INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – On paper, it’s a colossal mismatch.
We’ll find out Sunday if that’s also the case on the playing field.
With the Indianapolis Colts once again desperate to plug leaks in a listing ship, their next step – and latest must-win situation – comes Sunday in Nashville against a Tennessee Titans bunch that offers strengths at a couple of pivotal areas that have proven to be Colts’ weaknesses.
Run game vs. run defense:
Mike Mularkey’s Titans are committed to the running game, and we’re not necessarily referring to ranking 3rd in yards per game (146.7) and 2nd in yards per attempt (4.9) behind quarterback Marcus Mariota and tailbacks DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry. We’re more impressed with Tennessee ranking 5th in run-pass ratio. They’re running 47.5 percent of the time. Dallas is the league’s most run-heavy team (51.4 percent). The Colts run the ball 35.6 percent of the time.
Indy’s run defense, meanwhile, is 25th in yards per game allowed (117.7) and 28th in yards per attempt (4.8). It has yielded consecutive 100-yard running games to Chicago’s Jordan Howard (118) and Houston’s Lamar Miller (149), and now must deal with the deceptive Mariota, who frequently tests the integrity of the edges of a defense and the discipline of the front-seven with the read-option, and Murray, the 2014 NFL rushing champ (1,845 yards) whose 526 yards rank 4th in the league.
The last time the Colts yielded a 100-yard rusher in three straight games: games 11-13 of 2010.
Safety Mike Adams was quick to point out the Titans aren’t a pound-pound-pound offense.
“They do a lot of exotic things,’’ he said. “They use different formations, 13 different personnels to be exact.’’
Coordinator Ted Monachino described Mariota as a “special player.’’
“You’ve got to understand where he can cause you stress,’’ he said. “Anytime you have a quarterback who has the potential to run it, it becomes a little bit like old-school option football and we’ve got to be assignment-sound. We’ve got to play with great discipline.’’
Pass protection vs. pass rush:
To remind everyone, Andrew Luck’s pass protection hasn’t been up to snuff. He’s been sacked a league-high 23 times, including 14 in the last three games, and hit another 46 times. Yes, some of those sacks are a result of Luck holding onto the football a tad too long. But he’s probably nullified the self-induced sacks by avoiding that many with his ability to pull out of tackles or eluding the pressure.
Despite being under siege through six games, it’s worth noting Luck has completed what would be a career-best 64.1 percent of his passes and is on pace for 4,589 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. The projected yardage total would trail only Luck’s record 4,761 in 2014 and Peyton Manning’s 4,700 in ’10.
And now, the Dick LeBeau-led Titans. They’ve piled up 18 sacks and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo’s 7 are third-most in the league. Tackle Jurrell Casey and outside linebacker Derrick Morgan have 3 each.
“They’ve got really good players, they’ve got a very sophisticated scheme and know what they’re doing,’’ Luck said. “They do a heck of a job. Obviously, Casey and Orakpo are premier. They’ve got good cover guys with (Jason) McCourty and (Perrish) Cox and studs everywhere.’’
While the offensive line has been a convenient punching bag thus far, on several occasions sacks have been the result of a tight end or running back faltering in protection. That appeared to be the case on two of the three sacks against the Texans.
Punch to the gut:
Monachino minced no words when offering a six-game assessment of his defense. It ranks No. 30 in yards allowed (411.2), No. 28 in points per game (29.0), and has yielded a total of 936 yards in consecutive games to Chicago and Houston. That’s the third-most allowed in back-to-back in the last 16 years.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be,’’ Monachino said. “We haven’t played winning football often enough. We’ve had flashes of really good play in several games, gone stretches where we’ve played well, put together a number of three-and-outs in a row.
“We’re not anywhere near where we need to be, but we’re going to keep working at it.’’
Most distressing has been Monachino’s defense being in position twice to close games in the closing minutes, even seconds. In the opener at Detroit, the Colts led 35-34 with 37 seconds to play and the defense allowed the Lions to get into position for Matt Prater’s 43-yard field goal with 4 seconds to play.
Perhaps most troubling was the defense failing to hold a 14-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday at Houston. It allowed two TDs in the final 3 minutes, then Nick Novak’s game-winning 33-yard field goal in overtime.
Monachino described the loss to the Texans as a “tremendous hit to the gut. It has not discouraged us in any way (but) it is a tremendous hit in the gut.
“As a collective group we just didn’t get it done. It’s gut-wrenching when it happens. You feel bad after a game.’’