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Keys to the Game: Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The relationship between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans is odd. The Titans have been in the AFC South since the beginning but these games have a way of getting overlooked. The Colts play six division games every season and somehow it feels like there is more “bad blood” with the Jaguars and Texans.

Even Colts fans who were polled on Indy’s greatest rivalry couldn’t muster a vote for the series with Tennessee.

Even more intriguing? The Indianapolis Colts have dominated the AFC South for years but the Texans and Jaguars have fanbases who consider the Titans, with only two division titles in 16 years, as their top rival.

Go figure.

This year, none of those observations matter. The race for a possible wild card spot in the AFC is wide open. The Houston Texans? Arguably the weakest division leader in the NFL and clearly worse than their record indicates. They have been on the winning side of 50/50 situations late in games far more often in 2018 than any other team — including a gifted victory in Indianapolis in overtime.

Say or think what you want about the Titans, they just shocked the NFL world by putting it to the Patriots. Their defense has been showing signs of dominance. The offense is still an unfettered mess led by a quarterback who has been both inconsistently good and inconsistently healthy.

But Tennessee’s rookie head coach Mike Vrabel may well have the games against the Colts circled on the calendar. You can bet that he doesn’t care for a handful of memories from his playing career against Indianapolis, including a string of losses he took at the hands of Peyton Manning. Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler haven’t forgotten about Deflategate either.

Home division games are must-win games every season but never more than this game is for the Colts playing for a chance to get to .500 on the year. A loss here all but eliminates any hope at winning the AFC South. A loss here makes it far more difficult to make a late run for an AFC wild card berth.

A win will push their streak to 4 games and give them momentum heading into a match-up with an underwhelming Dolphins team at home. Here are the keys to a positive outcome.


CATCH THE DAMN BALL

The arrival of Dontrelle Inman and return of T.Y. Hilton seemed to turn the tide for Colts pass-catchers. Numerous drops early in the season had a profound impact on a slow start.

After a couple of games where it appeared the antibiotics had finally started to work, rookie running back Nyheim Hines dropped a wide open pass in space and tight end Mo Alie-Cox allowed a ball to hit him in the chest for an easy interception, off of the deflection. Those two plays were nearly all it took to allow the Jaguars to mount a successful second half comeback.

This cannot happen again. The Titans defense will do all they can to make life difficult for the Colts as it is... so Indy must not fall victim to self-inflicted wounds.


RE-ESTABLISH BALANCE

Last week, Jacksonville was able to bottle up much of the Colts ground game. After back-to-back 200+ yard performances, Indy looked pedestrian again. The offensive line wasn’t able to get a lot of traction in the trenches, failing to keep Marlon Mack clean on a key 3rd-and-1 in the second half.

This week, life will not get considerably easier in the trenches. DaQuan Jones, Austin Johnson, Jurrell Casey, and Bennie Logan represent a rotation of beefy defensive linemen that will certainly challenge a young offensive line that has started to come into its own. Perhaps speed around the edges and misdirection will be the flavor for the day.

No matter what it takes, Reich needs to be able to re-establish offensive balance. As Colts fans saw a week ago, pass game brilliance can go away in a hurry with just a couple of mistakes. The ground game can make life much easier.


CONTAIN MARIOTA

The Titans offense is not loaded with weapons. Their most consistent weapon, Delanie Walker is on injured reserve. Their running game has struggled to find consistency, with Derrick Henry underwhelming and Dion Lewis playing a hybrid role. The Colts have the speed at the second level to make life difficult for Lewis. They have been pretty stout on the inside.

What the Colts haven’t had to face so far this year is an elite running threat at quarterback. While Mariota is as inconsistent on the ground as he is in any other facet of his game, he has the ability to single-handily blow a game open if he is not contained. Someone needs to have their eyes on him every snap and force him to throw into tight windows to move the ball.


FIND SOMEONE TO COVER DEEP

Malik Hooker will not suit up against the Titans. The last time he was unable to play, Derek Carr looked like a Hall of Fame talent for much of the game. It was glaringly obvious that Jon Gruden intended to exploit the defense deep with Jared Cook and consistently force Hooker’s replacements to make difficult decisions.

There is no other player on Indy’s roster with the elite athleticism Hooker possesses to patrol a deep half of the field. Someone will have to step up to punish attempts deep or a bad offense will look explosive in a hurry. Second-year wide receiver Corey Davis could have a career day if the Colts secondary isn’t careful.


PASS RUSH NEEDS TO TURN UP THE HEAT

Indianapolis started the season generating pressure consistently without blitzing. This played a key role in seeing the defense unexpectedly carry the team despite offensive mistakes.

That seems like such a long time ago.

Now? Athletes like Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Jabaal Shard, and occasionally Darius Leonard can get some pressure but Margus Hunt has disappeared after a fast start, Denico Autry has been unable to regularly generate pressure on the interior, and the pass rush has failed to land with any regularity.

The only thing better than asking Marcus Mariota to win the game with his arm and taking away in the impact of his feet, is asking him to do so with pressure in his face. If the defense can force Mariota into rushed decisions, the secondary can generate turnovers.

Tennessee already struggles to put points on the board. It cannot afford to give up the ball. The pass rush will play a big role in this aspect of the game.