Titans vs. Colts: Takeaways from Indianapolis' 22-14 Win over Tennessee
Well, the Indianapolis Colts have yet to lose back-to-back games under head coach Chuck Pagano. With a better showing from the coaches and a stronger defensive performance, the Colts defeated the Tennessee Titans 22-14 in Indianapolis on Sunday.
The Colts (8-4) got out to a much better start this week, getting out to a 6-0 lead and keeping it within one score throughout the game. That allowed them to stay with their game plan offensively, and they were able to move the ball throughout.
The biggest game, in terms of playoff implications, comes next week for Indianapolis, when they visit Cincinnati.
But for now, let's isolate the components of this win, something Indianapolis needed after a blowout loss in Arizona last week.
Donald Brown Finishes the Titans, Again
Prior to this week's game, the Bleacher Report game plan for Indianapolis included featuring Donald Brown in the running game.
The Colts seemed to agree, benching RB Trent Richardson for Brown.
For most of the game, it looked like the change wasn't going to do much for the Colts, who still struggled to move the ball on the ground. Brown had just eight yards on his first eight carries, as the Colts' offensive line allowed penetration on just about every run.
But, when the Colts needed a game-icing drive, Brown found daylight, just like he did two weeks ago. Brown ran for 46 yards on six carries on that drive, including a four-yard touchdown run to put the Colts up by eight.
The offensive line is going to hold back any running back the Colts trot onto the field, but Brown is still a better option than Richardson by a wide margin.
Andrew Luck's Mediocre Stretch Continues
Andrew Luck is a very good second-year quarterback. He'll be very good going forward.
His situation right now is below average, even awful at times. The Colts' offensive line is terrible, the receivers are struggling to get open in one-on-one matchups and the running game is inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst.
All that being said, Luck needs to play better.
Over the last few weeks, he's been inconsistent and mediocre, downright bad in some instances (such as the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals losses).
Against Tennessee, Luck made some great plays, namely when he rolled out of the pocket or found a lane up the middle to move out of the pocket. Other times, he held the ball in the pocket too long and was sacked, including two sacks that resulted in fumbles.
Luck's interception in this game wasn't his fault (it was a perfect throw to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton down the seam that bounced off Hilton's hands), but he had plenty of other inaccurate throws in the game, including a horrific dropped interception by George Wilson.
The Colts are putting Luck in a poor position, but if Luck is going to be an elite quarterback in this league, he has to play much better than he has over the last few weeks.
Darrius Heyward-Bey Gets Benched
It's been coming for weeks, and it kind of happened last week, but on Sunday, Darrius Heyward-Bey was finally benched.
Heyward-Bey made a great play early in the game on a crossing pattern, catching a short throw and running for 23 yards. That's the kind of play he can make. That's the kind of position the Colts need to be putting him in.
But, later in the game, as the Colts looked to move the ball and put some space between themselves and the Titans on the scoreboard, Heyward-Bey went deep down the field and found wide-open space in the Titans' zone defense.
Luck saw him, threw a pass right to Heyward-Bey's numbers, and Heyward-Bey promptly dropped it.
Heyward-Bey takes away far more than he gives at this point, and so the Colts gave rookie wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers a shot. On his first target, Rogers drew a 27-yard pass-interference penalty. Rogers wouldn't get another target in the game, but going forward, he has to give the Colts a better chance at success than Heyward-Bey does. Hopefully, the coaches continue to see it the same way.
Coby Fleener Needs More
In the aforementioned game-plan piece, the other offensive key for the Titans-Colts matchup was Coby Fleener, who needs to be a primary option for Luck (considering the lack of weapons outside).
To start the game, it seemed the Colts were on the same page. Fleener saw three first-quarter targets, catching two for 37 yards. But Fleener would see just two targets for the rest of the game, although he did catch one (a 13-yard grab for a first down on the Colts' final drive).
Fleener needs to see more targets, even if teams are paying a little more attention to him. He's the Colts' second-best weapon and finally saw a few targets down the field this week. That's where an athletic tight end can be devastating, and he should get a few more opportunities in those kind of situations as the Colts head toward the playoffs.
Robert Mathis, Cassius Vaughn Carry Defense
The Colts defense wasn't phenomenal in this game, as the Titans were able to move the ball, but they made key stops when they needed to, whether it was a late forced punt, the three interceptions or a forced fumble.
Robert Mathis continues to carry the Colts defense as the only player to get any kind of pass rush. Mathis got his 41st career strip-sack in the second half, ending the Titans' chance at a score on the drive (they were on the IND 28). Mathis has 15.5 sacks on the season, half-a-sack away from Dwight Freeney's franchise record.
Cassius Vaughn was the other unofficial game-ball winner, picking off Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. Vaughn showed impressive instincts with the ball in the air on both plays on a day when he got demoted to nickel corner. Vaughn had been inserted into the starting lineup when Greg Toler went down, and the Colts switched him and Darius Butler for this matchup, which paid off.
Vaughn isn't going to play well every week (in fact, he usually will be downright bad), but every once in a while, he comes up with a big play.
Special Teams Has a Big Day
The three units on a football team are not equal, but special teams still plays a key part in a football game.
On Sunday, the Colts special teams came up big, playing well in each phase, something Colts fans haven't seen in a long while.
Adam Vinatieri was the highlight, going a perfect 5-of-5 in field goals. The veteran kicker hit field goals of 47, 48, 45, 37 and 49 yards, showing he still has both the leg and accuracy to be a dependable kicker.
Pat McAfee was fantastic as well, punting five times for an average of 45.4 yards. The average is solid, but even that doesn't describe the hang time he was able to get throughout and the job he did of flipping the field consistently for Indianapolis.
Then there is Sergio Brown, who made another great play on a punt return, when Chris Rainey fumbled the ball. Brown was right there to pick it up and was even able to return it six yards.
Mixed Performance from Antoine Bethea
This is a story because the Colts have to make a decision on Antoine Bethea this offseason.
Bethea wasn't as bad as he was last season, but the veteran safety had a few inexcusable moments in coverage against the Titans that led to big plays, including a 31-yard pass to Nate Washington in the first half.
Bethea was strong in the run game and had a nice pass breakup when isolated in one-on-one coverage with a tight end. He also added a quarterback hit.
So, what does Indianapolis do with him this offseason? He's only 29, and his birthday isn't until late July. But, he's seemed to age poorly, slowing down severely over the last few years. He brings a lot of versatility, and the Colts can play him as both the strong or free safety. But, he's better in a strong-safety role, as is LaRon Landry.
The Colts may try to find a younger, more pure free safety (Jairus Byrd?) to replace him.
AFC South Dominance Continues
With the win, Indianapolis moves to 4-0 in the AFC South this season and takes a three-game lead in the division.
The Colts would have to go 0-4 while the Titans go 4-0 (at Denver next week) in order to lose the AFC South. Not happenning.— Derek Schultz (@Schultz1260) December 1, 2013
Indianapolis has two games yet in the division, home games against Houston and Jacksonville, but they are guaranteed a winning record in the division and are the unquestioned kings of the AFC South once again. As for 2014 and beyond? Well, that may depend on how the Texans handle having a very high draft choice, as they are currently sitting in the No. 1 draft slot.
But, for now, the Colts are officially back on the AFC South throne. With Andrew Luck at the helm, they'll have as good of a chance as any team to be there for the foreseeable future.