INDIANAPOLIS — First place in the AFC South will be on the line in prime time when the Colts take on the Titans at 8:20 p.m. Thursday night at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.
Indianapolis (5-3) must knock off the Titans (6-2) to keep pace in the division race and stay in the hunt in a tight AFC playoff race. With big stakes on the line, playing in front of a national TV audience, here’s what to watch in the first divisional game Indianapolis has played since the opener.
1. Conventional wisdom says the Colts are at a disadvantage, playing on the road on a short week, but road teams are actually 4-4 on Thursday Night Football this season, and Frank Reich is 2-0 at Nissan Stadium in his time in Indianapolis.
2. Indianapolis has allowed a league-best eight sacks this season, and the Titans’ inability to get to the quarterback has been the defense’s Achilles heel this season. Tennessee has just 10 sacks on the season, the fourth-worst mark in the league and a sack behind the Bengals and Lions, two teams Colts quarterback Philip Rivers recently shredded.
3. Tennessee’s most dangerous pass rusher is probably Jeffery Simmons, a defensive end who rushes from the interior. Simmons has two sacks and nine quarterback hits this season; expect the Titans to keep him away from left guard Quenton Nelson and focus his rushes on right guard Mark Glowinski.
4. If the Titans get back the services of Jadeveon Clowney, who missed Tennessee’s win over Chicago with a knee injury, the high-priced free agent will team with fellow edge rusher Harold Landry to try to break the Colts down from the edge against left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Braden Smith. Clowney, who may still be banged up, has not recorded a sack in Tennessee yet this season, although he does have six quarterback hits.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers (17) hands off to running back Jonathan Taylor (28) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Cleveland. (Photo: Ron Schwane, AP)
5. The Titans pass rush is one of the best in the NFL at getting its hands up and in the passing lane. Landry, Simmons and Clowney have combined for a remarkable 12 passes defended this season, and Landry has an interception off of a ricochet. Rivers has had six passes batted down so far this year.
Philip Rivers will be challenged by secondary
6. The real danger for Rivers is an opportunistic Tennessee secondary, bolstered by the addition of ballhawking nickel Desmond King. The Titans lead the NFL with 52 passes defended and have nine interceptions, and free safety Kevin Byard — who has 17 interceptions over the last three seasons — hasn’t even recorded a pick yet.
7. With T.Y. Hilton healthy, the Colts need their wide receivers to make more plays down the field than they did against Baltimore. Indianapolis is tied for 10th in the NFL in passing plays of 20 yards or more this season with 29, but the Colts only managed two against Baltimore last week.
8. Indianapolis needs Hilton, rookie Michael Pittman Jr. and Marcus Johnson to come up big. Tennessee has given up the fourth-most yards to wide receivers this season.
9. Expect the Titans to play a lot of zone coverages. Both Detroit and Baltimore have turned to the zone the past two weeks, presumably to try to take the chunk plays away from a Colts offense that has done a good job creating them despite the lack of a No. 1 receiver.
Mo Alie-Cox likely the No. 1 tight end
10. With Jack Doyle out due to a concussion, Mo Alie-Cox likely assumes the role of No. 1 tight end in the Indianapolis offense, and that should mean a lot of targets. Alie-Cox leads Colts tight ends with 17 catches for 274 yards this season.
11. Indianapolis hasn’t been able to get Trey Burton involved much down the field yet. Burton has 15 catches in five games, but he’s averaging just 8.1 yards per catch, and Tennessee safeties Byard, Kenny Vaccaro and Amani Hooker will make it hard to get going this week.
Jonathan Taylor or Jordan Wilkins?
12. The Colts have pulled rookie running back and leading rusher Jonathan Taylor from the game plan two weeks in a row, first for ineffectiveness and the second time for fumbling. Reich said earlier this week that the team is still confident in the rookie, but it will be interesting to see how many chances Taylor gets Thursday night.
13. Whether it’s Taylor or Jordan Wilkins, expect running room to be tight for the Colts’ anemic ground game, still ranked 31st in the NFL in yards per carry. Tennessee has only allowed one opponent to rush for more than 100 yards in its last five games, and it took the Bengals 32 carries to get there.
14. Nyheim Hines leads the Colts in receptions (28 catches, 220 yards, three touchdowns), but he might have a tough time against a Tennessee defense that has given up the sixth-fewest receiving yards in the NFL to running backs this season.
15. Even with Hilton likely back in the lineup, undrafted rookie DeMichael Harris is likely going to get some chances in the slot. Harris has been productive in a gadget-type role this season, and he’s coming off of a breakout performance with two carries for 28 yards on jet sweeps against Baltimore.
16. The Colts offense has sometimes struggled on third down and in the red zone this season, but not as much as a Tennessee defense that is dead-last in the NFL at preventing third-down conversions and second-to-last in the red zone.
17. Hines might have a chance to pick up some yards in the return game. The Titans rank 28th in the NFL in punt coverage, giving up 11.6 yards per return and a long of 57.
18. Unlike last week, when the Colts faced the best kicker in the NFL, Tennessee’s kicking situation leaves room for uncertainty. Stephen Gostkowski is 5 of 6 on kicks of 50 yards or more this season, but he’s just 6 of 12 on all other kicks, creating issues for the Titans offense.
Derrick Henry vs. Darius Leonard
19. Everything in Tennessee begins with Derrick Henry, the only running back in the last 42 games to pile up more than 100 yards against the Colts and currently ranked second in the NFL in rushing with 843 yards. Henry has four 100-yard games, but he can be held in check by good defenses. Both Pittsburgh and Chicago kept the Tennessee superstar below 4 yards per carry.
20. Darius Leonard said it best earlier in the week, and he’s likely the most important player against Henry because of it: the 247-pound back is at his deadliest in the open field. Henry does some damage between the tackles, but it’s on the edges that he’s most dangerous, and that’s often been where Leonard has been at his best this season, chasing down backs on the perimeter.
21. Indianapolis is allowing just 3.3 yards per carry this season, but it’s unlikely the Titans will go away from Henry if he struggles early. The big back has been given at least 18 carries in his last 17 games.
22. Tennessee is already starting backup Ty Sambrailo at left tackle due to Taylor Lewan’s season-ending injury, and right tackle Dennis Kelly is battling a knee injury. If Kelly cannot go, the Titans would have to start rookie Isaiah Wilson on the right side, leaving Tennessee vulnerable on the edges.
23. Veteran Colts defensive end Justin Houston could use a spark. After racking up 3.5 sacks in the first four games, Houston has now gone four games without a sack, his longest streak without a sack since coming to Indianapolis.
Colts need to get to Ryan Tannehill
24. If Indianapolis can get to Ryan Tannehill, they might be able to limit him, even though Tannehill is currently putting together a Pro Bowl season, ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating. In the Titans’ last three games, which includes back-to-back losses, Tannehill is completing just 57.6% of his passes and hasn’t thrown for more than 220 yards, although he has tossed six touchdowns and just one pick over the same period.
25. Tennessee’s DNA is to go deep in the passing game. The Titans are tied for fourth in the NFL with seven completions of more than 40 yards this season, and Tannehill is averaging an impressive 7.8 yards per attempt. The Colts defense, likewise, has been good at limiting the big play; Indianapolis has given up just two completions longer than 40 yards, tied for the second-best mark in the NFL.
26. The Titans’ most devastating weapon is A.J. Brown, who is blossoming into a star with 31 catches, 457 yards and six touchdowns so far. Indianapolis likely won’t assign Xavier Rhodes to shadow Brown; the Colts have been comfortable playing team defense against an opponent’s best receiver this season.
27. Tennessee is also excellent at using multiple tight ends in the passing game, putting players like Leonard, fellow linebacker Bobby Okereke and strong safety Khari Willis on high alert. Jonnu Smith has 24 catches for 304 yards and six touchdowns, and running mate Anthony Firkser also has 24 catches, covering 244 yards and scoring once.
28. A Colts team that is tied for the team lead in interceptions faces a tough task against Tannehill, who has thrown just three on the season, and the Titans have only lost one fumble. Forcing turnovers against Tennessee is no easy task.