaged and inexperienced secondary.
With starters Michael Griffin and Chris Hope now on injured reserve and standout cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones suspended for the season, the wear and tear is beginning to show in the Titans back four. Nick Harper was a game time scratch in Week 16 due to a groin injury that he sustained during warm-ups, so if he is unable to go, the task of guarding Anthony Gonzalez falls to Reynaldo Hill.
Hill played well in relief of Harper against the Jets, registering an interception, but also suffered from the same highs and lows, as well as lapses in concentration, that any young player suffers from. With a young, emerging player like Gonzalez, who is very precise and tends to make defenders pay for lapses in concentration, this matchup could have disastrous results for the Titans. The silver lining for them is that, with Gonzalez nursing an injury, he may not play more than a series or two.
As mentioned earlier, Cortland Finnegan will have a great deal of help from Bulluck short, but he'll also have help from Calvin Lowry deep. Since Bulluck is basically a safety in linebacker's clothing, it behooves the Colts to attack the Titans deep as opposed to short. And, with Finnegan being young and inexperienced himself, play action and double moves by Wayne and Gonzalez should open up some big plays deep.
The only issue with all of this is that Indianapolis is not the first team to realize that Tennessee is vulnerable in the secondary, especially in the intermediate-to-deep areas of the field. With the aggressive, attacking, relentless, and versatile defenders that the Titans have in the front seven, it has been very difficult for anyone to take advantage of this fact.
The matchups are there and are heavily weighted in the Colts' favor in the passing game. The question will be whether or not the offensive line will be able to keep Manning and Sorgi upright in order to exploit those matchups.