The Tennessee offensive line is not comprised of super stars and Pro Bowl players — though center Kevin Mawae has been to Hawaii six times — but they are very good at what they do. They are primarily asked to run block, but they do a very commendable job in pass protection as well.
Kevin Mawae with Vince Young
AP Photo/John Russell
As a unit, Mawae, left tackle Michael Roos, right tackle David Stewart, left guard Eugene Amano, and right guard and former Colt Jake Scott trap, seal off and finish blocks, and contain backside pursuit as well as any offensive line in the NFL.
Since the Titans running backs generally just need a seam or a clear lane to do serious damage to a defense, that is all the front five for Tennessee needs to worry about and they do it very well.
Aside from a few counters here and there near the goal line — watch for this and LenDale White when the Titans get inside the ten — and the occasional draw play on third and long, Tennessee tends to just line up across from the defense and try to out-execute and out-muscle their opponent. For the most part, they have been very successful.
This group, with the exception of Scott, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason, has been together for a long time, they know their responsibilities, and they know how to get the job done.
Since Raheem Brock, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Keyunta Dawson, and Eric Foster represent the lightest defensive line in football, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to outfight the Titans linemen at the point of attack.
What they can do, however, is work on their execution, their gap discipline, and holding their position long enough for pursuit from the front side to get to the ball carrier.
These have not been strong points for the Colts this season, but they showed considerable improvement in these areas against the Ravens in Week 6 and even on Sunday against the Packers, since it took Ryan Grant 31 carries to gain over 100 yards.
When facing the Titans on Monday night, they will need to be even more disciplined, as overpursuit and missed lanes could spell long gains for White and the speedy Chris Johnson.
If the Colts are able to force the Titans into third and long situations, though, their odds improve considerably, as Tennessee's offense is not built to overcome sizeable down and distance situations and, while Roos and Stewart are fine players, they will not be able to consistently match up against and lock onto Freeney and Mathis, provided both players are healthy and up to their usual standards of play. The pass rush, and their role in it, has also been an issue thus far in 2008.
To put that in perspective, if those stats were combined into one player, that receiver would rank 14th in receptions, 16th in total yards, and 65th in total touchdowns. For further perspective, tight ends Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife have combined for almost as many receptions (32), almost as many yards (373), and more touchdowns (2).
Part of the dreadful numbers for the receiving corps is as a result of the system, which stresses more bootlegs and drag routes, safe passes to move the chains. A bigger part of it, though, is that the Titans do not have talent at the receiver position. They became aware of this fact after the first two games and adjusted their game plan accordingly.
To counteract this risk averse scheme, the Colts need to be aggressive in their pursuit of the ball carrier, particularly on naked bootlegs, and they need to be aggressive in positioning their defensive backs and linebackers, placing them closer to the line of scrimmage and preventing anything underneath from being completed.
The advantages of this strategy are twofold: It will eliminate short crossing and drag routes, thus taking away the security blanket of the Tennessee passing attack, and it will bring the defenders closer to the ball carrier in the running game, effectively putting 11 men in the box.
It leaves the Colts vulnerable to the deep pass but, as stated earlier, that leaves them vulnerable to, at best, the 14th most potent receiver in the NFL.
LenDale White and Chris Johnson are two very talented players, but they have their limitations, as any player does.
White and Johnson are very strong after contact — White more so than Johnson, but White also has 60 pounds on the rookie — both run with violence and aggression, and both have the vision and decisiveness to see the hole and hit it hard.
RB LenDale White
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
White is a classic between-the-tackles runner, but he does have some top-end speed once he gets going, as he proved last week against Kansas City. Johnson recorded one of the fastest times ever at this year's Combine and possesses electric game speed, not just stopwatch speed.
The danger with White is that, once he gets a head of steam, he will be very difficult to bring down and, even though all runners are vulnerable to having their legs swept, White has good balance and a powerful lower body, so he won't go down easily if the linebackers and defensive backs try to submarine him all day.
The danger with Johnson is that he has the ability and explosiveness to cut out of a bad situation and make a big play against pursuit.
The way to stop both men, though, is to fill their running lanes, not get overwhelmed and shoved out of the way by the Titans physical offensive line, and force these young men to hesitate. Once they hesitate, they lose their momentum and neither is creative enough to make something out of nothing.
The only caveat to that is the fact that Johnson can always bounce a play to the outside, use his speed to beat the defense to the corner, and pile up a lot of yards after either slowing or coming to a dead stop. The only way to prevent that from happening is to not allow the Tennessee blockers to seal off backside pursuit, which, as stated, is something that they are very good at.
Given the matchups and the players available — both starters and on the bench mdash; it will be impossible for the Colts front four to contain this rushing attack on their guile and gap discipline alone. They will need help, with heavy doses of run blitzes from Clint Session, Freddy Keiaho, and Tyjuan Hagler.
Melvin Bullitt and Gary Brackett will need to act as roaming assassins, taking out whoever makes it through the first line of defense. Brackett will cover the middle and Bullit the edge, with a little help from Antoine Bethea.
With all 11 men crowding the line of scrimmage, attacking, penetrating, blitzing, and filling gaps, all while playing with a very aggressive mindset that should be tempered with discipline and awareness, the Colts can slow down and possibly even stop the Titans ground game.
It won't be easy, it definitely will not always be pretty, and they may not always succeed, but their only chance at victory is to keep this relentless rushing attack at bay and put the game in the hands of the quarterback.
Kerry Collins is not, never will be, and never has been a quarterback that can take a team on his shoulders and will them to victory.
But, he makes excellent decisions, has picked up a great deal of awareness and poise in his 14 seasons in the league, and still has an above-average arm — he can still complete the 15-yard out and throws a nice deep ball.
But, with the hand the Titans have been dealt in terms of skill position players and the overall philosophy of coach Jeff Fisher, Tennessee has decided to re-shuffle the deck and not force Collins into a situation where he would need to carry the team on his shoulders. The overriding reason for the re-shuffling, though, is a matter of personnel.
It is a virtual certainty that Tennessee knows how well they run the ball. They also know how poorly the Colts defend the run. A simple viewing of the depth charts reveals that the matchups favor the Titans to pound the ball for 60 minutes and grind the Indianapolis defenders into the turf.
Tennessee knows that the Colts have to sell out against the run and commit every defender to the line to stop them. Their first instinct will therefore be to put the game in Collins' hands early and have him try to hit a few passes over the top.
The issue with that, of course, is that the Titans receivers are not good players. In this situation, the Colts players and coaches need to gamble on the fact that Collins will not be able to consistently get his receivers the ball and, if he can, that his receivers will not be able to consistently fight off whatever coverage they might be facing and catch the ball.
The key, once again, will be pressure and aggressiveness, blitzing more than the Colts are accustomed to and bringing players from every angle, but especially from the edges and particularly cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings — or Kelvin Hayden, if possible, but it appears as though Hayden will not be ready to go.
Collins goes through his progressions very quickly and, both due to scheme and experience, is not set up to get the ball deep to his wideouts. The more pressure and blitzes that Indianapolis brings, the faster Collins will need to go through his progressions and the more likely he is to check the ball down to Crumpler, Scaife, Johnson, or fullback Ahmard Hall.
Any successful defensive game plan is predicated around one, basic strategy: Take away what the offense does best and make them beat you with what they don't do well. Although every player at the NFL level is among the best in the world at his position and deserves respect, it needs to be said that, if the Titans are able to beat the Colts will Brandon Jones, Justin McCareins, and Justin Gage, they deserve to win.
Fatigue. From a physical standpoint as well as an emotional one, this will be the toughest game the Colts have played to this point. They will be on the road, playing under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, and facing the prospect of a four-game deficit in their division if they lose.
On top of that, Tennessee's players will bring a level of intensity that possibly even they have not experienced, especially in the fourth quarter. Indianapolis needs to match that intensity, particularly on defense, and avoid being steamrolled in the running game or burned deep in the passing game in the early going.
The Titans are an excellent first quarter team, but they are also an excellent fourth quarter team. The key for the Colts will be not match Tennessee's energy, intensity, and physicality in the first quarter, win the second and third quarters, and have enough left to withstand one final rush in the fourth quarter.