The Titans top ranked defense against the Colts red hot offense will be the story coming in to this one and for good reason. Tennessee hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in regulation since Week 1. Indianapolis has scored at least 34 in four of their past six. Here’s how the two teams stack up according to Football Outsiders DVOA:
- Offense: -8.0% (24th)
- Pass Offense: -0.4% (25th)
- Run Offense: -8.4% (18th)
- Defense: -4.2% (12th)
- Pass Defense: +5.3% (18th)
- Run Defense: -15.4% (8th)
- Special Teams: +2.6% (7th)
- Offense: +3.4% (14th)
- Pass Offense: +13.0% (15th)
- Run Offense: -2.5% (13th)
- Defense: +3.8% (22nd)
- Pass Defense: +18.5% (27th)
- Run Defense: -14.3% (9th)
- Special Teams: +1.3% (10th)
Those are obviously full season numbers and I think you could safely argue that the Titans are quite a bit better heading in to Week 11 than they were early in the year, but that could probably be argued for the Colts as well. It’s a good matchup between good teams. Here are some of the individual matchups that I’m most looking forward to watching on Sunday.
Jayon Brown, Kevin Byard, and Kenny Vaccaro vs Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, and Mo Alie-Cox
This is, in my opinion, the most important matchup for the Titans defense. Last week Andrew Luck targeted backs and tight ends on 16 of his 29 attempts. The Colts offense is your classic “death by a thousand paper cuts” attack. They use their efficient short passing game and an ascendant rushing attack to nickel and dime teams down the field, only occasionally mixing in a deep play action shot. Despite their strong overall offensive numbers, the Colts rank just 18th and 26th, respectively, in explosive play rate per Sharp Football.
Instead, Indy grinds out long drives by being hyper efficient on 3rd down. They lead the league in successful 3rd down conversions per game as well as 3rd down conversion rate. The play of their tight ends are a big part of that. Free agent addition Eric Ebron leads the team in targets (65), catches (39), yards (463), and touchdowns (9). He’s become the force that the Lions envisioned when they selected him 10th overall in the 2014 draft.
Jack Doyle remains the team’s second tight end and functions as both an excellent blocker in the running game and reliable pair of hands as a receiver. Doyle spent his first training camp in Tennessee and always seems to haunt the Titans in these division matchups.
The other tight end that has been getting a lot of work recently for Indy is rookie Mo Alie-Cox. The 6’-5”, 267 pound, former basketball player is a big time athlete and red zone threat.
How the Titans choose to defend these three will be interesting. Tennessee has allowed the fewest yards to tight ends in the NFL this season, giving up just 295 yards over 9 games with zero touchdowns allowed. Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Jayon Brown are the primary defenders responsible for that dominance against a position group that had been a real problem for the Titans defense in recent seasons. The Colts group will be the second best crew of tight ends the Titans have faced in 2018 behind the Eagles duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. How they respond to this challenge will go a long way towards determining their success in stopping Andrew Luck.
Taylor Lewan vs Tyquan Lewis
The Colts pass rush has struggled in 2018, ranking just 24th in the league in sack rate. However, they did get a noticeable boost from the debut of second round rookie Tyquan Lewis who jumped out to me watching the Colts-Jaguars game from last weekend. Granted, he was playing against a tattered Jaguars offensive line, but he still looked like the most dangerous Colts pass rusher.
Lewis will face a much tougher test this week as he will likely draw Titans two-time Pro Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan on most of his pass rushing snaps. Lewan has been a bit up and down this season as he dealt with a concussion early in the season and then a foot injury that held him out of most of the Bills game and severely hampered him against the Ravens. Since regaining full health, the Titans left tackle is back to shutting down opposing pass rushers and clearing lanes for running backs.
Corey Davis vs Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson, and Kenny Moore
The Colts don’t use their corners to shadow specific receivers — or at least they haven’t done so to this point — so I’d expect to see all these guys matched up with the Titans best receiver at different points throughout the game. While Desir has been a pleasant surprise for the Colts after bouncing around various practice squads during his first four years in the league, but no one in the Indy secondary figures to be the type that can bottle up a talent like Davis.
Colts free safety Malik Hooker has been officially ruled out for the game which should further open the opportunities for the Titans passing game to attack downfield. It will be interesting to see how Indy treats Davis. The Pats gave him the respect of having Gilmore follow him, but that clearly wasn’t effective. Will the Colts play the Titans passing game honest or will they try to bracket and bend coverage to limit Tennessee’s emerging star?
Jonnu Smith and Dion Lewis vs Mike Mitchell, Darius Leonard, and Anthony Walker
Unlike the Titans, the Colts defense really struggles against opposing tight ends and running backs. They’ve allowed the 6th most passing yards to tight ends and the 4th most to running backs so far this season. This is another spot where Hooker’s absence hurts the Colts defense. He is easily their best safety in coverage and playing without him will push Mike Mitchell and Clayton Geathers in to the starting lineup. Both of those players are far better run defenders than pass defenders.
Jonnu Smith’s early season struggles as both a blocker and a receiver have been well-documented here, but he’s started to bounce back in recent weeks. This could be a good opportunity for him to finally have his breakout game.
Dion Lewis is another Titan who could benefit from a matchup with the Colts. While Indy is surprisingly stingy against opposing rushers, they’ve really struggled to cover backs in the passing game. Lewis is 14th among NFL running backs in receiving yards and has had at least 60 yards receiving in two of the last three games.
Jurrell Casey vs Quenton Nelson
We’ve all heard the stats about how effective the Colts offensive line has been at protecting Andrew Luck. Luck has only been sacked 10 times all season and hasn’t gone down since Week 5. The Indianapolis offensive line has been a focus of GM Chris Ballard since he arrived. The additions of Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in the draft, the development of Mark Glowinski from Seahawks castoff to a reliable starter, and improved health for Ryan Kelly and Anthony Castonzo have given the Colts an imposing front for the first time since the Manning Era.
Testing the young, talented Colts line will be three time Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey who is playing at an extremely high level right now. Casey flips sides and truly pops up all over the line of scrimmage for Dean Pees’ defense, but we figure to see him matched up with Nelson quite a bit and that will be must see TV for those that love line play.
Adoree’ Jackson vs T.Y. Hilton
A week ago we saw Adoree’ Jackson tasked with tracking Josh Gordon for the majority of the game and the Titans young corner played one of the best games of his young career, allowing just 4 completions on 11 attempts on throws in to his coverage. Jackson is evolving in to an elite NFL corner before our eyes and it will be interesting to see if he’s asked to shadow Hilton this week.
Hilton has been relatively quiet during the Colts three game winning streak. He’s caught just 8 of 16 targets for 136 yards over that timeframe and has largely been a complementary piece to the running game and tight ends. However, he’s still got the speed to threaten defenses over the top and the Titans will need to find a way to keep him from breaking out of his slump. Jackson might just be the solution to that problem for the Tennessee defense.
Mike Vrabel vs Frank Reich
Based on the early results, it looks like this could be the first of many important matchups between Vrabel’s Titans and Reich’s Colts in the AFC South. Both coaches have demonstrated an aggressive mentality when it comes to late game decision making so if things are tight late, expect both coaches to go for the win.