The Indianapolis Colts picked the wrong week to have numerous key injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak. Overcoming the absence of DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry on the defensive line, two of the most productive players on one of the best defenses in the NFL this season, will be incredibly challenging.
Starting linebacker Bobby Okereke has been strong next to Darius Leonard, with the range and speed to get sideline to sideline and the athleticism to muddy things up for quarterbacks in short zones. Anthony Walker Jr. will likely see more time, and that is rarely a bad thing, but if the Titans exploit his weakness in the passing game the defense may have a tough day. Keep in mind that as of this writing, Walker Jr. is listed as questionable with a rib injury.
The offense has plenty of its own issues. Center Ryan Kelly will not play this afternoon with a neck injury. Quenton Nelson’s only practice participation was limited on Friday, as he has been dealing with back and ankle issues. This means the Colts will have to turn to rookie Danny Pinter at center, which could be a particularly enticing situation for Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.
Philip Rivers will almost certainly play but his toe injury against Green Bay also left him as a non-participant in practice until Friday — a limited designation. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor is coming off of a big performance against the Packers but won’t be able to build upon that showing due to COVID-19. Wide receiver Zach Pascal has been a weekly contributor on offense and he was also held to just a limited practice on Friday.
Titans fans will surely point out that they are dealing with injuries of their own. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is on injured reserve and linebacker Jayon Brown is out for the season. Clowney has been an absolute monster as a run defender and Brown was Tennessee’s best linebacker. Tennessee has also suffered the loss of tackles Taylor Lewan and Ty Sambrailo on their offensive line.
Rivers must have a big day
Even without Jadeveon Clowney on the field, it would be a miracle if the Colts are able to get much done on the ground. The Titans defensive line is formidable and giving a rookie his first start at center doesn’t bode well against Jeffery Simmons. For those who are making fantasy decisions, don’t expect a big day out of Jordan Wilkins.
Without a running game to turn to and with a defense who will likely give up more yards and points than normal, the passing game will become crucial. Rivers will need to get his weapons involved throughout, and get big contributions from Nyheim Hines and Michael Pittman Jr. at the very minimum.
If Rivers can put together a throwback performance, the Colts can stick with the Titans. He might need T.Y. Hilton to have a throwback performance as well.
Next man up
Indianapolis will need major contributions from backup and rotational players to win this game. Rookie offensive lineman Danny Pinter will face one of the toughest defensive tackles in the league. Anthony Walker Jr. will have to play a more prominent role against an offense that features a mobile quarterback and a lot of action in the middle of the field.
Tyquan Lewis and Taylor Stallworth will likely have bigger roles to play on the interior of the defensive line. Kemoko Turay will need to build on his limited snaps against Green Bay and try to keep Ryan Tannehill from getting comfortable in the pocket.
Receivers like DeMichael Harris and Marcus Johnson will likely need to step up into a more active role. With T.Y. Hilton struggling to get going and Zach Pascal struggling with injury, Michael Pittman Jr. could get a lot of attention. This would leave his teammates with good opportunities and if Rivers goes their way they will need to make the most of them.
Win the turnover battle
One of the biggest differences for the Colts in Nashville was strong special teams play and taking advantage of an inexperienced punter. Trevor Daniel shanked a punt on one possession and then had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown on another. These plays turned the tide of the game.
Before these big special teams mistakes by Tennessee and/or big special teams plays by the Colts, the game was as close as many had expected. It is unlikely these plays happen again this afternoon.
This means the game will likely hinge more on possessions, as impacted by turnovers. If the Colts can take care of the football — meaning Rivers is able to have an incredible game without forcing bad passes and having to overcome turnovers — and the defense can get a couple of takeaways, Indianapolis can overcome the injuries. Losing the turnover battle under the current circumstances would be disastrous.
Coaches/Front office must shine
A game like this requires a lot from a coaching staff. Numerous players starting who typically wouldn’t, an altered game plan that will need to accentuate a team’s strengths and mask its weaknesses, and a high pressure football game that could all but guarantee the Colts a spot in the playoffs or could place them in a pressure cooker down the stretch. Remember, not counting a Texans team that is warming up, the Colts have games against the Raiders and Steelers standing out as big tests leading into the playoffs.
Will the team be ready? Will Frank Reich open up his playbook? Can Matt Eberflus find a way to force Tannehill into mistakes and limit Derrick Henry on the ground even without Buckner and Autry?
Did Chris Ballard do enough to give the team the depth it lacked in 2019? Can they overcome the kind of injury and illness issues that have doomed them in the past?