Colts at Titans: What to watch for Monday night

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Jack Doyle #84 of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Monday night meeting with the Tennessee Titans in Nissan Stadium.

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN

  • Hello, AFC South: It wasn’t that long ago the AFC South was the cure for whatever ailed the Colts. Remember? They monopolized the division after its inception in 2002, winning it in seven of the first nine years. They were division champs again in each of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons (2012-14), and during a stretch that spanned 2012-’15, set an NFL record with 16 straight wins inside the division. That ended with a resounding thud – a 51-16 beating at Jacksonville in December ’15 – and the Colts are 4-5 in their last AFC South games.
    Maybe Indy can lean on its last bit of division mastery. And that would be the Titans. In a streak that really defies logic, the Colts have won 11 straight – including five straight in Nashville – and 16 of the last 17 in the series. One caveat that can’t be ignored: eight of the last 10 games have been decided by 8 points or fewer.
    The Colts are trying to tread water and remain relevant until Luck returns, which might not be Oct. 29 at Cincinnati or Nov. 5 at Houston. The schedule affords them an opportunity to not only bide their time, but position themselves nicely inside the division. Five of their next seven games are against AFC South rivals. After dealing with the Titans on Monday’s prime-time stage, they entertain Jacksonville Oct. 22 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
    One last thing after Sunday’s games. A Colts’ win produces a 3-3 logjam atop the AFC South with Houston and Jacksonville. If the Titans end their dry spell, they’re in the 3-3 mix and the Colts remain a game behind.
  • Strength vs. strength: Marcus Mariota’s availability is a wild card, but let’s not forget who the Titans really are. They are a bunch that wouldn’t mind spending 60 minutes force-feeding opposing defenses unhealthy doses of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Tennessee’s ground game ranks 9th in rushing yards per game (124.8) and 2nd in yards per attempt (4.8), and it’s been a determined one-two punch. Murray is a 220-pounder who’s averaging 4.9 yards on 56 carries. Henry is a 6-3, 247-pound load who’s averaging 4.3.
    This type of running threat contributed to first-time general manager Chris Ballard investing heavily in free-agent talent to upgrade his front seven. He added linemen Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods and Margus Hunt, and outside linebackers John Simon and Jabaal Sheard.
    So far, so good. The Colts have been markedly better against the run through five games, ranking 16th in yards per game (103.4) and 13th in yards per attempt (3.9). The numbers are a bit deceiving and were skewed by Seattle slapping them with 194 yards earlier this month. In the other four games, the averages are a stout 80.8 yards per game and 3.2 per attempt. The Rams’ Todd Gurley was limited to 40 yards on 19 carries and San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde rushed eight times for 11 yards.
    “They’ve got to come to us,’’ said Woods, who spent his previous three seasons with the Titans. “So just, do my job and wait for them to get there. That’s all I’m going to do. They’ve got to cross the line of scrimmage and I’m going to be sitting there waiting for them.’’
    As mentioned earlier, Mariota is the wild card. He missed last week with a hamstring injury and has been listed questionable for Monday night. The Colts have prepared for Mariota, not backup Matt Cassel. A healthy Mariota adds a dangerous dimension to the Titans offense with his read-option antics. He’s rushed 20 times for 116 yards and three TDs. If the hamstring limits Mariota’s mobility or willingness to test the perimeter of the Colts’ defense, the Titans should be somewhat easier to contain.
  • More Mack?: It’s a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. How to give rookie Marlon Mack enough touches while also getting sufficient work for Frank Gore and Robert Turbin? The fourth-round draft flashed his big-play skills against San Francisco with runs of 35, 22 and 16 yards. He also had a 24-yarder against the Rams.
    In the long run – no pun intended – more of Mack means less of Gore. Nobody’s altering Turbin’s role as short-yardage specialist. While Gore lacks Mack’s game-breaking skills at this point of his career, he’s a grinder who can be effective between the tackles and moving the chains.
    “You like what you see,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said of Mack. “You like the signs. And as any young player goes, you want him to prove that they’re going to be consistent and that they’re going to be durable and that they’re going to be reliable.’’
  • O-line shuffle. Again: This is getting ridiculous. Another game, another offensive line combination. Chuck Pagano provided some late-week news by announcing veteran right guard Jack Mewhort would be placed on the season-ending injured reserve list with a knee injury. He joins right tackle Denzelle Good (wrist) and rookie center Deyshawn Bond (quad) on IR.
    With Mewhort out of the mix, Chudzinski turns to a third different starting group in as many weeks. Pagano wouldn’t reveal who will step in for Mewhort, but a likely choice is Le’Raven Clark.
    “Somebody’s going to step up and play damn good football for us,’’ Pagano said.
    The latest shuffling should quicken the so-called clock in the head of quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The pass protection has yielded at least three sacks in each of the first five games – 18 overall – and allowed an additional 16 QB hits the last two weeks against the 49ers and Seahawks.
  • Road kill?: The Colts have yielded an NFL-high 159 points and are a league-worst minus-56 in scoring differential. Look no further than Indy’s two business trips for the unsightly stats. In road trips to Los Angeles and Seattle, the Colts have been outscored 92-27. The Rams and Seahawks each dropped 46 on them.
    If nothing else, the bar is low for Indy to show progress away from home.
  • And the winner is: Titans 24, Colts 20. We’ve always bought into the theory that you should expect a streak to continue, not end. But at some point, the Titans will get over the Indy hump. That time comes on Monday’s prime-time stage. Even if Mariota’s mobility is restricted due to the hamstring, Tennessee has enough weapons to stress a Colts defense that only has shown us flashes of competency.