Thursday, November 14, 2013
Double Coverage: Colts at Titans
By Paul Kuharsky and Mike Wells
Even though the Colts defense is struggling, Ryan Fitzpatrick will still have to contend with Robert Mathis -- the league leader in sacks.
The game could have meant a lot more. Had the Tennessee Titans not lost to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Thursday night's game could have been for first place in the AFC South.
Still, there is a great deal at stake.
If the Titans win, they close the gap to one game. If the Indianapolis Colts win, it's a three-game lead with a rematch in just 17 days.
ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Colts reporter Mike Wells discuss the game ahead of kickoff.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans
Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET
Mike Wells: Paul, you’ve covered the Titans for a long time (I’m nervous to ask for a specific number of years), where does Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville rank on the list of disappointments in the organization? It seemed as though the Jaguars were going to go the entire season without winning a game. But the Titans graciously helped them out last weekend.
Paul Kuharsky: I’m not ashamed of my tenure, Mike. I’ve been around the team since its last year in Houston. That’d be 1996, when you were in elementary school, I am guessing. That was a bad loss at a crucial point in time. Make the 0-8 Jaguars 0-9 and the Titans would have been playing for first place in the AFC South Thursday night. Instead, they lost their third game in the past three years to the Jaguars, who have won eight games in that span. (And Colts fans will remember in 2011, the Titans made sure Indy didn’t go winless.) It’s not with playoff losses to Baltimore or anything quite like that, but it’s up there.
The Colts under Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson haven’t lost consecutive games. What has been the key to their ability to bounce back so consistently?
Wells: I would like to say it’s because they’ve always played a weak opponent each time after a loss. But that’s not the case. They went on the road and won at San Francisco after losing to Miami earlier this season. One of the things I've learned in my short time covering the Colts is that they don’t dwell on what happened in the previous game. They say it doesn’t do them any good. Pagano refers to it as the “24-hour rule.” That was the case Monday in the locker room after the Colts were embarrassed by St. Louis. The players knew they played a bad game. They addressed it one final time and then shifted their focus to the Titans. That mindset has worked for Pagano and his players so far. I was about to say that the Colts will have an advantage Thursday because quarterback Jake Locker is out for the rest of the season. But I caught myself. The Rams had a backup quarterback Sunday -- Kellen Clemens -- and they won by 30 points. Does Tennessee’s offense change much with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?
Kuharsky: Fitzpatrick can scramble around and make things happen. But they won’t send him on many designed runs. He was fine in relief against the Jets and even against the Jaguars, though his late fumble was a killer. But in starts earlier this season against Kansas City and at Seattle, he was bad. Those are two tough defenses, but the Titans had a chance in both games and he really hurt them. I spoke to Bill Polian in the press box at Jaguars-Titans and he said if Fitzpatrick protects the ball, he's as good a backup as there is. It's a big if. Fitzpatrick is a streaky player. The Titans' hopes are now that he can get on a good streak.
The last time the Titans saw this defense, it was still a hybrid working toward being a 3-4. Has it graduated into what Chuck Pagano wants? How do you characterize the way they play?
Colts at Titans: Stat of the Week
Andrew Luck's QBR without Reggie Wayne on the field this year.
Wells: The defense showed signs of possibly being a top-10 defense earlier this season. Notice I said earlier this season. The secondary has struggled the past two weeks. Houston’s Andre Johnson (229 yards) and St. Louis’ Tavon Austin (two catches for 138 yards) had big games against them. Part of the problem is that cornerback Greg Toler has missed the past two games with a groin injury. Linebacker Robert Mathis is one player the Titans will have to account for at all times. He has found his comfort zone in Pagano's 3-4 scheme. Mathis leads the league in sacks with 13.5 and should easily surpass Dwight Freeney’s team record of 16.
The Colts are giving up 126.6 yards a game rushing. Running back Chris Johnson had 150 yards rushing against St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. Is it safe to assume that the Titans will hand the ball off to him as much as possible?
Kuharsky: They are always going to try to run it. They’ll be missing center Brian Schwenke (ankle), who has added a lot since joining the starting group Oct. 20. They’ve got Shonn Greene for short-yardage stuff, finally healthy, and he makes them better and gives them a second kind of back. They've seen a lot of 3-4 schemes and seem to feel as if it's hopeless to run to the edges against them. But that’s where CJ is best and I think it's a mistake to surrender it without trying. Scheme it up and get your guy where he's most comfortable and typically best.
It's too early to judge the Trent Richardson trade, but he has not been good. Are the Colts over-determined to run it considering the things they can do with Luck? Shouldn’t they try to throw it first, build a lead and then slow things down with the backs at the end?
Wells: The Colts have tried to run the ball in the first half of each of their past two games. But the inability to sustain drives and large deficits forced them to do away with the running game. The Colts were brutal running the ball last week against St. Louis. They gained 18 yards on 14 attempts against the Rams. And what makes it even worse is that Luck accounted for 17 of those yards. I’m not pointing the finger strictly at Richardson. Yes, he has looked pretty bad so far, but the offensive line hasn’t done him any favors with poor blocking up front. Richardson is often hit a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage. He should feel fortunate that he's even averaging 2.8 yards a carry. The Colts will continue to try to establish the run early in the game because Pagano said they can't be a one-dimensional team, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton won’t hesitate to put the ball in Luck's hands and let him throw it.
The final word on Thursday's matchup at LP Field:
Mike Wells: The Colts can't run the ball and they can't protect Luck, but they will find a way to do just enough to move a step closer to winning their first division title since 2010. Mathis adds to his league-leading sack total. Colts 20, Titans 13
Paul Kuharsky: Indianapolis will do a far better job of recovering from their Sunday disaster than the Titans will. If the Titans come out flat, it'll be a long, ugly night. And it won't surprise me to see them flat. Colts 33, Titans 10