Of all the issues the Titans have had in 2009 and overcome in 2009, the offensive line has not been one of them. Tennessee ranks first in the NFL in yards rushing per game and yards per carry.
They have yielded only 11 sacks through 11 games and the Colts had only one sack in the first meeting between the two teams, a game in which the statuesque Kerry Collins was forced into known passing situations for most of the second half and the Indianapolis defensive line was able to pin their ears back and come after him on nearly every play.
Tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos have started the past three seasons together and are part of a front five that has a great deal of continuity and experience. Roos made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2008 and was first team All-Pro.
He gave up the game's only sack to Dwight Freeney the last time the two faced off, has very quick feet and hands, and is aggressive at the point of attack. He looked a little shaky against the 3-4 defense of the Cardinals in Week 12 and committed some unnecessary penalties, but Chris Johnson did follow him on his 85-yard touchdown run.
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.
The Titans will run right at Freeney and Mathis in attempt to slow down their pass rush, as Tennessee is averaging 5.8 yards per carry around left end and 9.13 yards per carry around right end. Look for them to isolate on Mathis, as he has allowed 5.96 yards per carry around right end and Tennessee has more than their fair share of success running to that area of the field.
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 5.83 yards per carry on 82 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 4.22, having faced 104 rushes up the middle.
Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson have improved throughout the season and did an extraordinary job in the first matchup against Johnson, limiting him to 34 yards on only nine carries. They did allow LenDale White to gash them from time to time, but that was well after the game had been decided.
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.
Britt leads all Tennessee receivers in receptions (33), yards (521) and yards per reception (15.8). He is the deep threat on this team and the player most likely to make a game-changing play among the receiving corps. Britt caught the game-winning touchdown against the Cardinals last week and has gained Vince Young's confidence, as Young targeted him often on several key plays, especially on that final 18-play, 99-yard drive.
Justin Gage and Nate Washington are fine players, but they are not going to win the game for the Titans. Young has targeted Washington deep on several occasions and had some success, so it is very possible that he will seek to exploit Jacob Lacey on a few passes over-the-top.
Melvin Bullitt needs to support Lacey with everything he's got, because this is a passing game that is starting to gain traction and cannot be allowed to build their confidence early with some big plays.
Over the middle, Indianapolis has been less effective, allowing an average of 8.19 yards per attempt on 16 attempts, but, with Bo Scaife becoming less and less of a factor in the passing game given the emergence of the young receivers, the Colts need to focus on the outside.
But, they've also given up 14.94 yards per attempt to the deep middle, so Bullitt and Antoine Bethea can't over commit to the outside and leave the middle of the field exposed.
Aside from Britt, the biggest threat Tennessee poses in the passing game is outlet, flare, screen, and checkdown passes to Johnson. He has the ability to make a defender look foolish, make a cut, and fly up the field for a score. Philip Wheeler 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 positively on fire in 2009, particularly during Tennessee's five-game winning streak. He is averaging 160 yards per game the past five games, has scored seven touchdowns, and is averaging a gaudy 6.4 yards per carry this season.
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. Given Johnson's average, they've been effective running to all parts of the formation, so Johnson can strike anywhere and at any time.
Since battery mate LenDale White has only 61 carries — and is averaging a very pedestrian 3.4 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.
White is not used all that frequently as the goal line back at this point and has lost some of his effectiveness there, as he has scored only two touchdowns this season, or once every 30 carries, as opposed to once every 13 times he carried the ball in 2008.
In order to contain Johnson, Gary Brackett 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.
Wheeler 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. Muir and Johnson in the middle must take up as much space as possible and get off their blocks enough to slow him down. Finally, Bullitt and 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.
White was Tennessee's leading rusher in the Week 5 contest, with 51 yards. If history repeats itself, it will be a huge win for the Indianapolis defense. Chances are that, with the recent resurgence of the Titans, this will not be a blowout in the third and fourth quarter, so Johnson will be more of a factor. The Colts need to be ready.
Vince Young is still evolving as a passer, but he took a major step forward against Arizona in Week 12, throwing for 387 yards on 43 attempts for one touchdown and zero interceptions. On the aforementioned game-winning drive, Young stayed in the pocket 17 out of 18 plays, only running with the ball once when the play broke down. He has tremendous speed, is dangerous with the ball in his hands, and is very difficult to bring down.
Since Bullitt will most likely be closer to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to rein Chris Johnson in and Larry Coyer has yet to live up to his reputation as a blitzing coordinator, Indianapolis may take a page out of their own playbook and stifle Young the same way they did the last time they faced him in a game of any significance — Week 2 of 2007. In that game, Ron Meeks blitzed Bob Sanders frequently, resulting in three sacks of Young, including one on the final drive.
If a similar strategy is employed with Bullitt, he needs to do what Sanders did in that game: When he gets Young in his sights, he cannot afford to miss. Young can break free, tuck the ball, and either throw it deep to Britt or run for the first down. He is a versatile playmaker that was always one critical step away from becoming a consistent quarterback.
His accuracy has been up and down throughout the course of his career, but he has completed 62.9 percent of his passes in his five starts and has done a good job taking care of the football and not eating too many sacks. With a solid offensive line blocking for him, a huge threat at running back, and capable receivers to catch the ball for him, Young is well-positioned and well-equipped to continue to develop and succeed as a quarterback at the NFL level.
Sunday will be a big test for him and whether he takes the next step in his development or regresses will be the key factor in determining who wins this game. The Titans cannot afford to lose at this point and Young cannot afford to fail.
But the same things were true for the Patriots, Ravens, and Texans the past four games, and the Colts were able to overcome all the necessary obstacles to achieve victory. Week 13 presents another considerable challenge for Jim Caldwell's squad. Once again, we will see if they are up to the challenge.
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