This is the best group up front that the Colts defense has faced to this point in 2009, but not by far. In 2008, they were arguably the best offensive line in football, allowing less than a sack per game and averaging 137.4 yards rushing per game, which ranked seventh in the league.
This season, they're back to their old tricks on the ground, ranking seventh and averaging 137 yards rushing per game, but their offensive line is now giving up more than one sack per game and is allowing quarterback Kerry Collins to be pressured and knocked to the ground more frequently than they did last season.
OT Michael Roos
Roos made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2008 and was first-team All-Pro. He shut out Dwight Freeney the last time the two played each other in a meaningful game for Tennessee, has very quick feet and hands, and is aggressive at the point of attack. He is a stiff challenge for Freeney and may be one of three tackles this season that won't need help blocking the Pro Bowl defensive end.
On the other side of the field, Stewart is more of a prototypical mauling right tackle at 6-foot-7 and 318 pounds, which seem like understated numbers to look at him. He will seek to engulf Robert Mathis at the point and not allow Mathis to get the edge.
Also, the Titans will run right at Freeney and Mathis in attempt to slow down their pass rush, as Tennessee is averaging 6.19 yards per carry around left end and 9.54 yards per carry around right end. Their numbers aren't quite as impressive running left tackle and right tackle (3.57 and 5.55, respectively), but they are still formidable.
Indianapolis has done a great job in containing the edge so far this season against non-Wildcat teams, but they have not faced a team that pulls, traps, and kicks out as well as the Tennessee Titans do.
Up the middle, center Kevin Mawae is a perennial Pro Bowler, Colts fans are familiar with what Jake Scott can do when motivated, and Eugene Amano has assimilated his responsibilities with passion and violence. As a result, Tennessee is averaging 6.9 yards per carry on 20 attempts up the middle.
Indianapolis has improved considerably on their numbers since the start of the season, bringing their average yards per carry allowed to 3.52, having faced 42 rushes up the middle, which is third most in the NFL. The concern there is that they were hardly challenged the past two weeks between the tackles in games where they jumped out to large early leads and took away the running game. Ed Johnson and Antonio Johnson are improving, no doubt, but they did get off easy against Seattle and Arizona.
Tennessee cannot win a shootout against Indianapolis and they know it. They understand that their best course of action is to lock down on the defensive tackles in the middle, cut off the outside lanes of pursuit on the edges, and run the Colts into the ground. Indianapolis needs to hold the point of attack, stay in their lanes, and make sure that doesn't happen against a very angry and motivated opponent on Sunday night.
The most pleasant surprise of the season thus far for the Titans has been the play of first round pick Kenny Britt. Although first-round picks are assumed to be productive given their draft position, first-year receivers tend to struggle, particularly in their first few games.
WR Kenny Britt
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Britt leads all Tennessee receivers in receptions (17), yards (271) and yards per reception (15.9). He is the deep threat on this team and the player most likely to make a game-changing play among the receiving corps.
Justin Gage and Nate Washington are fine players, but they have been targeted primarily on intermediate routes over the middle on the perimeter so far this season, which is one area in which the Colts pass defense has been tremendous.
They have faced the most passing plays of any team in the league to the short left (56) and the third most passing plays to the short right (61) and have responded by allowing 4.98 and 5.52 yards per attempt, respectively. Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden, Marlin Jackson, and Jacob Lacey have all done a fine job of tackling their man when he catches the ball and keeping a short passing route from becoming a long gain.
Over the middle, Indianapolis has been less effective, allowing an average of 8.19 yards per attempt on 16 attempts, but, with Bo Scaife still hampered slightly by a knee injury, his ability to stretch the seam — never a huge threat, but always a possibility — has been hampered. Additionally, the Cardinals were the only team to effectively and consistently beat the Colts over the middle and it is safe to say that the Titans do not possess the kind of talent at the receiver position that Arizona possesses.
Aside from Britt, the biggest threat Tennessee poses in the passing game is outlet, flare, screen, and checkdown passes to explosive second-year tailback Chris Johnson. He has the ability to make a defender look foolish, make a cut, and fly up the field for a score. Tyjuan Hagler and Clint Session in particular need to make sure that they pursue Johnson, but keep him in front of them and don't over pursue him, as he is the one player — both running and receiving the ball — that can kill the Indianapolis defense.
Which brings the discussion back to Johnson, who has been one of the few bright spots for Tennessee given their 0-4 start to the season. He has averaged a gaudy 6.3 yards per carry thus far and has scored three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving.
He is averaging 8.4 yards per reception, which brings his yards per touch to 6.6. The troubling part of his development as far as the Colts are concerned is that he is equally effective and equally dangerous running between the tackles as he is running outside the tackles.
RB LenDale White
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Since battery mate LenDale White has only 23 carries — and is averaging a very pedestrian 3.6 yards per attempt — all of the success that the Titans have had running the ball has been as a result of Johnson's explosiveness and the offensive line's ability to open up holes for him.
In order to contain Johnson, Freddy Keiaho needs to pursue him ardently sideline to sideline, yet be wary of over committing, as Johnson has also shown an incredible ability to cut back against the grain and outrun backside pursuit. Hagler and Session need to maintain their rush lanes and Freeney and Mathis need to seal the edge without leaving too much space for Johnson to cut back into on the back end.
Johnson and Johnson in the middle must take up as much space as possible and get off their blocks enough to slow him down. Finally, Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea need to stay at home and play the part of hero, since they are the last lines of defense if Chris Johnson gets to the second level.
It is going to take a team effort and Johnson may still rip off a big play in spite of the efforts of the Colts defenders, but they need to stay focused, stay vigilant, and stay on point. With so much focus on Johnson, it is possible that White may have a breakout game, but it is a damned-if-you-do, damneder-if-you-don't situation in keeping the damage that Johnson does to a minimum. White can hurt a team, no doubt, but Johnson can destroy a team, so Indianapolis needs to pick the brand of poison that is most palatable.
Of course, the best run defense in the past two weeks has been a good offense, so rolling out to a three-touchdown lead early and putting the ball in Kerry Collins' hands would be the ideal outcome.
Collins has followed up an excellent 2008 campaign with a very underwhelming 2009. The Jaguars were able to force the Titans to throw the ball 48 times by jumping out to a 27-3 halftime lead in Week 4, which obviously works against their strengths. Collins responded with one touchdown and two interceptions against a Jacksonville secondary that, most will attest, is not as formidable as the Colts secondary.
Similar to the decline of David Garrard from 2007 to 2008, Collins now finds himself on the wrong side of the touchdown-to-interception ratio, having thrown five touchdown passes against six interceptions in 2009. Neither player should be given the backhanded moniker of "game manager," but both quarterbacks have the same strengths and weaknesses.
Collins can make a play when he needs to, but, unlike Peyton Manning, he cannot carry a team if they are dependent upon him to win. Johnson and White do take a great deal of the pressure off of Collins in terms of moving the chains, but when moving the chains is replaced with needing to score in bunches, the complement of White and Johnson does not stack up.
It is no secret that the key to victory for Indianapolis on Sunday night will be to make Collins throw the ball 48 times. But, if the Titans are able to play their game, we could see a repeat of the Week 2 tilt against the Dolphins, where Manning was required to shoulder the load and march his team to victory with limited time and opportunities. If push comes to shove and the game is close at crunch time, Collins will not crumble. If the game is not close, Collins and the men around him will crumble.
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