Everything starts up front with the active and aggressive front four for the Titans. Albert Haynesworth is a Pro Bowl player that occupies a great deal of space at the nose position, but also is the team's best pass rusher, with six sacks.
This is a unit that is actually eight deep, even with the loss of Travis LaBoy in the offseason. They drafted Jason Jones of Eastern Michigan this year, and he has played both end and subbed in for the injured Tony Brown at left defensive tackle.
David Garrard throws the ball away while getting hit by Vanden Bosch
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Kyle Vanden Bosch has also missed some time due to injury, but the defensive line has not missed a beat without his two-way talents in the lineup.
In addition, Jevon Kearse is back with the team that drafted him and, while he is no longer "The Freak" that he once was, he has added some much needed bulk that has helped him to stay off the injury report and assisted him in run support.
Against the run, they maintain their gaps and play very disciplined, yet aggressive and tenacious football. Haynesworth, Brown, and Jones use their hands particularly well and demonstrate excellent body positioning, making yards between the tackles very difficult to come by.
Tennessee is the eighth-ranked defense in the NFL against the run, which speaks to the abilities of these men, as well as the front seven in general.
Where this unit truly excels, though, is in getting to the quarterback, as evidenced by the fact that 17 of their 18 sacks have been tallied by defensive linemen.
The good news is that they don't tend to run many stunts or slants, they tend to just line up and attack. The bad news is that Vanden Bosch matches up well against Tony Ugoh, Kearse is a handful for any right tackle, to say nothing of Ryan Diem, who tends to get flat-footed against speed rushers, and Haynesworth and Jones would be troublesome for an All-Pro interior, nonetheless Jeff Saturday, Jamie Richard, and Mike Pollak. Ryan Lilja cannot return to action soon enough.
Typically, a team would combat such a ferocious pass rush by running draws, delays, and screens early on in order to slow pursuit. However, the talent in the back seven and their ability to close on the ball carrier would make this an exercise in futility, as many teams have already discovered.
In order to keep this unit off balance, Peyton Manning needs to execute quick snap counts and vary his cadence and the Colts need to switch their protections, from the standard five blockers, to keeping Dominic Rhodes, or Dallas Clark (or Gijon Robinson) in on passing downs, if not both.
Changing snap counts, cadence, and protections will disrupt the timing and rhythm of the rush, which is especially important on the road, particularly in a game of this magnitude.
This unit is led by former Pro Bowler Keith Bulluck, who has proven himself to be both a tackling machine and a very capable player in pass coverage. He is an excellent two-way defender and, though former Colt David Thornton led the team in tackles last season because teams decided to run away from Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, Bulluck currently leads all linebackers in tackles.
Colts fans are familiar with Thornton and what he brings to the table, both against the run and the pass, and he has similar responsibilities in the Titans system to what he had when he played in Indianapolis — cover the slant route against the pass, don't let the running back get to the edge in the running game. He covers a lot of ground with Tennessee and is neither a strength nor a weakness.
If a weak spot exists among the linebackers, it is middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. He is undersized for this defense at 5-feet-11 and 235 pounds and, while he does a fine job covering the middle of the field in pass coverage, the fact that safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin both have more tackles than Tulloch speaks volumes in terms of his ability to get to the ball.
For this reason, Indianapolis should attack the middle of the field, both when they run and when they pass.
In the passing game, the intermediate middle should be open behind Tulloch and in front of Griffin and Hope, and, although Haynesworth and Jones make the sledding in the middle tough, running behind the inexperienced interior of the offensive line offers the Colts the greatest opportunity for success, particularly with Rhodes, who gains more yards after contact and is more accustomed to running up the middle.
The intermediate area, especially in the middle, is where Indianapolis needs to focus their attention if they hope to sustain drives and score points against this defense.
Cortland Finnegan is the star of this unit, with 32 tackles (third on the team) and four interceptions (tied with safety Michael Griffin). Since the Titans primarily play man coverage in the secondary, Finnegan will draw the assignment of covering Reggie Wayne.
The Titans cornerbacks employ a press coverage scheme that is very similar to the one that stymied Wayne and Marvin Harrison against Green Bay. Although this game, under the national spotlight, promises to be more tightly called, it is still incumbent upon Wayne to beat the press and go deep. He will be acting as a decoy in the early going, clearing Finnegan and Griffin out of the play.
The Kansas City Chiefs actually had a good game plan to attack this secondary in Week 7, they simply didn't have the necessary talent to execute it. The Colts do.
Cortland Finnegan takes down Steve Smith in a 2007 game
Harry How/Getty Images
Their strategy was to take advantage of the man coverage Tennessee runs, to clear out Griffin and Finnegan deep, and attack underneath and in the intermediate middle. While they focused on Tony Gonzalez and trying to find space for Dwayne Bowe, Indianapolis should turn their attention to Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, and Harrison.
Harrison will be matched up against Nick Harper and, as any Colts fan will tell you, man coverage against quality receivers is not Harper's long suit. The Colts should focus on in and post routes to Harrison and flag and comeback routes to Gonzalez. Though yards after the catch will be hard to come by, these two men must succeed with the ball in their hands and not relent to gain additional yardage, even after they are punished by the Tennessee secondary.
As Manning begins to pick the secondary apart with precision passes to Gonzalez and Harrison, that should open things up for Clark and Rhodes underneath. As the defense begins to creep up in order to keep the Colts from nickel-and-diming them to death, Wayne becomes less of a decoy and more of a deep threat.
Speaking of nickels and dimes, the Titans are not very deep at the cornerback position and tend to substitute safeties Vincent Fuller and Donnie Nickey in for the linebackers, though they rarely go to six defensive backs. This creates favorable matchups for Clark and Gonzalez, who will either be facing linebackers or safeties.
Overall, Indianapolis needs to exploit the lack of depth in the secondary and the vulnerabilities in the intermediate area early and often. They need to come out in shotgun formation, spread the defense out, and continue to attack.
By varying their protections and cadence, they should be able to disrupt the timing of the pass rush enough to give Manning a sufficient amount of time to capitalize on the opportunities that will unfold.
And, by operating out of spread formations, the Colts will be able to keep the more talented members of the front seven off the field, allowing their more talented skill position players to face off against the less talented players on these deep Titans team.
Peyton Manning. The running game will not and should not be a factor early. Therefore, the game is in Manning's hands.
He allowed himself to become frustrated and get flustered early against the Packers, which led to missed opportunities and mistakes that went the other way late. Tennessee is the most comprehensive and talented defense that Manning has faced yet. He needs to prove that he can overcome them in order to regain his lost confidence, which make the gains he made against Baltimore seem like far longer than two weeks ago.