8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Titans -2, Over/Under: 48.5
Before the calendar transitions to December, the AFC South will likely be decided as the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans meet twice in a three-week span, with the first leg coming tonight from Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. Even with the Playoffs likely being expanded further to eight teams representing each conference, the time is now for the Colts (5-3, 2nd in AFC South) to make a move, who have been living on the fringes of the postseason picture in the AFC throughout the first half of the campaign. Coming into tonight’s matchup, Indianapolis resides on the outside looking in, trailing the Cleveland Browns for what would be the final Wild Card, due to coming up short in their head-to-head meeting back in Mid-October, a 32-23 loss in which their league-best Defense was gashed for a season-worst 124 rushing yards. After missing the Playoffs last year, Head Coach, Frank Reich, and General Manager, Chris Ballard, went about fixing their Offense, which was derailed last season by the abrupt retirement of Pro-Bowl Quarterback, Andrew Luck. Though his deputy, Jacoby Brissett, performed admirably throughout 2019, it simply wasn’t enough to move the proverbial needle. So after spending considerable resources rebuilding the Offensive Line and Defense into formidable units, their attention moved back to Quarterback, where Reich called upon an old acquaintance, Philip Rivers (67.9%, 2,087 YDS, 7.31 NY/A, 10 TD, 7 INT, 62.7 QBR) to solve their problem.
Though some believed that the 38-year old would retire following the conclusion of his 16-year stay with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, Rivers decided to take his act to Indianapolis, reuniting with Reich, who served as his Offensive Coordinator from 2014 to 2015, a period in which the venerable signal-caller threw more passes than any other player in the league (1,231). Make no mistake, this was always going to be very much a gamble on the part of Reich and Ballard, for age appeared to have finally caught up with Rivers last year, posting his worst QBR since 2012 (50.8), a steep 18.3-point decrease from the prior year which was marred by twenty interceptions, matching the second-highest figure of his career. However, the train of thought was that better protection coupled with a solid running game would be enough to coax enough quality play out of his right arm, even if he was only asked to merely manage the game. With that said, he’s certainly been the beneficiary of quality protection, sacked just seven times thus far, parlaying to a league-best 2.5%, but that hasn’t really translated to much production, for Rivers has only thrown ten touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions. Simply put, once a gunslinger, always a gunslinger, as he’s continued to make questionable decisions firing the football into crowded coverage, even if his arm has has sometimes betrayed him. It certainly hasn’t helped that there has been a dearth of weapons to work with; former Pro-Bowl Receiver, T.Y. Hilton (22 REC, 251 YDS, 11.4 Y/R, 0 TD), has struggled to recapture his electrifying form, while the rushing attack has been rather toothless, averaging a miserable 3.7 yards per carry (31st Overall), though that hasn’t been for a lack of trying as they’ve averaged 28.0 attempts per game (12th Overall). Even with a strong Offensive Line providing push, the Backfield just hasn’t been very productive, with last year’s leading rusher, Marlon Mack (4 CAR, 26 YDS, 6.5 Y/A, 0 TD), tearing his Achilles in the Season Opener, and his rookie sidekick, Jonathan Taylor (106 CAR, 416 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 4 TD), struggling to find traction. This one is really head-scratching, folks, for Taylor was about as prolific as they come in college, ranking second in Big Ten history with 6,174 rushing yards during his three-year stay at Wisconsin. However, in eight games with the Colts he’s rushed for more than seventy yards just once, amassing twenty-two and twenty-seven over the past two weeks respectively, while failing to factor into the passing game with twenty receptions for 178 yards. Add it all up and you have an Offense that oftentimes has to work extremely hard to simply string together drives, converting on third down a dismal 38.0% of the time (28th Overall), and not performing much better when they get into the red zone, scoring a touchdown on 57.1% of their opportunities (24th Overall). Fortunately, the Defense has been FANTASTIC week in and week out, keeping them in just about every contest. Ballard has done a tremendous job of building this group into arguably the league’s best, as they’ve ranked in the top-three in a slew of categories, including points allowed (20.0) and total yards relinquished (290.0), first downs yielded (143), passing defense (206.4) and rushing defense (83.6), and interceptions (11). All three levels are loaded with talent, with homegrown playmakers such as Linebacker, Darius Leonard (51 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD), Safety, Julian Blackmon (17 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PD), and Cornerback, Kenny Moore (32 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 7 PD, 1 TD), and veteran acquisitions like Edge-Rusher, Justin Houston (11 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 SFTY), and Cornerback, Xavier Rhodes (18 TKL, 2 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD), finding new life following a change of scenery. The biggest difference-maker though has quite literally been the biggest man on the Defensive Line, DeForest Buckner (34 TKL, 4 TFL, 13 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 SFTY), who was acquired in a draft-day trade with the San Francisco 49ers. The 26-year old has been an absolute terror within the interior of the Defense, creating opportunities for his teammates on the strength of the havoc that he creates in the trenches.
When we last saw the Colts, we stood witness to their strengths and weaknesses as they ultimately ran out of gas in a 24-10 loss at home to the Baltimore Ravens. It was a tale of two halves last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, as the hosts impressed mightily in the first half only to get ran off the field in the second. The first thirty minutes of action saw the best of Reich’s charges, with the Defense absolutely confounding reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, and Rivers deftly managing the game en route to a narrow 10-7 advantage at intermission. Seriously, Baltimore was forced to punt on each of their five possessions of the half, relegated to a scant sixty-one total yards, while the hosts put together seven drives for 216 total yards, running off thirty-six plays opposed to that of twenty-five for the visitors. Unfortunately, they didn’t do enough with this early advantage for Jackson and the Ravens would eventually find their rhythm following halftime, where the affair was turned on it’s head. Baltimore would run thirty-nine plays for 211 total yards in comparison to thirty for 128 for Indianapolis, with the game turning on a controversial interception on the first drive of the half, with the call, initially ruled as an incomplete pass, being overturned. As we stated, the ground game got going for the Ravens, rushing for 110 yards and two scores on thirty-eight carries leading to a commanding advantage in time of possession (33:26), with Jackson rushing for fifty-eight yards and a touchdown on thirteen attempts. In contrast, Rivers got progressively worse as the game went on, completing 25-of-43 passes for 227 yards and that crucial interception, while the aforementioned Taylor coughed up a disastrous fumble towards the end of the first quarter, which the visiting side promptly returned sixty-five yards for a touchdown. Simply put, despite this Defense being great the team as a whole CANNOT survive the Offense beating themselves in such a manner. And speaking of the Defense, they’re not going to have much time to rest, for they’re going to have gear back up in order to face the Titans’ Derrick Henry (more on him shortly), the league’s reigning rushing champion.
Meanwhile, the Titans (6-2, 1st in AFC South) are about to embark on the most important stretch of their schedule, as their two meetings with the Colts bookend a rematch of last year’s shocking Divisional Round upset of the Ravens. Simply put, if Tennessee does in fact fashion themselves as legitimate contenders within the AFC, then this would be the period of time to prove it. Already ahead of Indianapolis by one game in the standings, earning the head-to-head tiebreaker would grant Tennessee a MASSIVE advantage within the division, with another strong showing against Baltimore going a long way towards proving that they do belong in the upper tier of teams in the conference. Of course, Mike Vrabel’s charges have proven over the past few seasons that on their day they can compete with anyone, whether it’s going on the road and eliminating the Ravens and New England Patriots in the Playoffs, or grounding the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, which they did in last year’s Regular Season showdown. With that said, the concern with this team is that despite having the potential of trading blows with the NFL’s heavyweights, they have developed a troubling habit of playing to the level of their competition; they’ve only bested their opponents by an average margin of 3.9 points per game, with six of their eight outings decided by one possession this year.
So what gives in Nashville, you ask? Well, let’s start on the offensive side of the football, where the Titans have continued the ascent that they began following their transition to Ryan Tannehill (65.7%, 1,981 YDS, 7.15 NY/A, 19 TD, 3 INT, 78.3 QBR) last season. Simply put, that is where their fortunes changed in 2019, with the veteran Quarterback igniting a suddenly explosive attack that averaged 30.4 points on 406.2 total yards over the last ten games of the schedule. Eight games into 2020 and they’re on pace to match those figures, scoring 29.0 points (7th Overall) on 395.2 total yards (10th Overall). The key to success isn’t complicated, with Vrabel riding the production of the aforementioned Henry (182 CAR, 843 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 8 TD), who once again spearheads a ground game that has churned out a stellar 147.6 yards (6th Overall) on a healthy 4.8 yards per carry (8th Overall), which frequently opens up opportunities downfield, which Tannehill has been adept at exploiting. This is where the signal-caller really shined last year, leading the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6), net yards per attempt (7.98), yards per completion (13.6), and passer rating (117.5), despite a Receiving Corps that lacked household names. They’ve been led by Rookie Wideout, A.J. Brown (31 REC, 457 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 6 TD), who in his second season with Tennessee continues to provide a vertical threat, posting over 25.0 yards per catch in two of the last three games. However, in the end it all comes back to Henry, who earned a lucrative contract extension following his watershed 1,540-yard campaign, proving that his exploits would continue after banking a major payday. It’ll be interesting to see how he performs over the course of the second half of the season, for he has annually grown stronger as the schedule as progressed in each of the past two years; in 2018, Henry racked up 585 of his 1,059 yards and seven of his twelve touchdowns over the final four games, while last season 896 of his 1,540 yards and ten of his sixteen scores came after Week Nine. Now for the bad, folks, for the Titans have oftentimes found themselves victimized on Special Teams, with this phase of the game proving to be an adventure for Vrabel’s charges on a weekly basis. Last season, they became the first team since 2001 to make fewer than 45.0% of their field goal attempts (44.4%), missing more field goals (10) than they made (8), cycling through three different Kickers. Determined to fix this issue, Tennessee acquired former Patriot, Stephen Gostkowski, who has been one of the most consistently accurate at his position over the course of his career. Well, the 36-year old has struggled too, missing seven of his eighteen attempts thus far, along with a pair of extra points that have caused the faithful in Nashville to collectively roll their eyes. And then there is the Defense, which despite boasting plenty of talent has yet to really come together; this unit has allowed a middling 25.1 points (16th Overall) on 394.1 total yards (25th Overall), largely due to their shortcomings on third down (55.4%) and within the red zone (79.3%), where they’ve ranked dead last and next-to-last through the first half of the season. The pass-rush has yet to pick up steam, with top Free Agent acquisition, Jadeveon Clowney (15 TKL, 3 TFL, 6 QBH, 0 SK, 1 FF, 4 PD), inexplicably failing to register a single sack, as the unit as a whole has logged a disappointing ten (29th Overall). Somehow, they’ve managed to amass fourteen takeaways (3rd Overall), which has been their lifeline on this side of the football. Granted, injuries have slowed the personnel here, with Clowney signing very late in the Offseason, and last year’s 1st Round Pick, Defensive Tackle, Jeffrey Simmons (28 TKL, 2 TFL, 9 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD), still working his way back from an ACL tear that robbed him of most of his rookie campaign. Furthermore, they’ve lacked much of a threat on the edge despite allotting assets to the position in recent years; 2018 2nd Round Pick, Harold Landry (35 TKL, 5 TFL, 11 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD), has regressed with just 2.5 sacks following a career-high of nine, while former Pro-Bowler, Vic Beasley (3 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF), was outright released after amassing zero pressures, hurries, or sacks in five games.
When we last saw the Titans, they managed to bounce back from a back-to-back losses by defeating the Chicago Bears in a 24-17 victory at home. This one became a lot more trouble than it was worth in the end, as the hosts dominated the contest throughout the first three quarters of play, only to lose control of the affair in the final stanza. Through three periods, Tennessee led Chicago 17-3, despite being outgained 157-135. The problem was Vrabel’s troops struggled to move the football much at all against the visitors, relegated to three or fewer yards on eight of their twelve drives of the evening, with a startling four ending in negative yardage. In fact, 223 of their 228 net yards of Offense came on three possessions, as the Bears’ Defense really got after them for long stretches of play. Fortunately, this may have proved to be the afternoon in which their own Defense may have finally figured it out, as they held their opponent scoreless until the latter stages of the third quarter, forcing and recovering a pair of crucial fumbles in the second half, and in total forcing six punts and a turnover on downs. Newly acquired Defensive Back, Desmond King (26 TKL, 0 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD), paid immediate dividends following his trade from the Chargers earlier in the week, returning a fumble sixty-three yards for a score in the third frame, while the pass-rush awoke with three sacks of Nick Foles, who was also hit on nine occasions. On a day in which Henry was held in check with just sixty-eight yards on twenty-one carries, the Offense had to make plays on the few occasions that Chicago afforded them the luxury of doing so, with Tannehill completing only 10-of-21 passes for 158 yards, but tossed a pair of touchdowns, an early 40-yard bomb to the aforementioned Brown, and a late strike to Tight End, Jonnu Smith (24 REC, 304 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 6 TD), that capped a 76-yard drive. Brown ended the affair with 101 yards on just four receptions, while Landry had arguably his best game of the season, with three hits of Foles and a sack. Granted, the Bears have been rather dreadful offensively this year, but it was nonetheless a performance worthy of building confidence.