Go into the playoffs cold or risk injury by playing starters deep into the game?
That's the biggest question facing Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano as the team heads into the regular-season finale in Tennessee on Sunday.
The Colts have locked up the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, and a win in Tennessee won't do practically anything but ensure the team's third consecutive 11-win season.
But that doesn't mean the team won't play the starters a significant amount. Pagano is the type of coach who believes 100 percent in momentum and peaking at the right time, and it would seem unlikely that he would want to enter the postseason with a game like the Colts' 42-7 loss to Dallas still on their minds.
Nevertheless, let's not put on a masquerade here: The Colts don't need to win this game. There are, however, some things that the Colts should be trying to accomplish in Sunday's contest. So, while this week's holiday game plan will be slightly altered from the usual format, here are a few things the Colts need to do against the Titans on Sunday.
Find Offensive Balance
The Colts offense has struggled over the last three weeks, scoring 25, 17 and seven points, respectively, after averaging nearly 32 points per game in their previous 13 contests.
A big part of the struggles has been the Colts' inability to get a rushing attack going. The Colts running backs ran for just 56, 92 and one yard in the three games. In the 92-yard performance against the Houston Texans, 44 of the yards came on the Colts' final drive. For much of the game, the Colts simply couldn't get into an offensive rhythm.
The Colts don't need to have a dominating run game to win games or to make a playoff game. But this nonexistent rushing complement makes Andrew Luck's job much more difficult, and we've seen the effects over the last three weeks.
|Andrew Luck's Three-Week Struggles|
|Weeks 1-13 (Avg)||63.75||334||3||1||103.0|
The Titans are very vulnerable to the run, allowing the league's 30th-worst rushing DVOA according to Football Outsiders. While a strong running game won't be a great barometer of the Colts' playoff chances, it will be a confidence booster.
At the very least, the Colts should be able to experiment with some different concepts—like bringing in third tight end Jack Doyle—and find the right balance between Dan Herron and Trent Richardson.
Last week's game against Dallas marked Herron's first start, perhaps an indication that the Colts coaches are finally moving away from the thought that Richardson must be the starter. Hopefully, the team's horrific performance in Dallas doesn't give the coaches reason to turn back to Richardson.
While this may not be a part of the game plan, technically, it's the most important part of Sunday's matchup. The Colts cannot afford to lose anybody headed into the playoffs, especially given the slump they've entered in recent weeks.
The Dallas loss saw Dwayne Allen (knee) and Jerrell Freeman (hamstring) leave due to injury. Both players missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday. According to Colts.com's Kevin Bowen, Allen is likely to miss Sunday's game.
T.Y. Hilton, fortunately, should return on Sunday after missing the Dallas loss. Offensive linemen Joe Reitz and Hugh Thornton will also return. It will be important to get those players snaps and back in the flow of games, but caution should be paramount.
Find an Offensive Line Rotation
The aforementioned return of Reitz and Thornton couldn't come at a better time. The Colts offensive line had three new starters against Dallas, with reserves Khaled Holmes (C), Lance Louis (RG) and Xavier Nixon (RT) all starting and disappointing.
Nixon was particularly bad, finishing the game with a negative-7.8 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), easily the Colts' worst single-game grade of the season.
Nixon had three penalties, including costing the Colts a crucial first down and big play to Coby Fleener in the first half while the game was still in reach. He allowed seven pressures in pass protection and allowed far too much penetration in the running game.
Unfortunately, Gosder Cherilus may still be resting this week to ensure his health for the playoffs (missed Tuesday and Wednesday practices), so the Colts may be forced to use Reitz at tackle.
Regardless, the Colts need to use the game against the Titans (and the week of practice prior) to find an offensive line rotation that works. Cherilus will be the starter at right tackle if healthy, but the center and right guard positions have been question marks all year.
The Colts haven't committed to any of their three centers, be it Jonotthan Harrison, A.Q. Shipley or Khaled Holmes. Hugh Thornton's struggles at right guard have opened the door for somebody like Reitz to potentially start as well.
The coaches certainly deserve some blame for that lack of continuity, making some questionable personnel moves throughout the year, starting with the handling of the center position. But injuries have taken their toll as well. The hope for the playoffs has to be that they will have as many bodies available as possible.
To make a playoff run, the Colts have to play well offensively, which means keeping Andrew Luck clean and providing the offense with some sort of rushing balance. The line will be key for both of those.