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How the Indianapolis Colts defense can stop the Tennessee Titans offense

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts are facing off against the Titans on Sunday night in a winner take-all, loser go home match. This game will pit a young Colts defense against a Titans offense that relies heavily on establishing the run.

A few important things to note:

  • Marcus Mariota suffered a “stinger” in his right shoulder/neck area and had to leave the game last week. His status will be up in the air and his loss would be detrimental for the Titans. The Titans responded by adding Austin Davis as a reserve quarterback.
  • 2017 All Pro Right Tackle Jack Conklin will be out of the lineup due a knee injury he suffered two weeks ago. He has been placed on Injured Reserve.
  • First and second string tight ends Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith, are both on Injured Reserve. This leaves Luke Stocker as the starting tight end on Sunday.

Quick Stats

Titans Points Scored Per Game (Season) — 23 Points

Titans Points Scored at Home (Season) — 20 Points

Titans Points Scored Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 24 Points

Titans Total Yards Per Game (Season) — 316 Yards

Titans Total Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 340 Yards

Titans Passing Yards Per Game (Season) — 187 Yards

Titans Passing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 147 Yards

Titans Rushing Yards Per Game (Season) — 129 Yards

Titans Rushing Yards Per Game (Last 3 Games) — 193 Yards

Titans Yards Per Play (Season) — 5.3 Yards Per Play

Titans Yards Per Play (Last 3 Games) — 5.7 Yards Per Play

Titans Yards Per Point (Season) — 16.2 Yards Per Point

Titans Yards Per Point (Last 3 Games) — 14.1 Yards Per Point

If you briefly look at the stats, you can see that the Titans have been stronger on offense in the last three games compared to their season average. Of all the stats listed, in my opinion, the most important stat to look at is “Yards Per Point.” A lower number (Titans rank 10th in that stat in the last 3 games) indicates that that offense is efficient and they finish more in the red-zone.

Weather for Nashville, Tennessee (As of Tuesday Night)

The weather is expected to be good Sunday night, with very low winds (around 5-6 mph), with a very low chance (7-10%) of rain. The temperature is expected to be in the low 40s, so the weather won’t give either team an advantage as the conditions should be ideal.

Running Game: Shutting Down Derrick Henry

Firs, we need to understand the running style for Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. According to Next Gen Stats, both have efficiency ratings above 3.75, which indicates that they are more North/South runners. Derrick Henry faces 8+ defenders in the box approximately 33% of the time, which ranks him in the top 10. While that’s been very effective in shutting him down for the majority of the season, he’s had a bizarre surge over the last few games, and it will require the Colts to make him a focal point of their defensive game plan.

If we look at Henry’s running charts in his last 3 games, we’ll see a pattern emerge:

Henry vs Redskins (Week 16)

Henry vs Giants (Week 15)

Henry vs Jaguars (Week 14)

If we eliminate Henry’s 99 yard and 60 yard touchdown runs (which came on horribly defended plays from the Jaguars), Henry’s yards per carry average goes from 6.9 to 4.9. Also, his season average goes from 4.9 to 4.1.

I’m certainly not trying to discredit those two phenomenal runs, but the Colts have one of the best run defenses in the NFL with sure-tackling linebackers and the longest run they’ve allowed all season was 34 yards. This makes it improbable that Henry pops off a 40+ yard run against the Colts.

The pattern that emerges is that in recent games, the Titans have been using Henry more on toss plays and they’ve been getting more yardage. Why? Henry is a North/South runner and teams stack the box against him (as the stats showed before). The Titans know this, and they’ve been trying to get him outside the tackles to get him away from all the defenders in the box.

Against the Redskins and Giants, his biggest runs came outside the tackle box. Despite his great size and athleticism, Henry is not a great runner between the tackles and isn’t powerful and explosive enough to break through the arms of defensive linemen.

Here’s a video of Henry’s outside runs (stretches, tosses and any run where he initially gets the edge) in the last three games:

You’ll see in the video that Henry gets good blocking on those outside runs, he has good vision and is comfortable with bouncing things outside behind the line of scrimmage.

To combat Henry, the Colts need to:

  • Keep him inside and force him to run in between the tackles.

To keep him inside, on early downs, the defensive ends should line up a little more outside (as true 6 or 7 techniques). The outside linebackers, Leonard and Adams, need to ensure that on every outside run, they attack his outside shoulder and ensure that Henry never gets the edge. They can even widen out on early downs or in obvious run situations (i.e. short yardage). In short, make minor adjustments to make it difficult for Henry get outside the tackle box.

The Titans rely on their running game to open up passing lanes, to establish balance and to effectively move the ball. Their running game accounts for 41% of their offense this season and 57% in the last 3 games. If the Colts shut down the run, they should be able to shut down the offense.

Passing Game: Eliminate Quick Throws & Throw Off Their Timing

The most dangerous receiver for the Titans is Corey Davis. Davis averages 14.1 yards per reception and has 105 targets on the season, by far the most for Tennessee this year.

Davis averages 6.1 yards of cushion, which is the distance between the defensive back and the receiver at the time of the snap, according to Next Gen Stats. Taywan Taylor, who plays 43% of the snaps has an average cushion of 7 yards. Tajae Sharpe has an average of 6.1 yards. All of these figures are relatively high and rank in the top 40 in the NFL.

By giving Titans receivers cushions, defenses are playing right into the hands of the Titans’ offense by allowing quick-release passes. It’s a big reason why Mariota’s completion percentage is 68.9%, the fifth highest in the NFL.

Here are Mariota’s passes and passing depth over the last three games.

Mariota vs. Redskins (Week 16)

Mariota vs. Giants (Week 15)

Mariota vs. Jaguars (Week 14)

Mariota attempted attempted only two deep passes (20+ yards in the air) in the last three games. The Titans do not stretch the field. In fact, in the last three games, 16 of Martiota’s 57 pass attempts (28%) came on or behind the line of scrimmage. In those games, 29 of his 57 pass attempts (51%) came within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Gabbert vs. Redskins

Mariota is a tough player and I expect him to play, but as Dr. David Chao has noted, it’s “unlikely that he’s fully healthy” and there’s a decent chance we see Blaine Gabbert, in a starting role or in a relief during the game.

Against the Redskins, the Titans stretched the field more with Gabbert’s stronger arm and they were able to move the ball down the field for big plays. Gabbert was crucial in Tennessee’s victory last week.

When looking at Mariota’s time to throw, it takes him an average of 2.69 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats. They define “time to throw” as a stat that “measures the average amount of time elapsed from the time of snap to throw on every pass attempt for a passer (sacks excluded).”

Mariota likes to throw to his first read and when it isn’t there, he improvises by either leaving the pocket or immediately dumping the ball off to his checkdown/safety valve, often Dion Lewis. He rarely cycles through his progressions before throwing the ball.

Now that we’ve established that the Titans like to establish the short, rhythmic passing game, how do you stop it? The big thing is to throw off their timing. I mentioned earlier how Titans’ receivers get large cushions at the start of each play, so the big thing the Colts need to do is:

  • Eliminate the cushion and play more tight man coverage.

Tight man coverage doesn’t necessarily mean press coverage, but it implies that the defensive backs should be within 4.5 yards of the receivers at the snap of the ball. They should be physical, as being physical throws receivers off their routes and disrupts the timing of the play. These changes will make it difficult for Mariota to get the ball out quickly and force him into more mistakes.

Winning the Battle in the Trenches

Controlling the line of scrimmage is important in any football game, but facing a stout running team with a quarterback who doesn’t perform well under pressure, makes it even more important to win the battle in the trenches.

The Titans are expected to field the following players Sunday Night:

Left TackleTaylor Lewan

Left GuardQuinton Spain

CenterBen Jones

Right GuardJosh Kline

Right TackleDennis Kelly

According to Pro Football Focus, the Titans had the 13th best offensive line in the NFL after Week 15. Taylor Lewan has been the key cog on that line and is arguably the best player on the Titans. Dennis Kelly is also having a very good season in a relief role and has received praise throughout the Tennessee media. According to SB Nation’s Tennessee Titans’ website Music City Miracle:

With both offensive tackles being strong pass blockers, the Colts should look to bring pressure up the middle and avoid bringing extra players from the outside. This is especially true considering Mariota likes to get the ball out pretty quickly and it takes longer for an outside blitzer to reach his mark than a linebacker blitzing up the middle.

The benefit of blitzing inside is that an injured quarterback like Mariota will be forced to move more. With outside blitzes, he has the option of stepping up in the pocket, requiring less movement/mobility than being forced to roll out from an inside blitz.

In the run game, if there is more of an emphasis on stopping all outside runs and trying to redirect them inside, then players like Margus Hunt, Denico Autry, Grover Stewart and (hopefully a healthy) Anthony Walker need to have big games and ensure lanes are clogged up inside. Especially if there is an outside run approach on defense, then there will be three players for the three inside gaps. This works well on paper, but those three players need to have good tackling games and clog the hole quickly.

I also think it’s important that in nickel formation situations, the Colts should not often take out a linebacker (unless it’s an obvious passing down) and try to keep 7 players in the box. They should, instead, consider taking out the strong safety. Against a player like Henry, it’ll be important to always have a numbers advantage in the box, which means that the number of defensive players should outnumber Titans’ blockers.

In short, the Colts need to maintain a numbers advantage and attack the interior of the offensive line on passing downs to ensure they get pressure on an injured Mariota, while also exploiting the weakest members of the Titans’ offensive line.

3 Adjustments/Keys to the Game for the Defense

  1. Attack the interior offensive line with inside blitzes on obvious passing downs. They must also maintain a numbers advantage in the box during most plays.
  2. Keep Derrick Henry inside and force him to run between the tackles where he is less effective.
  3. Play tighter and more physical in pass coverage (within 4.5 yards of the line of scrimmage) to throw off the timing of the short passing game.