The Indianapolis Colts are 2-4 this year and in last place in the AFC South, which is in large part because of their inability so far this year to take advantage of division games. They lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London and last week blew a big lead to the Houston Texans, dropping them to 0-2 within the division.
So if the Colts are going to get their season on track, they’re going to need to take advantage of games against division opponents. They’ll get a chance to do so this Sunday as they travel to Tennessee to face the Titans, but it won’t be easy.
That’s not just because the Colts have stunk this year (which makes every game hard), but also becasue the Titans have been looking better. They are 3-3 on the year and have won two in a row, and Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knows they’ll be a tough team to face this Sunday.
“Really good football team,” Pagano told Tennessee media yesterday. “They've got an identity on offense and identity on defense and special teams. Offensively, obviously, running the football, it's no surprise and they make no bones about how they wanted to build that offense and what they wanted to do and how they wanted to control games. They've got the best two runners, top-two tandem runners in the league right now and almost 150 yards a game rushing with [DeMarco] Murray and [Derrick] Henry. T he quarterback is playing at a high level. What they do schematically poses your defense a ton of issues and a ton of problems. You've got to be disciplined, stout at the point of attack. You've got to set edges. You've got the read-zone that you've got to take care of. It's triple-option football, if you will, and somebody has to handle the dive and somebody has to handle the quarterback. And then the pass game that comes off of it is very, very difficult. It's tough to simulate in practice. Sometimes the speed of the game, to simulate that, it takes a while to adjust. If you don't put that fire out early, it can be a nightmare, as we've seen on tape. Marcus [Mariota] is playing really well. The offensive line is good. The wide receivers, Delanie [Walker] has always been an issue. The defense is a top 10 defense, and Coach [Dick] LeBeau does a great job, always has. This is no different. They smother you, very stingy against the run. They can put pressure on the quarterback with a bunch of different guys. The sack totals speak for themselves, and production in the back end force you into bad plays, force you into turnovers. They're intercepting the football at a high rate. So it's a huge challenge.”
Pagano also had good things to say about the Titans in his press conference with Indianapolis media, too.
“We have a huge challenge in front of us, another road division game against a Tennessee football team that is playing really good football right now,” he said. “They are very, very balanced, solid in all three phases. They are a top 10 offense and top 10 defense. Offensively, the run game obviously is where it all starts. They’ve got one of the best one-two punches in the league right now. The numbers speak for themselves. The quarterback is playing at a high level; the quarterback can run the football. They pose you a lot of problems just handing the ball off and then they get into the read-zone stuff and everything that comes off of the read-zone stuff is option football with a variety of different things that you have to cover so that’s a problem. They have good receivers, tight ends have always been a nemesis for us, Delanie Walker, have to do a great job there. Defensively, Dick LeBeau is one of the best ever to call plays in this league, he is a Hall of Famer. The defense is playing really, really well. They have really good talent, they have a front seven that is second to none. [Brian] Orakpo has 7.0 sacks, 17 pressures and tackles for loss, very disruptive. [Jurrell] Casey, obviously is another game wrecker. Inside, [Derrick] Morgan, it’s going to be tough, they are a top 10 defense stopping the run, they are very, very stingy. Then they get after you and force you into third-and-long and get after you on third down. Good return guys on special teams, [Marc] Mariani does a nice job, two good kickers. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
One of the more challenging aspects about facing the Titans is quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is a true dual-threat player. Mariota this year has completed 61.9% of his passes for 1,372 yards (7.3 yards per attempt), ten touchdowns, and six interceptions (for a passer rating of 88.3) while also rushing for 196 yards and a touchdown while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Because of that, the Colts have a hard time replicating what he can do in practice as they prepare for the Titans.
“I just talked to the team about it as we broke from walkthrough,” Pagano said Wednesday. “It’s virtually impossible. You have to do as good a job as you can. I played a long time ago at the University of Wyoming and we ran the wishbone. Pat Dye was our head coach so I had to defend it. Played Air Force at the time in the old WAC. We had a chance because we saw it every single day from the offensive side, but when you don’t see it, it’s hard to simulate. Especially the speed of the game, the pace that they are going and the execution you see from your card team. It’s a difficult task but we are going to do the very best that we can to get the guys the look that they need to get. It’s about knowing a call, getting lined up and it’s responsibility football, it’s discipline football. Somebody has to have the dive, somebody has to have the quarterback and they always have a pitch element. It may not always be in the backfield, the third element to it, but it is a guy running to the flat, [Marcus] Mariota fakes the handoff, you take the dive, he pulls the ball and he’s on the perimeter. The first play against Cleveland he went 40-some yards I think. Then you have him taken away and a guy in a bubble or a tight end out in the flat that he dumps it to so there are a lot of options there. You have to be sound, disciplined and on the same page from a call standpoint. You have to put the fire out early. If you don’t put the fire out early on that stuff it can become a real problem for you.”
In order for the Colts to pull out a win this Sunday they’re going to need to be able to contain Marcus Mariota, but they’re also going to face a challenge in the rest of the Titans’ offense and a good defensive unit as well. And for a team playing as poorly as the Colts have been through the first six games, that just makes things even more difficult than they were already going to be.