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Colts Mailbag: Week 7 vs. Titans And Impact On AFC Playoffs, Sorting Out Questions At Safety, Linebacker And Running Back

The Colts Mailbag returns for Week 7 with questions on the importance of Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, and if next-man-up standouts Deon Jackson, Rodney Thomas II and Zaire Franklin will continue to have roles when Jonathan Taylor/Nyheim Hines, Julian Blackmon and Shaquille Leonard return. 

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The Colts Mailbag is back! readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here, or by taking part in the Forums. You can also send your questions to @JJStankevitz on Twitter.

Let's get after this week's questions:

Scott O'Neil, Elizabethtown, Ky.: If we lose against the Titans Sunday there is no way we can win the division – do you think we can still make the playoffs?

JJ Stankevitz: I get why you feel that way, Scott, since Week 7 will be the Colts' fifth game against the AFC South, and conventional wisdom is you need to have at least three wins against your own division to win it. The Colts are currently 1-2-1 against the AFC South, with one of those losses coming at home to the Titans, the division's winner in each of the last two seasons.

"All roads go through Nashville," head coach Frank Reich said.

According to FiveThirtyEight, no game carries more importance for the NFL playoff picture this week than Colts-Titans (and it's not particularly close). If the Colts win, they'll improve to 4-2-1 and send the Titans to 3-3; a Colts loss means they'll be 3-3-1 while the Titans go to 4-2. Tiebreakers won't matter unless the Titans have a tie over their final 11 games; as long as the Colts would match the win total of the Titans, Jaguars or Texans, they would win the division (example: If the Colts go 10-6-1 and the Titans go 10-7, the Colts win the division).

Over the last 20 years, 14 teams have won their division with three or fewer intra-divisional wins, including last year's Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Three teams have won their division with a 3-2-1 intra-divisional record over the last 20 years: The 2016 Seattle Seahawks, the 2013 Green Bay Packers and the 2012 San Francisco 49ers.

The 2006 Colts, of course, won the Super Bowl after going 3-3 in the AFC South.

And just one team out of the last 160 divisional winners has had a losing record within their division. The 2010 Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West with a 2-4 intra-divisional record; the Oakland Raiders, cruelly, finished third despite going 6-0 against AFC West opponents that year.

But because this Colts-Titans game is so early in the season, it's not technically a must-win. A lot can happen over 10 or 11 games. There's no doubt, though, the emphasis the Colts are putting on this game because of the stakes, and because it's their last chance to face an AFC South opponent until they finish the 2022 season against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium in January.

"There's got to be a good sense of urgency," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It's a really good football team in Tennessee. Obviously, they've owned the division the last handful of years. It's a good, physical defense, a physical run game. Ryan Tannehill is a good player. They are a very balanced team. It's going to take really good effort from us. We're going to have to play good football, the kind of football that we envisioned as this team was coming together during the spring. We're going to have to play clean, we're going to have to play tough and find a way, but I have a lot of confidence in our group."

Jordan Kennerknecht, Roanoke, Va.: Once Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines comes back is there a way that Deon Jackson still gets featured in the offense? (Specifically in the passing game)

JJ Stankevitz: I wouldn't rule it out. Jackson's 10 catches against the Jaguars were the most by a Colts running back since Joseph Addai hit that mark in 2009, and he's shown physicality and playmaking juice over the last couple of weeks.

"He played extremely tough," Ryan said after Sunday's game. "He was huge for us catching the ball out of the backfield."

We'll see what the status of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines will be for Week 7 – both practiced on Wednesday, with Taylor limited and Hines a full participant. It's tough to take away touches from Taylor, and the Colts value what Hines can do with the ball in his hands. But Jackson has been impressive, and has at least given the team – and their future opponents – something to think about.

"I'm excited that the world got to finally see Deon and everything that he's been working towards," Taylor said. "He got to put in on display, got a game ball, got the scepter. What better way to spring out into action then those kinds of things. Like you said, he did a great job. We knew it, but now I'm just happy the world got to see it."

Harold Miller, Bedford, Ind.: With the emergence of Alec Pierce along with Michael Pittman, will that open up the run especially if Jelani Woods keeps up his progression? What is your take on this?

JJ Stankevitz: This is a really interesting question, because on Pierce's game-winning touchdown, Jacksonville went with a single-high safety and had five defensive linemen rushing Ryan. That's one way to create pressure on a quarterback, but it's also a good way to stop the run, too. Ryan took the shot to Pierce in single coverage, and there wasn't another safety over the top to try to take Pierce's go route away.

The Colts don't plan to throw the ball 58 times – as they did against Jacksonville – again this season (but always can go that way if necessary). But if opposing defenses have to respect the Colts' ability to throw to anyone on the field – Pittman, Pierce, Woods, Parris Campbell, Kylen Granson, Mo Alie-Cox, etc. – maybe that could lead to more light boxes (six or fewer defenders) to run into. We'll see.

The Colts hit the practice fields at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in preparation for this week's AFC South matchup versus the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

Walter Blackburn, New Philadelphia, Ohio: Reich said they will use the no huddle as situation dictates. Do you think the situation will be to use it more often? And how do you think Sam Ehlinger will be used in short yardage situations?

JJ Stankevitz: It depends on the opponent. Is the opposing defense one where you need to step on that accelerator and go no-huddle to try to neutralize a disruptive pass rush? Or is the opposing defense one where you need to go slower to sub guys in and out to focus on creating advantageous matchups with your personnel? The Colts had success going with a no-huddle, quick game-oriented attack against Jacksonville, but that doesn't mean it'll work against Tennessee or Washington or New England or Las Vegas over the next four weeks.

And the Colts, by the way, aren't the only team to identify a faster-paced offense as a solution to the problems presented by the Jaguars' defense this season.

"These teams are starting to run tempo a lot," Jaguars cornerback Shaquill Griffin said after Sunday's game. "A lot of teams are starting to pick things up. That's one thing that a lot of offenses are starting to hit us with is tempo and a lot of quick-game. It's another extension of the run game that teams are trying to hit us with."

As for Ehlinger, the Colts do have a package of plays for him every week. Because of his ability to run with the ball in his hands, that opens up some different plays than Ryan could operate in short-yardage situations. I'm not sure how much the Colts will need it this year, but it's a nice thing to have in Reich's back pocket.

Caleb Bloom, Hagerstown, Ind.: We came into the season expecting to see Julian Blackmon and Nick Cross, but it seems like Rodney McLeod and Rodney Thomas are the starters now. Are Cross and Blackmon dinged up or has Thomas and McLeod just been that much better?

JJ Stankevitz: Blackmon has been recovering from an ankle injury he sustained in Week 3 against the Chiefs. He dressed for Sunday's game against the Jaguars but was only available in case of emergency.

"We'll see where Julian is this week," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said on Tuesday. "We want to make sure that he's fully healthy and put him in a position where he can make some plays. Then you know what, we're fortunate again to have a couple of safeties there that we think very highly of. We'll let that work out in practice and see how it goes. Hopefully Julian comes back and is at a 100 percent health."

Blackmon was listed as a full participant in Wednesday's practice, for what it's worth.

As for the situation at strong safety, the Colts valued McLeod's experience and communication skills in making the switch to him over Cross going into Week 3.

"Rodney brings a great presence with us as far as leadership, a lot of wisdom on the field," Bradley said. "When he came on the field, it really calmed everything down for a lot of guys. He's just a real good technician, a real good, fundamental player and he's got a great skillset for that position. We're excited with how he's playing."

By no means does this show the Colts have lost faith in Cross, who they traded back into the third round of this year's NFL Draft to pick. But for where Bradley's defense is now, McLeod is the guy.

Rob Prochaska, Lineville, Ala.: Zaire Franklin has come into his own at his linebacker position. With Shaquille Leonard back, how does that affect the LB positions? Both have to be in the defensive lineup.

JJ Stankevitz: Well, first up – we don't yet know if Leonard is going to be back for Week 7. Check back on on Friday for the final practice report of the week, complete with game designations (questionable/doubtful/out).

But Franklin, who's tied for first in the NFL with 66 tackles, has been outstanding playing the Mike in place of Leonard. In Week 4, when Leonard made his season debut, Franklin played all 33 snaps in the first half, with Leonard playing 17 snaps, Bobby Okereke 16 and E.J. Speed eight (Leonard sustained a concussion/nose injury midway through the second quarter and didn't return).

Franklin, Okereke and Speed have all played at a high level this year, and we of course know what Leonard can do as a three-time first-team AP All-Pro. It's a good problem to have for Bradley linebackers coach Richard Smith.

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