INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville:
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Tighten the screws
Take a poll from the defensive meeting rooms in the aftermath of the opening loss to the Chargers, and the results would not be favorable. In fact, they’d be damning. Darius Leonard, the first-team All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year, revealed he received an “F’’ for his performance and didn’t argue the harsh grade.
“That’s the grade I got,’’ the second-year linebacker told The Athletic. “And that’s what I give myself. I played terribly, and I didn’t play up to the standard that I told myself to and the coaches hold me to.’’
More than a dozen missed tackles contributed to the Chargers averaging a ridiculous 7.4 yards per play and 6.0 yards per rush, generating eight plays that gained at least 20 yards and converting 7-of-11 third-down situations.
Individually and collectively, it was a disappointing first step, and one that can’t be repeated. The Titans don’t carry the reputation of being a big-play bunch, but they’ve got the talent to take advantage of missed tackles and blown assignments. In the stunning 43-13 win over the Browns in Cleveland last weekend, they finished with a modest 339 total yards on offense, but that included Derrick Henry’s 75-yard TD on a short pass to the left and 51 and 47-yard receptions by rookie wideout A.J. Brown.
The fireworks aside, quarterback Marcus Mariota also made good use of tight end Delanie Walker (five catches, 55 yards). In his last 10 meetings with the Colts, Walker has had at least four catches nine times and at least seven on five occasions.
That’s always the objective going into a game, regardless of the opponent and the quarterback. But the Colts have had a knack for bringing out the worst in Mariota. He’s 2-4 as a starter against Indy, and both wins came in 2017 when the Colts were without Andrew Luck and a complete mess.
In the four losses, Mariota has passed for 974 yards with six TDs and three interceptions, but he’s also been sacked 15 times. In his one meeting vs. Indy last year – he missed the week 17 showdown with an injury – he was 10-of-13 for 85 yards with an interception and four sacks before exiting with an elbow injury.
Mariota had a solid outing against the Browns – 248 yards, three TDs, a 133.3 rating – but he also absorbed four sacks and another pair of hits.
Make life miserable for the Titans’ QB. That became a bit more problematic Saturday when the Colts ruled Kemoko Turay (neck) out.
Deal with Titans’ D-versity
Frank Reich is impressed with the quality and diversity of the defense run by Titans’ coordinator Dean Pees.
“Their defense ranks high on the exotic scale,’’ he said. “Sometimes, offensive coordinators refer to it as a Rolodex kind of defense, meaning he’s calling something different on every play. Just dial up the next card, the next call. They do it well. That’s part of their DNA.’’
The Titans dominated Baker Mayfield and Cleveland’s high-profile offense. They sacked Mayfield five times, intercepted him three times and tacked up a safety when Cameron Wake sacked Mayfield in the end zone. Wake had 2.5 sacks and another pair of hits on Mayfield.
What might be most impressive about the Titans’ defensive effort is it came with perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey contributing just one assisted tackle.
In his first start as the guy, Jacoby Brissett held up his end. His 120.7 rating was the second-highest of his career, while his 77.8 completion percentage (21-of-27) was a career best. What’s been most impressive about Brissett has been his ball security. His last interception came Dec. 2, 2017 in a week 13 loss at Jacksonville. He’s working on a 157-attempt streak without an interception. That’s the team’s longest streak since Andrew Luck delivered 165 passes without one going to the wrong team.
Brissett was more dink-and-dunk against the Chargers – his 7.04 yards per attempt rank 18th in the league – and at some point, he’ll need to take a few shots down the field to keep defenses from crowding the line. But if the opener was an indication of what’s to come, QB won’t be an issue.
What’s coming on offense?
Reich is determined to oversee an offense that can run the football. Remember, he wants a top-5 attack. Indy’s No. 2 in the league after week 1, and after gouging the Chargers for 203 yards. Marlon Mack’s 174 yards were a career high and the 11th-fattest total in team history.
But if we’ve learned anything from Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni, it’s to not pigeonhole their offense. What was striking in the opener was lack of contributions from tight ends Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox: six targets, three catches, 31 yards combined. Of course, the stat line would have looked better if Ebron had been able to secure what would have been an 11-yard TD from Brissett in the fourth quarter.
Here’s where we remind everyone Reich and Sirianni are known for maximizing the mismatches provided by their athletic tight ends. Brissett was more in sync with his wideouts against the Chargers, posting a 143.9 rating (14-of-17, 155 yards, 2 TDs). We won’t be surprised if the TEs get more looks Sunday.
Yes, what about Adam Vinatieri? The greatest kicker in NFL history finds himself dealing with outside doubt after missing 46- and 29-yard field goals and a PAT against the Chargers. That came after he missed a 23-yarder and another PAT in the second-round playoff loss at Kansas City.
The team is steadfastly behind their ageless kicker. And Vinatieri was downright defiant during a midweek meeting with the media when he was asked if he’s kicking for his job.
“You’re playing for your job every single day of your life,’’ he said. “You guys are trying to make this into something. Write whatever you want to write.’’
Reich reiterated his confidence in Vinatieri Friday afternoon.
“He looked great,’’ he said. “The other day he made a 64-yarder and a 60-yarder. Today he was on the money. Yeah, he looked great.’’
And the winner is: Colts 30 – Titans 24
This has little to do with the Colts’ ridiculous run of success at the expense of the Titans. They’ve won 18 of the last 21 and 26 of the last 32. This is more about our confidence in Indy’s defense and Vinatieri not imploding for a second straight week.
The Colts have opened a season 0-2 in four of the last five seasons. They avoided that last year by splitting their first two games, but then fell to 1-5 before getting their act together.
These poor starts need to end. And that starts in Nashville.