ReFo: Colts @ Titans, Week 11
Ben Stockwell offers noteworthy performances for each side in the Colts' Thursday Night win in Tennessee.
ReFo: Colts @ Titans, Week 11
Leaving yourself in a position of having to win a game twice rarely ends in a positive outcome and that was exactly the position the Tennessee Titans put themselves in last night. After a strong first 28 minutes the Titans had a two-touchdown lead over the Colts and had some semblance of control over a team that was still reeling for their shocking defeat to the Rams on Sunday. However, by virtue of receiving the opening kickoff and an inexcusable turnover, the Titans subsequently surrendered three straight possessions and three scores before their offense took the field again.
Having left the field with 2:32 remaining in the second quarter with a 14-point lead Ryan Fitzpatrick and his offense didn’t take the field again for another 10 minutes of game-time now facing a three point deficit. While by no means an insurmountable lead the Titans had still put themselves in a position of needing to win the game twice and having established the lead through strong run blocking and Chris Johnson making the most of those gaps Tennessee couldn’t replicate that form to win the game for a second time.
For the Colts, this was a much needed bounce back victory in a season that has bounced from giddying heights to some baffling lows. Through the momentum swing around the half and during the maintenance of the lead through the second half this was a game won with persistence in the ground game to see the Colts over the line. Andrew Luck and the passing game took what was there through the air but even Luck contributed as much on the ground with his scrambling as he did through the air to complement the persistent battering from Donald Brown and the power attack that Pep Hamilton called upon during the second half. The successful comeback ensures that they do not falter to only a one game lead over the Titans but instead keep them at more than arm’s length with a three-game lead.
Indianapolis – Three Performances of Note
Taking Over On the Ground
After the Titans brought the game back within three points early in the fourth quarter the Colts stalled just outside field goal range with the Titans’ ever solid pass coverage from their corners stifling a pair of pass attempts to T.Y. Hilton. After their defense held the Titans to a punt the Colts’ offense responded with a statement drive starting their four-minute offense early grounding out the game from midway through the fourth with an 11-play drive of which 10 were runs to establish an ultimately decisive 10-point lead. Donald Brown was the primary ball-carrier making the most of strong blocking on primarily power and counter runs with his linemen opening holes for him to carve through for solid gain after solid gain. There were isolated victories for the Titans but were overcome either by the Colts’ most reliable hook-up from the game (Luck-to-Fleener) or by their own ill discipline (Akeem Ayers’ roughing penalty on Luck). Just as the Titans opened the game with a well executed ground attack the Colts closed it out with one on Brown’s 11-yard score which featured the running back, linemen tight ends and the solitary receiver on the play (Griff Whalen) all combining to carve a path to the end zone for the crucial score.
Exploiting the Stanford Connection
Whether through Pep Hamilton’s persistent play calling in the fourth, Andrew Luck’s running in the open field or Coby Fleener’s work after the catch there were Stanford Cardinal fingerprints all over this victory. Widely lauded for his passing and putting a solid outing last night Luck provided a real spark on the ground as well, an area of his game often overlooked as people try to focus on his passing. It was Luck who kick-started the Colts’ first drive out of half-time first with a pass to Fleener on an out route in front of Michael Griffin and then with a scramble two plays later turning the Titans’ safety inside out as he broke upfield through the middle of the pocket. It was Luck that capped off the turnaround with another scramble off a smart play against an utterly perplexed Titans defense. With the rest of the offense executing run fake left Luck pulled right to look for Griff Whalen all alone at the line of scrimmage to the right but pulled the ball down seeing Derrick Morgan in the passing lane. Not settling for just cutting up inside for the first and getting to ground Luck exploited some dreadful defense from Griffin again to bust into the end zone for the go ahead score. Allied with Fleener’s work after the catch on a career night for the tight end there was a certain Palo Alto flavor to the swing of momentum to set up the aforementioned ground game to close it out.
Pass Rush Held in Check
Robert Mathis was a one-man pass rush against the Rams on Sunday and has come up with big plays in statement victories all season so far. Even he however was held broadly in check by the Titans as ever stifling pass protection. Things looked good for a big night early on with Mathis getting a trio of pressures driving David Stewart (once) and Michael Roos (twice) right back at Ryan Fitzpatrick for pressure in the first 10 minutes of the game. However Mathis and the rest of the pass rush didn’t build on that start. The sum total of the Colts’ second half pass rushing was a sack and a hit for Erik Walden, one on a stunt and one coming from a deeper alignment to get past Titans’ rookie guard Chance Warmack. The quick release of Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t help in trying to generate a pass rush but with 11 drop-backs with a hold of 2.6 seconds or longer you would expect more than this pass rush was able to generate after the first quarter. On the edge Mathis is still short of support while through the middle the Colts were short of contributions from the likes of Fili Moala who was held without pressure for the second straight game having recorded multiple pressures in five of the first eight games of the season and Jerrell Freeman who hasn’t recorded pressure in the Colts’ last three games after a productive spell of six weeks (4 Sk, 3 Ht, 2 Hu) earlier in the season.
Tennessee – Three Performances of Note
Fast Start for Johnson and the Ground Game
While they threw the game away through the second half, the Titans got off to a strong start on the ground with not only Chris Johnson in good form but also those blocking for him. The first carry of the game wasn’t a success with Chris Spencer driven back to force a short gain but the second carry was a clinical strike by the Titans’ ground game with solid blocking and a back showing how to exploit and fire through a tight crease. The Titans didn’t blow a hole 10 miles wide in the Colts’ run defense but everybody got their blocks to give Johnson what he needed. After the tight ends and Andy Levitre gave Johnson enough of a crease at the line Nate Washington (+1.4 run block) held the gap open at the second level allowing Johnson to exploit some poor defending in space by Cassius Vaughn and LaRon Landry with his customary burst of speed to break away for a 30-yard score. His second score was no less impressive adjusting his aiming point and again exploiting some poor defending by the Colts to fight into the end zone to establish the two-score lead. The Colts got more of a handle on Johnson in the second half by controlling the clock and swinging momentum as much as through stellar defense. Johnson carried the ball only four more times after the break with the Colts taking the game away on the strength of their own ground attack.
Ayers Makes Waves Moving Forwards
A player who at times it feels like the Titans have struggled to work out how to get the most from Akeem Ayers (+2.7) showed precisely how you get the most from him with a strong game in run defense and as a pass rusher last night. Not a perfect night all-around (two missed tackles in coverage and an unnecessary roughness on the game’s back-breaking drive) by any means Ayers notched a pair of hits on Andrew Luck either side of halftime beating Gosder Cherilus and Donald Brown to show his ability as a pass rusher to add to a strong game in run defense. The principle cause for Stanley Havili’s poor game as a run blocker Ayers also offered rare resistance on the Colts’ long fourth-quarter drive bringing about the only play for a loss on the entire drive. When Trent Richardson entered the game to spell Donald Brown, Ayers got a jump on the counter play the Colts were persisting with and was able to get around Hugh Thornton on his pull this time to meet Richardson deep in the backfield chopping him down for a 1-yard loss as the Colt running back lunged for the line of scrimmage to minimize the loss after Ayers blew the play up.
Peppering the Short Throws
Welcoming Ryan Fitzpatrick back under center it was somewhat inevitable that the crosshairs in the passing game would be brought back down toward the short throws, at least until the game situation dictated that they looked deeper. The success of those throws, a 42-yard strike to Nate Washington and Delanie Walker’s 19-yard score, two of the Titans three longest plays of the game against some shaky deep coverage from the Colts’ secondary will only have served to frustrate that these targets only entered the game when it was all but out of reach. The Titans’ most targeted receiver in the game, Kendall Wright (12), didn’t see a single pass targeted more than 10 yards downfield with his pair of drops serving to highlight how even the slightest inefficiency can really put the brakes on a passing game that doesn’t test a defense on deep and intermediate passes.
– With another two missed tackles last night Colin McCarthy has missed ten tackles in his last five games. His combined tackling efficiency of 4.3 is the worst among inside linebackers.
– Differing approaches to pass protection on show in last night’s game. On 35 pass plays the Titans only kept in an extra blocker (Shonn Greene), once. Meanwhile on 42 pass plays the Colts had 22 “extra” pass block snaps from six different players.
– Of their 23 designed backfield runs only four went between the tackles. Off tackle and off end the Colts gained 91 yards at 4.8 yards per carry.
PFF Game Ball
Profiting from strong blocking in front of him Donald Brown provided strong running in the fourth quarter to close out the comeback victory that put the Colts way out front in the AFC South.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.