Second-year defensive tackle Jason Jones was supposed to have replaced Albert Haynesworth this season, but has been inconsistent and has been in and out of the lineup with injuries thus far this year. He was held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday due to a shoulder injury and has missed the past two games.
Jovan Haye saw significant action last season as part of the seven man rotation that the Titans deploy along the defensive line and has started all but one game this season. Fellow tackle Tony Brown is an exceptional two-way defender that has two forced fumbles and four sacks. They are a formidable duo and a big part of the reason Tennessee currently ranks seventh in the NFL in rush defense.
But, there are some yards to be had up the middle against Tennessee, as they have yielded 5.34 yards per carry on 86 attempts up the middle. By way of comparison, the much-maligned middle of the Colts defense has allowed an average of 4.22 yards per carry up the middle on 104 attempts.
Indianapolis has only 44 attempts up the middle, but is averaging a very respectable 4.89 yards per carry, so look for them to probe that area of the field, particularly if the Titans go to a nickel package.
The pass rushing tandem of Kyle Vanden Bosch and William Hayes is not nearly as effective as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson need to stay alert and give the full effort for 60 minutes, because both Hayes and Vanden Bosch are high-motor, high-effort players that never give up.
Announcers love Vanden Bosch for his zeal, but the fact is that he is not the same player with Haynesworth playing for a different team. He has only three sacks this season and one forced fumble, versus averages of nine sacks and three forced fumbles while Haynesworth was with the team.
Hayes is another try-hard player that has actually out-performed Vanden Bosch this season with four sacks and two forced fumbles and he was also able to unseat Jevon Kearse as the starting left end in this defense. Kearse has been battling injuries as well, though, so the defensive line will not be as fresh in the fourth quarter as they are accustomed to being.
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, and Ryan Lilja need to win the battles in the trenches and push Brown and Haye 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. Throwing the ball over the defensive line has been a successful strategy for opponents thus far this season, as Tennessee ranks 31st in pass defense allowing 266.7 yards per game through the air.
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 play-action later in the game.
But, Indianapolis was not interested in running the ball in the first matchup — and they haven't really been interested in running all season — and it worked to the tune of 31 points on the scoreboard, so it's difficult to argue with the results. Tennessee produces almost all their pressure with their front four, but they were unable to get to Peyton Manning even though he dropped back to pass 44 times in Week 5.
If the Titans come out in their base 4-3 defense as they did in the first game between these two teams, Manning and Tom Moore will employ the same strategy as before, hoping to repeat the success they had previously, as Manning threw for 309 yards. That would mean yet another week of not establishing the run, or really bothering with it.
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. Bulluck is the leader of this unit and can be very vocal and explosive, inspiring the other members of the defense.
But, he also comes off the field in nickel situations, so he may not see much of the field should Tennessee decide to defend the pass first and dare Indianapolis to beat them by running the ball.
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. Clark feasted on this matchup in Week 5 as Manning targeted him nine times and Clark turned those targets into nine receptions for 77 yards.
The other reason the Titans may deploy a nickel package for most of the game is the fact that Austin Collie torched them for 97 yards on eight receptions and two touchdowns in the first game. He caught several balls underneath behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties and gained a ton of yards after the catch.
If Tennessee puts nickel back Roderick Hood in the game on a high percentage of plays and assigns Collie to him, they should be able to slow the talented rookie down. But, that would also mean that they would leave a linebacker on Clark, which didn't work out for them so well in the first game. Chances are that they will run the nickel defense for the most part, focus on Collie with Hood, and try to keep the damage that Clark does to a minimum.
Courtland Finnegan, an All-Pro selection in 2008, has struggled so far this season, allowing an average of 17.95 yards per attempt in his direction on 22 deep passing plays. He has been extremely inconsistent thus far this season and is not defending his All-Pro selection well this season.
He was able to shut down Larry Fitzgerald last week, limiting one of the best receivers in the game to four receptions for 34 yards. But, he also allowed Reggie Wayne, one of the best receivers in the game, to score on him in Week 5, though he did limit Wayne to 60 yards on six catches. There have been 42 deep passing attempts by Manning to Wayne's side of the field and those attempts are averaging only 9.9 yards per pass, which in the worst average for Indianapolis in the deep passing game.
This is a matchup of strength against weakness. The hope is that Finnegan becomes over confident, leading to possible lapses in concentration and allowing Wayne to get behind him. Finnegan plays close to the line of scrimmage, so it will be difficult for Indianapolis to target him effectively underneath. That means they will need to attack Finnegan deep and hope he flinches first.
The more interesting matchup here is actually on the other side of the formation, where Pierre Garcon has had his ups and downs, but has come on in recent weeks as Manning has become more comfortable with him. There have been 30 deep passing attempts to Garcon's side of the field and those attempts have averaged 11.77 yards per pass. Nick Harper has allowed 13.75 yards per attempt to his side of the field, so there will definitely be opportunities for Manning and Garcon to hook up on a slant-and-go or two.
Play action comes into play when it is discovered that Pro Bowlers Griffin and Chris Hope have yielded 17.87 yards per attempt on ten deep passes over the middle. Add in the fact that Indianapolis has averaged 16.63 yards per attempt on 19 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. And, of course, running the ball will be easier if the Titans come out with an extra defensive back.
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 throughout the season. They have faced the most attempts in the NFL to the short left and short right of the field, with teams attempting 141 and 158 passes to those areas, respectively. They have given up 6.13 and 5.84 yards per attempt to those areas. Conversely, Indianapolis has given up 4.89 and 5.76 yards in those areas on defense and have gained 7.57 and 6.67 yards to those areas on offense.
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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