Colts vs Titans – Week 15 Preview

The Indianapolis Colts (0-13) found out that 13 was not their lucky number,  as they lost their 13th game of the season to the Baltimore Ravens by a score of 24-10. The momentum that the Colts found in the second half against the Patriots was immediately lost against a team that overwhelmed them physically, and with superior skill in every facet of the game. With the loss, there are now only three games remaining for the Colts to attempt to get a win in the 2011 season.

The first of those three opportunities will come against the Tennessee Titans (7-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. The Titans, a young team in the middle of their own rebuild, have outperformed their talent this year, and still have an outside shot at making the playoffs. Despite the disparity in records, the Colts should have a chance to not only keep this game close, but win it. Will they be able to overcome their inconsistencies and earn a win against a division rival, or will the Titans crush the dreams of the team that has kept them down for so long, while keeping their post-season hopes alive?

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Ravens measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.

 

Indianapolis Colts

Tennessee Titans

Offense Defense Offense Defense
Passing 27th (28th) 21st (32nd) 14th (9th) 20th (22nd)
Rushing 28th (18th) 30th (27th) 30th (27th) 20th (7th)
Total 31st (29th) 28th (32nd) 19th (12th) 22nd (13th)

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Tennessee Titans Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 91 DE J. Jones
84 TE J. Tamme 94 DT S. Marks
74 LT A. Castonzo 99 DT J. Casey
76 LG J. Reitz 90 DE D. Morgan
63 C J. Saturday 56 SLB A. Ayers
71 RG R. Diem 52 MLB C. McCarthy
72 RT J. Linkenbach 92 WLB W. Witherspoon
17 WR A. Collie 30 CB J. McCourty
85 WR P. Garcon 26 SS J. Babineaux
6 QB D. Orlovsky 33 FS M. Griffin
31 RB D. Brown 31 CB C. Finnegan

 


The last time these two teams met, the Colts offense had their most success when then starting QB Curtis Painter was flushed out of the pocket and forced to run. Painter ran for 79 yards on 7 carries in such situations. The rest of the Painter-led offense generated only 329 yards on 68 plays (4.8 yards per play). It does not matter how good or bad your defense is, when you’re unable to move the ball, sustain drives, and produce points, you’re not going to win football games.

What can the Colts do different this time around? First, find some balance. In the Week 8 match-up, the Colts were within 10 points for the majority of the game, but attempted 49 passes compared to only 26 runs – 7 of which were improvised Painter scrambles – not the kind of balance this incarnation of the Colts should be utilizing. The running game remains the best part of the Colts entire team, and they must rely on it more if they are going to “shelter” their quarterbacks and have successful drives.

In the passing game, all four main targets – Wayne, Garcon, Collie, and Clark – seem healthy and ready to go, all they need now is a quarterback that can get them the ball on time. Orlovsky should have plenty of opportunities for success in this game. The Titans have one of the worst pass rushes in the league – 27th in raw sack numbers and 29th in FootballOutsiders.com’s adjusted sack rate – so Orlovsky, who was harassed endlessly against Baltimore, should be able to pick apart a secondary which is yielding 240YPG and an opposing QB Rating of 86.2.

When they complete those passes, they should be more of the down field variety than the endless stream of running back, tight end and bubble screens we saw the Colts attempt the first time around. Since the quarterback change two weeks ago, the Colts pass play-calling has become much more north-and-south as opposed to the east-and-west plays they were dialing up for Painter. This is the best way to use their current personnel: their wide receivers excel at using either their route running or athletic ability to beat one-on-one coverages, and their offensive line lacks the athletic ability to get outside and block consistently on those screens.

We’ve seen two incarnations of Dan Orlovsky: the good and the bad. If the Colts can get the guy somewhere in the middle, the Colts offense will be able to score enough points to beat the Titans. If Bad Danny shows up, the Colts may want to start buying real estate in Detroit, because quarterbacking play like we saw last week is a one-way ticket to 0-16.

When the Titans have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Tennessee Titans Offense
93 DE D. Freeney 85 WR N. Washington
99 DT A. Johnson 88 TE C. Stevens
95 DT F. Moala 71 LT M. Roos
98 DE R. Mathis 64 LG L. Harris
53 WLB K. Conner 54 C E. Amano
51 MLB P. Angerer 73 RG J. Scott
50 SLB P. Wheeler 76 RT D. Stewart
27 CB J. Lacey 17 WR D. Williams
35 SS J. Lefeged 8 QB M. Hasselbeck
41 FS A. Bethea 45 FB A. Hall
21 CB K. Thomas 28 RB C. Johnson

 


When these two teams met back in Week 8, the Colts defense had some success stopping the Titans offense.  QB Matt Hasselbeck was was held to a 69.7% completion percentage and 6.8 yards-per-attempt, while the Titans running backs were limited to just 96 yards on 31 carries (3.1 ypc).  Two Curtis Painter interceptions and a blocked punt for a touchdown helped create a situation that was too much for the Colts offense to overcome.

Unlike the previous showdown, the Titans seem to be bringing a completely healthy and committed RB Chris Johnson to the contest.  Entering their Week 8 match-up, Johnson was rushing for a paltry 2.9 YPC average. Since that game, Johnson has seemed to regain some of the explosiveness and toughness that was so lacking at the beginning of the year, that many were publicly questioning Johnson’s commitment to football. Now that he is back on track, stopping him should be Job One for the Colts defense.

To do so, they will have to follow the formula that has made them one of the most successful teams in terms of stopping Johnson in his career: stay in your gaps, don’t over-pursue Johnson’s outside runs, and force him to the sidelines. Though it seems counter-intuitive based on their history, the Colts have had a lot of success trapping Johnson on the boundaries, and will likely try to continue that success on Sunday. As always, if Johnson is able to exploit the Colts aggressive linebackers and safeties, it will make the entire defense more vulnerable to “counter plays” – play-action, roll-outs, misdirections, etc… Bottling Johnson up early will go a long way towards four quarters of success.

In the passing game, the Colts should be able to successfully limit a group of average receivers from making big plays. The issue, as always with this defense, is defending the stick throws: routes on 3rd down that are just far enough to convert first downs.  Any fan of the Colts will certainly have angst filled episodes when hearing the term “cushion”, but it’s true, the Colts defenders play such a soft cushion that teams have had an easy time converting 3rd downs. In the Colts defense, pressuring the WRs and TEs while Freeney and Mathis harass the quarterback is the best bet for success. With the cushions, however, teams are able to bypass Freeney and Mathis entirely by completing short timing routes.  The formula will be the same on Sunday: attack the average receivers and allow Freeney and Mathis to win their match-ups.

The Colts defense, as thin as it may be, has enough skill to be successful against the Titans offense. The question has always been: will the coaches let them be aggressive within the confines of the cover-2? The answer, for some time, has been no. Perhaps DC Mike Murphy will make a change this week. If not, the Titans offense will probably do just enough to send the Colts to 0-14.

Five (give or take) key match ups

1. Colts Run Defense vs. RB Chris Johnson – Titans RB Chris Johnson’s start to the 2011 season was so poor that many in the media were questioning his willingness and desire to compete, and take hits after signing a massive contract during the preseason.  Something changed for Johnson after his poor outing against the Colts in week 8, however, and his numbers have started to improve drastically.  Through 7 games, Johnson carried the ball 107 times for 302 yards (2.8 YPC) and a touchdown.  Compare that to the last 6 games where Johnson rushed the ball 110 times for 573 yards (5.21 YPC) and 3 touchdowns, and it seems clear that the running back has cleared whatever hurdles were slowing him down at the beginning of the year.

With Johnson back on track and the Titans suffering injuries in the passing game – WR Kenny Britt is out for the year, and QB Matt Hasselbeck is nursing an injury – the Titans will look to run their offense through Johnson and the running game. The Colts have been fairly successful against Johnson throughout his career (allowing him 3.68 YPC for his career) and will need to continue having that success if they hope to beat the Titans on Sunday.

This will be a difficult task, as the Titans feature a strong interior (guards and centers) offensive line, which should be able to easily handle the Colts DTs – Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala – who have been poor throughout the season. Controlling the defensive tackles with one-on-one blocks will allow the Titans to get a blocker – either a guard or FB Ahmard Hall – into the second level to block the Colts linebackers. If this happens, Johnson should find the running room he needs to gash the Colts. Also look for the Titans to use the Colts tendency to over-pursue the play by employing a lot of misdirection runs, in an effort to break a big play while the Colts defense is out of position.

The Colts have the talent to beat the Titans. To do so, they will need to stop the Titans most talented player and force an underwhelming cast of wide receivers and tight ends to beat them. If they can do that, they should find themselves sitting at 1-13. Otherwise, the talk of going 0-16 will turn into a roar.

2. QB Dan Orlovsky vs. Titans Pass Defense – Will the real Dan Orlovsky please stand up, please stand up? Orlovsky followed up his 81.1% completion rate and 113.2 QB Rating performance against the Patriots with a 45.9% completion rate and 53.4 QB Rating against the Ravens. Was his performance against the Patriots only a function of ‘garbage time production’?  Exploiting a bad match-up?  Was the performance against the Ravens the real Dan Orlovsky?

The truth, as always, probably lies in the middle. While the Patriots feature the worst pass defense in the entire universe – I checked with my sports contacts on Gamma Eridon who confirmed that the Q’onos Qrushers are indeed feature a better secondary than the Patriots – the Ravens feature one of the best. Neither is a great indication of where the passing game is right now. Enter the Tennessee Titans who, by all accounts, feature a downright mediocre pass defense (around 20-22ish, depending on where you look).

Unless Orlovsky’s performance against the Patriots was a total fluke, he should be given every opportunity to have an excellent game against the Titans. The key area of concern for Orlovsky’s success will be the pass protection.  Tennessee is 27th in the league with 24 sacks on the year, so one would expect the Colts offensive line – the unit that definitely struggled the most against a ferocious Ravens pass rush – to have some success. If they can hold the Titans at bay, especially rookie DT Karl Klug who has 6.0 sacks from the tackle position, Orlovsky should be able to exploit the Titans secondary.

If, however, Orlovsky finds himself under duress again, not only will the Colts find themselves at 0-14, but the concern over the offensive line, the unit that, until recently was the best on the team, will become very real. Two things need to come out of a season in which you are in the running to become one of the worst teams of all time: 1) you must get the number 1 overall draft pick and 2) you must develop the young players on the roster. LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Joe Reitz, and RTs Linkenbach and Ojinnaka need to perform better to solidify their spots in the OL rotation for years to come and prevent the Colts from being forced to waste assets (draft picks or money) on an area where they’ve already spent considerable assets (a 1st and a 2nd round pick in 2011, money on Saturday and Diem, etc…).

3. This Writer vs. The Flu – Normally we would have 5 full match-ups to look at. Due to the flu, however, you’re going to get two full write ups and some random thoughts. Outside of the two match-ups above, the key areas to watch will be DT Karl Klug against the Colts interior linemen.  Klug’s been good this year, and, well, the Colts guards have not. Pressure from the DT position can stop any offense, let alone one as bad as the Colts.

As previously mentioned, the Titans lack a dynamic player at the WR or TE position, so while they are severely undermanned in the secondary, they should be able to contain the Titans passing game through smart scheming. Watching the likes of Nate Washington and Craig Stevens gashing the Colts back end would be a maddening sight, and one that should be easily avoidable.

I’m interested in the play of a trio of young players: LB Pat Angerer, WR Pierre Garcon, and RB Donald Brown. Their continued growth and production will be a big factor in how the Colts handle the off season. All three have shown signs of being legitimate starters for a long time, but must carry on with their good play, even in the face of a disastrous season, to solidify the team’s decisions moving forward.

The injury reports

 


Indianapolis Colts
 

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
Peyton Manning NECK (OUT)
Jamaal Anderson GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
Dallas Clark BURNER (QUESTIONABLE)
AJ Edds ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
Dwight Freeney REST (PROBABLE)
Robert Mathis KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Philip Wheeler FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
Anthony Gonzalez GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)

 

 

Tennessee Titans
 

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
QB Matt Hasselbeck CALF (QUESTIONABLE)
QB Jake Locker CHEST (PROBABLE)
WR Nate Washington ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Patrick Bailey HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
DE William Hayes GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Gerald McRath KNEE/ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Javon Ringer HAND (OUT)
DB Anthony Smith GROIN (OUT)

 

Series notes

  • The Colts are 20-14-0 All Time against the Titans, including a 27-10 loss earlier this season. The Colts have a 12-7-0 record at home in the series.
  • QB Dan Orlovsky has never faced the Tennessee Titans.
  • RB Donald Brown has carried the ball 34 times for 102 yards (3.0 YPC) and a touchdown in 4 games against the Titans.
  • WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Titans 19 times in his career and has hauled in 87 catches for 1175 yards and 7 touchdowns in those games.
  • WR Pierre Garcon has 30 catches for 403 yards and 3 touchdowns in 7 career games.
  • TE Dallas Clark has 51 catches for 568 yards and 3 touchdowns in 11 games against Tennessee.
  • DE Dwight Freeney has 13 sacks in 12 career games against the Titans.
  • DE Robert Mathis has 5 sacks in 9 career tilts against the Titans.
  • QB Matt Hasselbeck has faced the Colts twice and has completed 40 of 54 (74.1%) passes for 392 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in 2 games against the Colts.
  • RB Chris Johnson has found relatively little success against the Colts, running 111 times for 408 yards (3.68 YPC) and 2 touchdowns in 6 games against the Colts.
  • WR Nate Washington 18 catches for 231 yards and 1 touchdown in 5 games against the Colts.
  • DE/DT Jason Jones has 1 sack in 5 career games against the Colts.

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS
Who(Visually):  Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts
Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM
Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford
Is the Game on in your area? Good question. The people at The506 will be able to tell you.

Predictions

Titans – 24, Colts – 13

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