INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have not played an AFC South game since the opening week of the season.
Indianapolis has met three foes from the AFC North, two from the NFC South and one from the AFC West, and the schedule-maker calls for the Colts to return to divisional play this Sunday.
The Colts are looking to rebound from a tough outing last week in New Orleans. They will be meeting a Tennessee team under new Head Coach Mike Munchak, who became the 16th head coach in franchise history this past February.
Both clubs are looking to post their first divisional win of the season. Indianapolis fell in week one at Houston, 34-7, and the Texans earned a 41-7 victory at Tennessee last Sunday. Tennessee's other AFC South outing was a 16-14 setback at Jacksonville on September 11.
Indianapolis is in the midst of a difficult start to the 2011 season. The club is 0-7 with four losses coming in single digits, while a 10-point outcome at Cincinnati was in doubt until the final three minutes as well.
This past Sunday, Indianapolis absorbed a tough loss at New Orleans, 62-7. The benefit is that the outcome counts for one game and there are nine more left to play.
Jim Caldwell has presided over division-winning teams during his first two seasons as head coach, and the club has had winning records in each of his previous nine seasons in the organization. During each of his weeks with the team since 2002, Caldwell always has been worried about the performances of his players, either as a quarterbacks coach, assistant or associate head coach or as a field general. His concern now is no different in presence, and he is doing what he always has done to influence the Colts.
"I worry about everything, even when we are in the hunt," said Caldwell. "So this is no different, it just takes on a little different flavor. Right now, obviously, we've got a division game coming up this week, which is big for us. Obviously, things right now have been fairly difficult for us, so we've got to see if we can get everything sort of headed in the right direction and perform a little bit better. That's going to be a key, because it's a good team that we're facing (this Sunday). But the big thing is that I'm not worried about future projections or anything of that nature. I'm worried about right here and now. Those are the things that we try to focus in on."
The nature of last week's loss in New Orleans was difficult for the Colts. The effort by the team never was in question, but everyone involved wants to work to ensure a better result. The approach by Caldwell will be much more measured than rash.
"We're not into knee-jerk reactions around here," said Caldwell. "We have to evaluate and make some decisions based on what we see and what we think is best for our team. We've been making some little moves here and there, trying to tweak some things to get ourselves in a little bit better position. We'll continue to evaluate, but we won't do anything out of haste."
Injuries have played a concerning role across the roster. Indianapolis has started multiple offensive line combinations. The defensive line has been thinned as well. In the secondary, five different players – Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, David Caldwell, Joe Lefeged and Terrence Johnson – have made NFL debuts in trying to hold the fort along the last line of defense. Offensively, running back Joseph Addai has been limited and Kerry Collins left the lineup in week three with a concussion.
A team that preaches no excuses or explanations wants its players to step up. Caldwell has overseen the process firmly under adverse conditions, and he knows his troops are proud.
"All these guys are extremely competitive guys," said Caldwell. "They don't like being embarrassed, nobody does. That certainly was indeed the case (in New Orleans), so I think we'll use that as an opportunity for us to add a little fuel to the fire and see if we can get better."
Most importantly, Caldwell knows no fabricated tactics are needed to inspire a group that is driven on its own and is aware of its situation.
"I think our guys are intrinsically motivated, and they don't necessarily need any sort of external impetus to get us going," said Caldwell. "We understand where we are. We understand that it's been very difficult. We haven't performed well and we have to do better."
Indianapolis and Tennessee have engaged in twice-annual meetings as AFC South mates since 2002. The Colts own a 13-5 record over the Titans during that time. While Indianapolis has won the last four meetings, the Titans provide a stern battle each time. In last season's finale in Lucas Oil Stadium, kicker Adam Vinatieri hit a 43-yard field goal at the gun to settle a 23-20 affair. Tennessee was perched seconds earlier for a possible win in the tightly-contested battle.
Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian has witnessed difficult battles with Tennessee through the years, and he knows the Titans will present immense challenges on both sides of the ball.
"They have a traditionally a great running attack and it hasn't been firing on all cylinders yet, but he's (Titans running back Chris Johnson) a phenomenal back," said Polian. "That's (the) number one job. Their quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) is doing a good job distributing the ball. He's a veteran guy. He's a veteran quarterback who wanted to go to a starting situation and has done quite well. That's an improvement for them. They are always great on the offensive line. Defensively, they are still feeling their way a bit. It's a system similar to what we saw (in New Orleans). In fact, their coordinator, Jerry Gray, worked with (Saints defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams before, so it's going to be a good test for us because we are going to see many of the same types of situations.
"So (it's a) tough ball game on the road, but that's the way it goes. We've got to worry about what we do to get ourselves better in every respect, perhaps more than any other time this year than worrying about the opponent.