Titans at Colts: What to watch for Sunday

Indianapolis Colts

FILE IMAGE (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4.

History lesson 

A pair of streaks must end if the Colts are to emerge from the game with realistic AFC South/playoff aspirations. The Titans are 4-0 this season against teams that made the playoffs last year (Seattle, the Colts, Buffalo, Kansas City), while the Colts are 0-4 (Seattle, the Rams, the Titans, Buffalo). Indy’s losing streak against teams that made the playoffs in 2020 has reached seven (in the playoffs to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, the Titans).

To get where they want to go, the Colts must start beating top-tier opponents. As we’ve mentioned more than once, being swept by the Titans basically leaves them four games back in the AFC South with nine to play: three down in the loss column along with the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“I normally don’t ever say that this is a must-win game, but this is a must-win game,’’ Darius Leonard said. “Coach talked about the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. You know, that little bit extra, and we’ve got to find a way to figure that out.’’ 

Lean on Taylor

Jonathan Taylor is in the midst of an All-Pro-caliber season. He ranks 2nd to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry in rushing (579 yards) and 3rd to Henry and Rams’ wideout Cooper Kupp in yards from scrimmage (792). He’s also averaging a crisp 5.5 yards per attempt.

Our issue? Taylor is averaging 15 attempts per game with a high of 18 in Sunday night’s win at San Francisco. Coach Frank Reich and coordinator Marcus Brady are committed to mixing in Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack, but it’s about time they strengthen their commitment to their best back.

In the week 3 loss to the Titans, Taylor averaged 6.4 yards per carry, but only took 10 handoffs. Much of that was a result of Carson Wentz stepping to the line, staring at a loaded box and checking out of a called run. Wentz was rendered immobile by his sprained ankles, and the Titans essentially crowded the line of scrimmage and dared him to throw.

For the rematch, Wentz has regained his mobility – as a runner and as a QB who can extend plays and push the football down the field – and Taylor should face a Titans’ defensive front that’s more conducive to run against. If Tennessee loads up to stop the Colts’ run game, Wentz should be able to make them pay with an aggressive passing game. Remember, T.Y. Hilton returns after missing the Niners game with a quadriceps injury.

As for Taylor, he’s averaging 94.4 yards per game and 6.5 yards per attempt over his last five games.

An aggressive Wentz

We’re not certain why the Titans would have wasted much time reviewing video of Wentz from the week 3 game. They’ll face a totally different QB. That guy had zero mobility – “A handful of times I was like I’m stuck in mud out there,’’ he said – and his performance suffered as a result. Wentz averaged 5.2 yards per attempt and completed 51.4% of his passes, both season lows. After three quarters, he was 12-of-24 for 94 yards with a long of 18.

As Wentz has regained his health, he’s limbered up his right arm. Over the last four games, he’s completing 68.1% of his passes and averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and 13 yards per completion. He’s back to extending plays and going deep when the situation presents itself. Wentz has 16 completions of at least 20 yards, including six of at least 40. Michael Pittman Jr. is becoming his go-to guy and again, he gets T.Y. back for this one.

The Titans’ defense is 22nd overall and 23rd against the pass, but don’t let the numbers fool you. It’s coming off a dominant performance against Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. The Titans held him without a touchdown for the first time in his career. They limited him to 204 passing yards and a 62.3 rating by sacking him four times – two by former Colt Denico Autry and one each from Bud Depree and Harold Landry – and hitting another five times.

Limit Henry (good luck)

This is where it gets sticky. The Colts know what’s coming. Yes, Ryan Tannehill presents a problem with his arm and legs. He had runs of 28, 17 and 13 yards in the first meeting and exploited the Chiefs for 270 yards and one touchdown. And even though an injury rendered A.J. Brown a non-factor against the Colts (zero catches on just two targets), he’s an absolute stud. Brown had 15 catches and 224 yards on 18 targets in the last two wins over the Bills and Chiefs. The Colts catch a break with Julio Jones out with a hamstring injury.

But it’s Titans Week, so Priority 1 is Derrick Henry. He’s well on his way to becoming the first player since Emmitt Smith in 1991-93 to lead the NFL in rushing in three consecutive seasons. His 869 yards are 290 clear of Taylor, and he’s on pace for 464 attempts and 2,110 yards, both of which would be single-season records.

“There is no fear, there’s no quit and we’re going to make sure we get him down,’’ Leonard said.

Much easier said than done. In seven shots at coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense, Henry is averaging 109.1 yards per game and 5.5 yards per attempt. He’s had at least 100 yards in his last four games against the Colts, and has trampled them at Lucas Oil Stadium. In his last two visits to Indy, Henry has rushed 53 times for 327 yards (6.2) and four TDs.

Swarming and gang-tackling are a must.

“Eleven-on-one,’’ tackle DeForest Buckner said.

The issue with Henry is the Titans stick with him. He has accounted for 83.4% of their rushing attempts (191 of 229) and 79.9% of their yards (869 of 1,088). Tannehill is next with 21 attempts, which includes kneel-downs. Jeremy McNichols has 38 yards on seven attempts.

Eberflus’ objective is limiting teams to 100 yards and 3.7 yards per attempt. His defense has kept the Titans under 100 yards only twice – each time in 2018, and each time a victory.

One more Henry-related item. He’s becoming more of a factor in the passing game. His 18 receptions are one short of matching his career high. And just to keep defenses honest, Henry flipped a 5-yard TD to tight end MyCole Pruitt out of the wildcat against the Chiefs.

And the winner is: Colts 27, Titans 24. 

There’s no overstating the magnitude of the moment for the Colts. Win, and they’re very much in the discussion for the AFC South or a wild-card berth. Lose, and it’ll be tough sledding the rest of the way. This will be the healthiest they’ve been all season with the return of T.Y. Hilton, Braden Smith, Rock Ya-Sin and Kemoko Turay, and the first availability of second-round draft pick Dayo Odeyingbo.

This is when we’ll find out a ton about these guys. The Titans have won three of the last four in Indy, and that’s got to end. Or else.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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