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INDIANAPOLIS – After six weeks away from the AFC South, the Colts hit the road once again to take on the Tennessee Titans.
Sunday's game with the Titans marks the end of a three-game road swing for Indianapolis and a chance to see a familiar foe.
One face in a new capacity on the Titans sideline is Head Coach Mike Munchak. Formerly an offensive line coach under Jeff Fisher, Munchak's offense centers around establishing the running game.
Despite struggling through the early part of 2011, the Titans still have three-time Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson in the backfield. Since 2008, Johnson ranks second in the NFL with 4,866 rushing yards.
The Colts held the Pro Bowl running back to 39 yards rushing in the AFC South-clinching season finale last season but Head Coach Jim Caldwell knows Johnson can change the game in a blink of an eye.
"He can turn it on at any time. He's a guy that's extremely dangerous, a hard running back with speed, and we just have to make certain that we keep him contained," Caldwell said. "He's going to get some runs, he usually does. He usually pops around the corner and gets out there and makes some things happen. But they get the ball to him, not only just from the running back position handing it to him, but he also gets screens, check-downs and things of that nature. He's pretty dangerous."
Handing the ball off to Johnson will be 2011 free agent signee Matt Hasselbeck. The former Seattle Seahawk has had a 90+ passer rating in four of six games this season throwing 10 touchdown passes.
"He's done well. He's probably been a big, bright spot for us, especially when we jumped out to winning three of our first four," Munchak said. "I think he did a nice job for coming in with the whole situation with the lockout, new players, new coaches and all that. He really was a great help to us transitioning and allowing us to win some of those early games. He kept everything even-keel, even when we lost Kenny Britt. I think he was the reason we kind of held it together for those couple weeks going through that. So he's been a good leader, and just what you thought he'd be for a guy that's been in the league as long as he has, been to the Super Bowl and been an All-Pro. So he's come in and given us really, what we've needed at least to get us off to a decent start up until the last couple games."
With wide receiver Kenny Britt out for the season with a knee injury, Hasselbeck has leaned on receiver Nate Washington and tight end Jared Cook in the passing department.
Washington leads the Titans with 29 catches on the season and 399 yards receiving.
Stretching the field down the middle is Cook, who is averaging 17.7 yards per catch and has caught a touchdown pass in two of the past three games.
The Titans offensive has been very effective inside the 20-yard line in 2011 with a red zone percentage of 66.67%, good for third in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, Munchak brought in a new defensive coordinator this season in Jerry Gray.
The unit has two new faces in its linebacker corps. Veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud was another free agent signee for the Titans and second-round draft pick Akeem Ayers flanks him on the outside.
"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," Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian said. "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."
The Titans defense is led by their secondary with cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Jason McCourty. With 52 tackles in 2011, McCourty leads the unit and has two interceptions to go along with his tackle total.
Opposing the Titans on Sunday will be the Colts offense which has seemed to find a combination in quarterback Curtis Painter and wide receiver Pierre Garcon. In his past three games against the Titans, Garcon is averaging 102.3 yards receiving with three touchdowns.
The Colts offense will look to continue its perfect recent ventures in the red zone. The club has converted each of its last five trips into touchdowns over the last three games. The offense will go up against the 16th-ranked defense in the league in terms of yards allowed.
Both the Colts and Titans are coming off tough losses in week seven but the veteran Hasselbeck summed up this weekend's game to a tee.
"Sunday is Sunday, and you come out and you try your best no matter what, but I think the week of practice that we're going to have is probably similar to the week of practice they're going to have," Hasselbeck said. "It's not a great feeling in the building after you lose, and there's a lot of potential for division, potential for finger-pointing and all that kind of stuff. So I think both teams are kind of facing similar weeks and similar challenges, and holding everything together, not pointing fingers and sticking together as a unit, as a team and as a group. Once Sunday comes, you're just playing a game at that point."
Colts 23, Titans 20 – January 2, 2011
Completing a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, the Colts clinched their seventh AFC South Title in eight years. Kicker Adam Vinatieri added another game-winning field goal to his long list of clutch kicks when he connected on a 43-yarder as time expired. For the third straight week the Colts rushed for more than 100 yards while holding Titans running back Chris Johnson to 39 yards on 20 carries. Both teams traded field goals in the first two quarters before quarterback Peyton Manning hit wide receiver Reggie Wayne on a screen pass for a seven-yard touchdown with 1:55 remaining in the first half. The third quarter opened up with the teams scoring touchdown on the first three possessions. Titans quarterback Kerry Collins tied the game up at 13 when he threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kenny Britt on the opening possession of the second half. The Colts pushed the lead back to seven when Manning and wide receiver Pierre Garcon hooked up for a 30-yard score on the following possession. However, the lead would not last as the Titans answered with Johnson scoring on a 15-yard pass tying the game at 20 with 4:18 left in the third quarter. The game then turned into a defensive slugfest with the two teams punting it on the next eight possessions. With the game still tied in the final minutes, defensive end Robert Mathis jumped on a Collins fumble giving the Colts offense one final possession. Manning and company went 37 yards in five plays, setting the stage for another game-winning field goal in the legendary career of Vinatieri.
Titans running back Chris Johnson against the Colts defense: Despite struggling through the start of the 2011 season, the Colts know first-hand how dangerous Johnson can be. Last year the Colts were feast and famine against Johnson allowing 111 yards in week 14 of the season before the Colts held the Pro Bowler to 39 yards on 20 carries in the season finale. The interior of the Colts defensive line has had to plug in some new faces after the injuries to tackles Eric Foster and Drake Nevis in the Tampa Bay game. Former Colt Dan Muir has played solidly in the past two weeks, and the front seven must step up in order to contain one of NFL's most dangerous game-breakers.
Colts running backs against the Titans defense: One of the lone bright spots against the Saints last Monday was the play of running backs Donald Brown and Delone Carter. Both had more than five yards per carry while Carter had the two of the three longest runs of the season. The running game has improved by a half-yard per carry (from 3.8 to 4.3) since last year, and the club is doing it without the same offensive line for more than two straight weeks. Left guard Joe Reitz will miss his first game of 2011, meaning the Colts will have a different starting offensive line for the fifth time in eight games.
-The Colts are looking for their sixth straight win over the Titans.
-Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne (817 catches) needs three receptions to pass Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent for 20th-most catches in NFL history.
-The Colts are on pace for 1,506 rushing yards in 2011, which would be the most they have had in the past three years.
-Colts linebacker Pat Angerer (79) leads the NFL in tackles.
-Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney is 1.5 sacks away from 100 in his career.
-Titans running back Chris Johnson (35) needs two rushing touchdowns to pass Steve McNair for the third-most rushing touchdowns in franchise history.
-Johnson has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the NFL.
-Former Colts offensive guard Jake Scott has started every game along the Titans offensive line since joining the team in 2008. Scott's 110 consecutive starts are the second-most among guards in the NFL.
-Titans safety Michael Griffin has never missed a game in his four NFL seasons and led the team with four interceptions in 2010.
-Offensive tackle Michael Ross has started 102 straight games at tackle and that ranks second among all active players at his position.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on how much the Titans offense has changed under Mike Munchak):
"They are just slight adjustments here and there, but they're running game. They've certainly always been a team that was a strong running team, and that was a strong emphasis. That hasn't changed. They've always been a team that, I think, has done a good job in terms of being able to spread the ball around to the weapons, and that hasn't changed. From a defensive standpoint, maybe it's in terms of a couple of alignment changes here or there, but there are a lot of guys that have been with them for a long time that are still playing well. Much like anything else, I'm certain that they left the things in that they thought they did extremely well, and just adjusted a few things that they wanted to change. Jerry Gray's doing some things a little bit differently from a stunt-and-blitz standpoint. But there are some things that they're doing that are similar to what they did previously."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on the emergence of running back Delone Carter):
"He is, I think, making pretty good progress and steady strides. He's certainly getting a lot more familiar with playing in this league and what it takes. He's been able to put some pretty good runs together. Just in terms of his pass protection and those kinds of things, he's been getting better each week. The big thing is, and I think you probably wouldn't notice much, but just in terms of his running the ball, because he's been able to run it pretty well. He's found seams and created some opportunities. (He's) making guys miss with power and his natural God-given ability. But the things that you probably would not notice are just in terms of his familiarity with our protections. He's a lot more familiar and a lot more comfortable in that realm. Sometimes those things aren't necessarily quantifiable by the naked eye, but those of us who know what he's supposed to be doing understand thoroughly. He's getting better."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell(on Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck):
"A very experienced guy and you can see just by the way in which he's handling things, he's comfortable with what they're doing. You can see he throws the ball accurately. I think he's averaging over 62 percent in terms of his completion percentage, and he's running their offense extremely well. You can also see him light up when he knows he's got a situation where he's going to be able to make some things happen, and he gets rid of the ball quickly. He's a talented guy, and right now he's performing well. He's got a good group of guys to throw it to as well."
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney(on the mood of the team after starting 0-7):
"We're not, obviously in a great place at all, and 0-7 is horrible. No one's used to it. It would be easy to say, 'Hey, let's just give up and worry about next year.' That's not our mentality. That's not going to start any time soon of being the mentality around here. Next game, Tennessee, we've got to get a win. It's going to be the same thing every week. We're going to have to put something together, get some things moving on the right track and put some things back together so we can get back to winning."
Colts center Jeff Saturday(on facing the Tennessee Titans):
"The one good thing about the game that we play is that you get another shot at it pretty quick. That's what we'll tell our guys. I hope everybody in this locker room understands that there ain't no quitters around here. We're going to fistfight until the day ends. I've got faith in the guys that I play with. I've got faith in the coaching staff. We're going to put together a good plan, and we'll come back against Tennessee and put forth a good effort."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on Indianapolis and Tennessee trying to bounce back from tough losses)
"One of us is going to feel a little better than we do right now. This happens in the league, (but) you wish it didn't happen to you when you lose so lopsided. The two teams that are playing each other both had the same outcome a week earlier. But, unfortunately as a player and a coach, I've been through some games like we went through last week, where you start off thinking it will be competitive and you get to the second quarter and a couple of plays go against you and the next thing you know the momentum of the game takes over and it gets ugly. Watching the Colts game, it was the same thing. They turned the ball over last week early in the first half, and the Saints are an offense that jumped all over it, and the next thing you know they're down 21-0. A lot of teams go through it unfortunately, and I've been through it before. It's back to work, and a big division game this week."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on what the first win meant to the Titans back in 2009):
"Well, I think it's hard to believe that it would mean so much, but it does. There's no doubt. I mean, a couple of years back we were 0-6, and we went on to 8-2 after we won that next game, so it's amazing. It's harder to understand why that happens in this league when you're all professionals, but a few things can turn a game and all of a sudden confidence is restored in different areas. I look at their schedule, and I'm assuming they're sitting there thinking as coaches, you know what they had five games going into the fourth quarter where they were within three or they were leading and they lost all five. That's when you do the old, 'Well, we could be 5-2 right now.' So I think that changes it, there's no doubt. I know it's worked for us, and it's worked for me as a player. I've been 1-4 before, and we we've won 11 in a row my last year in the league. So it does happen, momentum does happen, and I think that's what hurt both of our team's last week in the way the game started. Big plays took us out and neither team recovered, and it got bad for both us and the Colts last weekend. No better way to get back in this league, at least you play the following Sunday no matter what happens, and we both need this win in a big way."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak(on continuing to fight during the season):
"You have to, because you have to believe in what you do, and you have to realize that it breaks down almost individually. You start overanalyzing things, but if each player just does what he's supposed to do, then it, obviously, has a chance to turn around. When you start seeing that you are having success in a certain area, and it's not just closing out a game, it's amazing what one will do for you. Then all of a sudden you're not as far as people think you are, and it's not as bad as people thought it was. That's how it was for us. We started off 3-1, and I don't think many people thought we'd be 3-1 at the time, and now two bad games and you're looked at differently. You win a couple of more, and you're looked at differently again. I know players don't worry about what the media thinks or what people outside think, because ultimately it's up to the players and the coaches to put a good product on the field and find ways to win. We both know we're a lot better than we played last week, and now we've just got to go out prove that this Sunday."
Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(on how the season's gone so far for the Titans)
"Ironically, I think we've got a similar deal as Indy has going. I mean we lost and played poorly our first game, we got blown out, kind of like they did. Then last week we played really, really poorly, and it wasn't our best effort. I guess we didn't play well against Pittsburgh the week before either. In terms of Indy, we've won some games, and they haven't, but they've been close. Their games have been three-point games in the fourth quarter, and they just haven't finished it off. But they could easily be 5-2 right now, and we could easily be sitting here saying, 'Hey, our record could be this', but it's not. So I think we've just got to be more consistent. In the games that we've lost and played really poorly, we've done a very bad job on third downs, and we've done a bad job of winning first down. We just haven't stayed on the field as an offense, and we haven't gotten off the field as a defense. You couple that with the amount of penalties that we've had, and it's not a winning combination."
Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(on Titans running back Chris Johnson's involvement in the offense):
"He's very involved in the offense, but I think we're just trying to be more productive. We're throwing him the ball, we're handing him the ball, and we're just trying to average more yards on our plays. So, obviously, he's one of our guys that's a playmaker. We lost Kenny Britt this year, and I think he was kind of another one of our playmakers. Now, Chris is being counted on, so I think that just getting him going is going to be an emphasis for us, like it has been every week. But it just hasn't happened yet, and that's something that I think we're all scratching our heads about a little bit. We've just got to get on track."