INDIANAPOLIS — What are the keys for the Indianapolis Colts (4-5) if they hope to extend their winning streak to four games with a victory Sunday against the visiting Tennessee Titans (5-4) at Lucas Oil Stadium?
Here are three factors that must go the home team’s way.
* Keep Andrew Luck clean — The Colts quarterback hasn’t been sacked in four games and 185 pass attempts, but the Titans showed last week in a 34-10 rout of New England and Tom Brady that they get after passers with a variety of blitzes. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel reminded his team that Luck has been hit just nine times in four games. Colts head coach Frank Reich advised his players that the Titans are not only No. 1 in scoring defense but the best at limiting opposing passer ratings when they bring pressure. Luck has thrown at least three touchdown passes in six consecutive games, and if he’s going to have that kind of success against the Titans, it starts up front with an O-line anchored by center Ryan Kelly.
* One turnover and pressure — While the 24th-ranked Colts defense bends and breaks too often, the unit has come up with at least one turnover in each game. And although the pass rush has been virtually non-existent with just two pressures and no sacks the past two games, the Colts must speed up the internal clock on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Notice the emphasis on “speed up” as opposed to sack. While tackling the quarterback for a loss is ideal, it can be more important to apply pressure and force throws before a passer is ready. The Titans allowed a franchise-worst 11 sacks in an earlier loss to Baltimore. The Colts won’t get that many in this game, but if they can limit the run game as was the case against Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette last week, that makes the Titans one-dimensional and puts pressure on Mariota to move his offense. Get just enough pressure on Mariota and the Colts can hopefully capitalize with a turnover or two that might just be the difference.
* Connect with T.Y. Hilton — The Colts’ four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver has been somewhat quiet this season as Luck has enjoyed hooking up with his tight ends, most notably Eric Ebron, who leads all NFL tight ends with nine TD receptions. Colts tight ends have caught 15 of Luck’s 26 TD passes. Vrabel is an old Patriots guy, which means he learned defense as a player and an assistant coach from Bill Belichick. The first game plan is to take away the opponent’s best weapon and make a foe beat you left-handed, so to speak. The hunch is that the Titans will try to limit Ebron and the tight ends by disguising bracket coverages and enticing Luck to make some mistakes. That means Hilton will see his share of man-to-man coverage. Expect the Colts’ best pass catcher to be open to deliver big plays. He’s due for a breakout game. When the Titans concern themselves with tight ends, Hilton can set the tone with game-changing receptions. When the Titans shift coverage to adjust to Hilton, that frees up Ebron and the tight ends.