Even without Albert Haynesworth, this is a very talented, deep, and capable unit. Most pundits assumed that the Tennessee run defense would decline in Haynesworth's absence, but it has proven to be more than capable, ranking seventh in the league and allowing only 79.8 yards per game.
Starting defensive tackle Jason Jones, who replaced Haynesworth, was held out of practice on Wednesday due to a shoulder injury, but should be ready to go by Sunday night. If he is not available, Jovan Haye saw significant action last season as part of the seven-man rotation that the Titans deploy along the defensive line, so there should be no dropoff in terms of the run defense, but Haye is a less accomplished pass rusher than Jones. Fellow tackle Tony Brown is an exceptional two-way defender that has two forced fumbles and two sacks.
Kyle Vanden Bosch
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But, there are some yards to be had up the middle against Tennessee, as they have yielded 4.11 yards per carry on 36 attempts up the middle so far in 2009. By way of comparison, the much-maligned middle of the Colts defense has allowed an average of 3.52 yards per carry up the middle on 42 attempts.
Indianapolis has only 16 attempts up the middle, but is averaging a very respectable 4.25 yards per carry, so look for them to probe that area of the field, particularly if the Titans back their safeties off the line and play seven men in the box.
Where the Titans have been affected along the defensive line is on the edges, as pass rushing specialists Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse have combined for only one sack, one forced fumble, and 12 tackles through four games. Vanden Bosch is a very active defender that can get into an offensive tackle's body or run around the edge. He has a number of very effective pass-rushing moves and is also stout against the run, so Charlie Johnson needs to play even-keeled and maintain his energy and intensity for 60 minutes.
Ryan Diem has been able to handle players of similar stature and skill as Kearse thus far, so he should be able to handle Kearse one-on-one and allow protection, if needed to roll over to Johnson's side.
The best strategy for the Colts in terms of slowing down the interior pass rush will be to run right at the defensive tackles and force them to play on their back foot. Jeff Saturday, Mike Pollak (or Kyle DeVan), and Ryan Lilja need to win the battles in the trenches and push Brown, Haye, and Jones off the ball.
An aggressive gameplan from the outset will bring the fight to this defense, which they will not be expecting, given that teams have tried to throw over the defensive line as opposed to running right at them.
Joseph Addai and Donald Brown should have plenty of room to operate between the tackles with the Titans defense guarding heavily against the pass and the Colts need to take advantage of that space early in order to get their running game on track and to open up opportunities with playaction later in the game.
Keith Bulluck, Stephen Tulloch, and David Thornton have a great deal of athletic ability and extensive experience in this defense. Tulloch is the X factor in the run-up-the-middle gameplan that the Colts should deploy, since he has tremendous range and instincts.
AP Photo/Judi Bottoni
Bulluck has been limited in practice this week with a knee injury. If he suits up — and chances are good that he will — his range and lateral movement will be limited, so it would behoove the Colts to run to his side of the formation, which is the left side, running counters and slants to Saturday's left shoulder.
This will get Tulloch stuck in traffic, trying to work through the garbage of the point of attack and force Bulluck to come over and make the play in order to keep Addai and Brown from getting to the second level. More often than not, Bulluck should not be able to get there in time, giving the Colts a real opportunity to gain some serious yards between the tackles.
Thornton is strong in pass coverage, but cannot match up against Dallas Clark one-on-one in coverage. If Tennessee decides to shadow Clark with Thornton instead of safety Michael Griffin — this has proven to be a highly flawed strategy, but is a strategy that teams have still attempted, much to their dismay — then Peyton Manning should target Clark early and often in the passing game, as Thornton will not be able to keep up.
For the most part, though, the Titans should play their linebackers off the line of scrimmage in order to guard against an Indianapolis passing attack that has been on fire in recent weeks. The question remains, though, whether or not the secondary will be able to stop Manning and company, given the roll that they are on.
Courtland Finnegan, an All-Pro selection in 2008, has struggled thus far this season, allowing an average of 19.08 yards per attempt in his direction on 13 deep passing plays. He was limited in practice on Wednesday with a hamstring injury, which does not bode well for him for his matchup against Reggie Wayne in Week 5.
There have been 17 deep passing attempts by Manning to Wayne's side of the field and those attempts are averaging 13.06 yards per pass. This is a matchup of strength against weakness and will likely be a point of emphasis for the Colts offense throughout the game.
AP Photo/John Russell
The interesting matchup here is on the other side of the formation, where Pierre Garcon started off slowly, but has come on in recent weeks as Manning has become more comfortable with him. In the first two weeks of the season, three deep passes were attempted by Manning to the right side of the formation. Those passes went for zero yards.
In the two games since, Manning has attempted five passes in Garcon's direction, averaging 23.8 yards per attempt. Former Colt Nick Harper, who was held out of practice on Wednesday with a rib injury, would draw Garcon, but has given up a fairly respectable average of 7.9 yards per attempt on deep passes to his side on ten attempts. That is strength against relative strength, so it will be interesting to watch who flinches first, provided that Harper is able to go.
Play-action comes into play when it is discovered that Pro Bowlers Griffin and Chris Hope have yielded 21.9 yards per attempt on ten deep passes over the middle. Add in the fact that Indianapolis has averaged 25.8 yards per attempt on five passes to that area and using playaction to make the safeties bite becomes all the more attractive. Playaction passing will only be effective if the Colts are able to run the ball early, though, so that aspect of the overall strategy becomes all that much more critical.
The Titans defense ranks 31st against the pass in part because of their vulnerability to the deep ball, but they have also faced an inordinate number of attempts through four games. They have been at least satisfactory in guarding the short left, short middle, and short right areas of the field, allowing only 6.03 yards per attempt, but they have faced 113 attempts to those areas.
The Indianapolis offense has, for the most part, been very aggressive vertically so far this season, but short, precision passes have also been a major component of the passing game.
Against the Titans on Sunday night, they need to establish the run, then go for the throat. That is where the matchups are most favorable and foretell the most overall success.
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