Colts vs. Titans: Watch to watch for Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24: T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: FOX59

  • Keep it up: It’s been a good three weeks for the Colts’ defense. Inconsistent and vulnerable to gashing plays over the first seven games of the season, it has tightened the screws considerably over the last three. The per-game averages against Cincinnati, Houston and Pittsburgh would rank among the NFL’s top 10: 293.3 total yards (6th), 80 rushing yards (4th), 19.3 points (9th). Over the first seven games, the defense was on pace to finish as one of the worst in franchise history, allowing averages of 425.4 yards and 31.7 points.

The unit has yielded 316 yards or fewer in three straight games, only the second time since 2009 it’s done that.

“We’ve played as good of defense as we’ve played since we’ve been here,’’ Chuck Pagano said.

Fine. Now what? Keep it up.

“Just because we’ve done it doesn’t mean it guarantees us anything,’’ Pagano said. “They’ve got to go out and do it again.’’

The defense should get a boost from the return of strong-side linebacker John Simon, who’s missed the last three games with neck/shoulder issues, and safety Clayton Geather, who’ll make his first appearance of the season after undergoing surgery in March to address a bulging disc in his neck.

Simon had been Indy’s best defender before suffering a stringer against the Jaguars. He had his best game of the season in the first meeting with the Titans, finishing with a team-high 11 tackles, one sack and his first career interception he returned for a touchdown.

Geathers will be on a pitch count Sunday, and admitted he’ll be a tad nervous until he delivers his first hit. He suffered the injury a year ago against the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on a fourth-and-1 hit against DeMarco Murray that sealed a 24-17 victory.

  • A different challenge: The faces are the same, but don’t be fooled. The challenge facing the Colts’ defense is markedly different in the rematch. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, robbed of his mobility by a hamstring injury in the Oct. 16 meeting, has regained his health.

“Totally different deal for us,’’ Pagano said.

In Nashville, Mariota didn’t even consider testing the edges of the Colts’ defense. He stayed in the pocket and, with Indy incapable of pressuring him often enough, passed for 306 yards and one touchdown with one interception.

Now that he’s returned to Mobile Marcus, the Colts have had to prepare for the various read-option pages in the Titans’ offensive playbook. Murray (443 yards, four TDs) and Derrick Henry (441 yards, 3 TDs) remain the effective tag team, but Mariota has rushed for 186 yards and four TDs. In the 40-17 loss at Pittsburgh, he got loose for a 7-yard TD.

While Mariota can stress a defense in so many areas, he’s also capable of clunker games. Against the Steelers, he suffered a career-high four interceptions and has 10 on the season.

It’s worth noting the Colts have struggled at coming up with interceptions. After generating six in their first four games, they’ve had only two in the last six.

  • Protect the QB: Priority 1 for offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is keeping Jacoby Brissett out of harm’s way as much as possible. No quarterback has been sacked more than Brissett (35), few have been under such constant duress and here’s where we remind everyone Brissett had to go through the NFL’s concussion protocol after developing mild concussion symptoms in the locker room after the Nov. 12 loss to Pittsburgh.

An upright Brissett gives the Colts a chance, and that was the case in the first half of the meeting in Nashville. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 119 yards and an 8-yard TD to Jack Doyle in the first two quarters. But Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau turned up the heat after the break with frequent blitzes and squeezed the life out of the Brissett-led offense. In the second half, Brissett was just 9-of-20 for 93 yards.

The Colts’ pass protection has had trouble picking up blitzes, especially when it’s been a cornerback barreling in off the edge. Fix it.

  • Don’t forget the ground game: We’re not asking for Chudzinski to take a ground-and-pound approach. But we’re suggesting he not ignore Frank Gore and Marlon Mack.

In Nashville, the Colts featured a nice offensive blend in the first half that included a running game that averaged 6.1 yards on 11 carries. Even though the Titans didn’t pull away until late in the fourth quarter, Indy’s lack of commitment on the ground was missing after intermission: 9 carries, 18 yards.

Tennessee brings one of the NFL’s toughest run defenses to town. It’s 5th in fewest yards allowed per game (89.2) and 4th in yards per attempt (3.6). Even so, part of keeping Brissett upright is giving him an effective running game.

And for those keeping track at home, Gore continues to move up the NFL’s career rushing chart. He ranks 7th with 13,574, and needs 89 yards to move past Jerome Bettis into the No. 6 slot.

  • And the winner is: Colts 27, Titans 23. Wish we felt better about this pick, but it’s difficult to invest too heavily in these guys. If you’re looking for a reason, maybe it’s that the Titans still are looking for their first win at Lucas Oil Stadium. They’re 0-9 since it opened in 2008, and have lost to the likes of Dan Orlovsky (2011) and the tag team of Josh Freeman/Ryan Lindley (2015).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.