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Film Room: How the Colts slowed down the Titans’ play-action offense on Thursday

The Colts’ adjusted well after a disastrous first drive on Thursday

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Thursday Night’s game against the Colts, Ryan Tannehill was one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill was completing 60% of his passes off of play-action for 924 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was also averaging a league best 10.5 yards per attempt on these passes.

On Thursday, he started out on fire off of play-action. On the first drive alone, he was three for three for 39 yards and a touchdown. After that though, the Colts shut the play-action game down as Tannehill was just three for seven for 30 yards.

Slowing down the Titans’ play-action offense was a huge reason why the Colts were able to come away with the blowout victory. So today we are going to look at how the Colts were able to adjust and accomplish this defensive feat against a top offense.

Slowing Down the Play-Action

The key in shutting down the Titans’ play-action offense, and subsequently their entire passing offense, was not selling out for the run. Facing one of the best running backs in the NFL in Derrick Henry, the logical thought would be to stack the box and commit to stopping the run. While that is obviously important, the Titans’ play-action game is much more of a threat with how efficient it is and how it creates chunk yardage.

This play ultimately is called for a (very soft) defensive holding penalty but look at how the defenders lock up their assignments here. CB Xavier Rhodes even knows the crosser is coming and undercuts the route over the middle. The linebackers also don’t bit on the play and lock up the tight end drifting to the flat. The result should have been a nice coverage sack for Grover Stewart due to assignment sound football on the back end.

The Colts have been exploited over the middle a bit this season, especially when Anthony Walker Jr has been on the field. It’s not that he is a bad player by any means, he just isn’t a good enough athlete at linebacker to mitigate those middle throws. One way he does make up for this lack of top athleticism is by being one of the smartest players on the field. On this play he doesn’t bite on the play fake whatsoever and gets to his zone drop in the middle of the field. This takes away Tannehill’s initial read on the crosser and causes him to pump fake. This delay on the pump that was caused by Walker gives DeForest Buckner enough time to nearly get home and cause an errant throw. Great coverage on the back end plus quick pressure leads to a missed throw.

The Titans started to get a bit desperate as the game went on. On this play they try to use motion to identify what type of defense the Colts’ are running. A defender doesn’t move with the tight end which would point to zone coverage but Darius Leonard does motion with the receiver which would point to man coverage. So essentially, the Colts’ disguise well what they are doing here and the Titans aren’t able to get a good read pre-snap.

At the snap, the Colts blitz Kenny Moore II off the backside and bring Walker on the interior. This blitz hurries the clock of Tannehill in the pocket and forces him to go through his reads much quicker than he would like. Rhodes takes away the deep option while Leonard stays on the slot receiver long enough. The wrinkle comes when defensive end Justin Houston slides into the flat and takes away the checkdown at running back. Perfect coverage across the board leading to another incomplete pass.

One of the biggest plays of the game came in the third quarter when the Titans had a 3rd and short backed up in their own territory. The Titans try to pull out of a fake hand-off to the fullback and hit a big play crosser to the backside. Defensive end Denico Autry reads the play perfectly and comes up with the big sack to force fourth down. While this is a phenomenal play by Autry, look at the coverage in the secondary. The linebackers all sell out for the run but the defensive backfield still maintains their assignments and locks down any option. Even if Tannehill were to have gotten away from this sack, he would have had no place to go with this pass.

The Titans skill players just couldn’t get any separation against the Colts’ secondary. Tannehill had a season low 4.9 yards per attempt in this game and a large part was due to how well this secondary was playing. Rhodes locked down AJ Brown all game long and the duo of Kenny Moore II and TJ Carrie was great in the slot. When the secondary plays like this combined with an outstanding rush up front from Buckner and the rest of the defensive line, this Colts defense is truly outstanding. Just a lock down performance from one of the best defenses in the league.

Final Thoughts

Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus is having an outstanding season calling plays for this defense. The best thing about what he’s been able to accomplish is how good he has been at adjusting throughout the course of games. The first drive was a disaster for the Colts defense as the Titans shredded them with the play-action game. Eberflus though was able to adjust and the Colts were able to take away one of the Titans’ strengths.

This same defense needs to show up for the Colts this Sunday against the Packers. Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year off of play-action as he has thrown for 786 yards and 11 touchdowns with 0 INTs off it. This upcoming game will be the toughest one yet for this defense and Matt Eberflus but if they can maintain how they have played all season, this Colts team should be fine against a tough opponent.