Two weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts were coming off a blowout loss to an NFC West opponent with a matchup with the Tennessee Titans looming large.
Here we are again.
This time it was the Arizona Cardinals that punched the Colts in the mouth, a 40-11 beatdown in Glendale. This time the Colts' game against Tennessee will take place in Indianapolis, at Lucas Oil Stadium. The last time the Colts were there, fans were subjected to a 38-8 shellacking at the hands of the St. Louis Rams.
At 7-4, the Colts have seen their seemingly insurmountable division lead shrink to just two games, and they've looked like the most vulnerable division leader (by a wide margin). So, you could say that the Colts need a bit of a pick-me-up here.
They've played the Titans once already this season, a 30-27 comeback in which the Colts fell into a 17-6 first-half hole before dominating the second half. What does Indianapolis need to take from their previous matchup (and their most recent loss) in order to ensure a win this week? Find out in this week's Game Plan.
Offense: Feed the Beast(s)
Donald Brown has been a polarizing figure during his time in Indianapolis. It started as a first-round draft pick, a player that many didn't think was worth the draft slot at the time. It continued as Brown struggled in his first two seasons, when he averaged less than four yards per carry and was labeled a "bust."
Some fans defended him, pointing to a poor offensive line for the reason why Brown had been such a boom-or-bust back in his first two seasons. He broke out in 2011, leading the Colts in rushing and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Brown was one of the few bright spots in that 2-11 season and seemed primed to be a key part of the Colts offense under Andrew Luck.
Alas, the Colts didn't agree and drafted Vick Ballard in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Brown averaged four yards per carry in his first four games in 2012, but then was hit with an injury that kept him from returning until Week 7. When he did return, he ran for 80 yards on 14 carries against Tennessee, but Ballard had seemingly already won the affection of the coaching staff and was the Colts starter from there on out. Brown didn't receive a single carry the following week.
This season, it's been much of the same, as the Colts have ridden Trent Richardson for nearly 50 more carries, despite Brown outplaying him by a wide margin. Against Tennessee two weeks ago, Brown ran for (raise your hand if this sounds familiar) 80 yards on 14 carries, and found the end zone twice. Last week against Arizona, he saw just two carries.
The Colts have to "Feed the Beast."
Brown is the Colts' best running back, and he's playing like it. The Colts shouldn't try to force the running game, but if they're going to run the ball, they need to use the player that has the best chance of success.
Why is Brown running so well this season? First, he's hitting holes with decisiveness and explosiveness (that Richardson lacks). Second, his vision and anticipation of what the offensive line is going to do, and where holes will appear, is exceptional.
Take these two plays, for example, both coming against the Titans in Week 11:
In both instances, the hole that Brown chooses to hit isn't obvious. Brown does a phenomenal job of reading the offensive line's momentum and anticipating where a hole (even a small one) will open up. Once he's confident in the hole, he plants his foot and explodes through, not opening himself up to be caught from behind.
The result? Two runs of nearly 15 yards. Brown's final touchdown run is also a good example of this.
But Brown isn't the only player that the Colts need to make a more concerted effort to feature. Coby Fleener is the Colts' best receiving weapon outside of T.Y. Hilton, and the best weapon through the air against the Titans, whose cornerbacks do a phenomenal job.
The Colts can use Fleener to attack the middle of the field, forcing the Titans to use their safeties to give help to linebacker attempting to cover the athletic tight end (which will open them up for a big play on the outside by someone like Hilton).
But this is all dependent on the Colts using Fleener in the correct way. Fleener will be a bigger threat down the seam and in intermediate routes than he is on short, "safety-valve" routes. Use him as a weapon, not a security blanket.
Defense: Limit the Extra Yards (aka Stay Disciplined)
The Colts defense has looked as bad as ever over the last four weeks, including an abysmal first half against the Titans in Week 11.
How were the Titans able to move the ball so efficiently in the first half against Indianapolis? Two main ways: Chris Johnson and crossing patterns (aka "rub" routes or pick plays).
For both items, the solution is fairly simple.
In order to slow Chris Johnson, the Colts have to be disciplined. It starts on the defensive line, where the Colts have to maintain their gaps and keep Johnson from bouncing it outside. Erik Walden did a phenomenal job of this in the second half in Week 11 and will be a key factor in this one as well.
For the members of the secondary, discipline means knowing how fast Johnson is and making sure you take a safe angle to the play. This mostly refers to LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea, who have taken some downright terrible angles during the last two weeks.
In order to defend against crossing routes and pick plays, the Colts have several options.
First, they can hope that their inside linebackers get better at coverage. This seems unlikely. Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer don't excel in coverage, especially Angerer, who is a little too stiff to stay with athletic tight ends and/or wide receivers. No, they'll probably have to live with TE Delanie Walker having a good game. Although, they could transfer some safety help on him occasionally.
Second, they can hope that Darius Butler has a better game. This is very possible. Butler had a poor game in Week 11, but has been a decent slot corner for most of the year. He needs to get physical with Kendall Wright in the slot, however, like he was with Wes Welker against Denver. When he gave space to Wright in Week 11, it generally turned out poorly.
Third, they can improve their communication (hey, this is something they can actually do!). Too many times in Week 11 the Colts didn't communicate (at least not quickly enough) that a pick was coming or that one player was passing a player off into another player's zone.
This particular picture comes from a first-half play, where Darius Butler waves to Bethea that he's passing Wright off, but it's a little late, and Bethea is forced to play catchup with Wright. As you can see from the space above, that didn't work too well.
The Colts know that Tennessee will use these concepts against them and can plan accordingly. If they're anticipating these concepts and communicating effectively, the Titans should be kept to minimum gains on such plays.
Overall, it's all about discipline and being prepared defensively. The Titans don't have an overwhelming amount of talent on offense, not with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm. The Colts defense can't allow a second-rate offensive unit to run wild on them again, especially not at home.