INDIANAPOLIS – One streak continues, another ends and yet another is in the “iffy’’ category as the Indianapolis Colts prepare for a pivotal rematch with the Tennessee Titans.
A quickie recap:
Quarterback Philip Rivers is in line to start his 235th consecutive regular-season game, the fourth-longest in NFL history, despite dealing with an injury to his big toe. He didn’t practice Wednesday to give the toe a chance to heal, but was a full participant Friday.
“I thought Philip looked good and had a good day out there,’’ coach Frank Reich said on a Zoom conference call.
“I do think there’s something about that availability, being there each and every week,’’ Rivers said earlier this week. “You don’t just try to keep that alive just to keep it alive and this isn’t one of those circumstances.’’
DeForest Buckner’s streak of 69 consecutive starts ended when the veteran defensive tackle tested positive for the coronavirus and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday. He must remain on the list either 10 days (if asymptomatic) or 14 days (if he has symptoms), which also calls into question his availability for the Dec. 6 game at Houston.
Buckner has been on the field for 81.6% of the defensive snaps – easily the most by a lineman – and has missed only one of a possible 74 starts since the San Francisco 49ers selected him with the 7th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Compounding the absence of Buckner is defensive end Denico Autry missing his second game after a positive test sent him to the reserve/COVID-19 list Nov. 20.
Ending Part II
linebacker Bobby Okereke has been ruled out of the Titans game with an ankle injury. The 2019 second-round pick has appeared in all 26 games and started six this season.
That’s the status for Ryan Kelly after a neck injury kept the Pro Bowl center off the practice field this week. He’s started 28 consecutive games, including the playoffs. If his streak ends, rookie Danny Pinter likely makes his first career start.
However, let’s not jump the gun on Kelly. Heading into the Nov. 1 road trip to Detroit, he was limited on Wednesday with a knee injury and didn’t practice Thursday and Friday. He started against the Lions.
“Our guys do such a good job of staying locked in mentally and we get good work in walk-through periods, and the meetings are so detailed,’’ Reich said. “At this time of year, we have a lot of physical accumulated reps, so when guys have to miss – I don’t like it and neither do they – you have confidence that they can miss some and still come back in there and play well.’’
It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the NFL’s No. 2-ranked defense being without Buckner, Autry and Okereke, especially considering the threat posed by Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher.
Buckner and Autry have combined for 63 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits. Okereke has 54 tackles, four tackles for loss and four passes defensed, most among the linebackers.
In the first meeting Nov. 12, Buckner had five tackles and three hits on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Autry one sack and four tackles and Okereke four tackles and one pass defense.
Reich hasn’t altered his message to the team as players have missed a game with an injury or positive COVID-19 test.
“It is the same message,’’ he said. “This is normal and good teams overcome it. That’s what we need to do. That’s the great thing about football: it’s not a one-man show.
“Sure, every player is important and every player adds a unique contribution and when you get players go down, at one level you miss him, but I’ve just seen in this game for so long and so many times that good teams overcome it because they believe, because they have good depth, being the guys who step up play great and the rest of the team plays great and that’s what we’ll do.’’
Titans challenge? Same as always
The Colts and Titans square off for the second time in 18 days, which should facilitate preparation.
Of course, preparing for the Titans is somewhat basic to start with.
“They do what they do,’’ All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said. “Me personally, I’ve been playing them – I think this is my sixth time playing them – so they’ve been doing the same thing. I don’t think they’re going to change anything up.
“You know what they’re going to do. They’re going to run the ball; they’re going to play-action and they’re going to do boot. That’s what they do well, and we have to stop the run, then we have to get in the windows for the boots and the bang-eights then I think we’ll be fine.’’
The Titans feature a top-10 quarterback in Ryan Tannehill (22 TDs, four interceptions, a 106.6 passer rating) and a pair of deep threats in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis (a combined 10 TDs and 1,089 yards on 75 receptions), but everything they do revolves around Henry.
“I’m quite sure their plan is to feature Derrick Henry,’’ Reich said. “He’s a big-time playmaker and they’ll try to get him going.
“That’ll be a good challenge for us, but our defense has to be 11-on-1.’’
The Henry factor
Since the arrival of coordinator Matt Eberflus in 2018, the defense has been one of the NFL’s best against the run. It ranked 7th a year ago, allowing 97.9 yards per game, and is 3rd after 10 games (89.2).
Not surprisingly, things have been more difficult whenever the task has been dealing with Henry and the Titans.
In 37 games against the rest of the NFL, Eberflus’ run defense has allowed averages of 93.8 yards per game and 3.8 per attempt.
In the five meetings with the Henry-led Titans, the averages have mushroomed to 123.9 yards per game and 4.8 per attempt.
Only one player has cracked the 100-yard mark against Indy since 2018: Henry, and he’s done it twice. Both have come in the last two meetings – 103 yards on 19 carries earlier this month and 149 yards on 26 attempts in Tennessee’s 31-17 win in Indy Dec. 1, 2019.
Henry also piled up 131 yards on 19 carries in 2017, pre-Eberflus.
Henry led the NFL is rushing a year ago with 1,540 yards and is setting the pace against this season (1,079).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.