INDIANAPOLIS –On high noon this Sunday in Nashville, the Colts will be playing their second AFC South game of the year, and it should be against one of the NFL's most seasoned quarterbacks.
Fourteen-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck appears to be the starter the Colts will face at LP Field. Hasselbeck has started the last three games in place of the injured Jake Locker, the second-year pro who was named the season-opening starter.
Locker sustained a non-throwing shoulder injury in a week four outing at Houston. Tennessee Head Coach Mike Munchak on Wednesday indicated that while Locker is healing that Hasselbeck will get the call.
Indianapolis will be prepared either way.
"You have to prepare for both of them," said Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. "You have to know what to expect out of each quarterback. One is a veteran player, the other is a younger player. We have to go in there with a mindset that we're going to face both of them and take it from there."
Hasselbeck led the Titans to a 27-10 win over the Colts last year in Nashville. He opened the re-match in Indianapolis before giving way to Locker. The club's top pick last year, Locker saw action in five outings. He played behind Hasselbeck, a 16-game starter.
Hasselbeck played with Green Bay in 1999-2000 before starting in Seattle from 2001-10. He has helped the Titans win their last two games, 26-23 at home over Pittsburgh and 35-34 last Sunday at Buffalo. He has hit 96-of-156 passes for 931 yards, with five touchdowns and four interceptions.
Hasselbeck is a 150-game starter during a career that boasts 191 outings. Needless to say, he has earned his spurs.
"He knows where to go with the ball. He knows," said Manusky. "He sets on his back foot and the ball is coming out quickly. He can still make all the throws. He's just a talented guy who has been in the league a long time and knows where to go with the ball. The more guys you have like him on a football team, the better off you're going to be."
Hasselbeck has 22 career 300-plus games in the regular season, and he ranks fourth among active players with 34,081 passing yards. Originally drafted in the sixth-round by Green Bay in 1998, Hasselbeck's yards rank fifth in history among players drafted in that round or lower, falling behind Warren Moon, Tom Brady, Dave Krieg and Steve DeBerg.
"He's smart. He's been in the league a long time," said cornerback Vontae Davis. "At my position, I know he studies us and has studied them all. We know he makes good decisions. We have to put pressure him because what makes him good is his decision-making with the ball. He's still playing because he's so mentally strong."
Indianapolis has been hindered defensively by injuries this season, missing linebackers Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney for significant periods. Freeney was hurt on the eighth play of the opener, while Mathis sustained a knee injury late in the Green Bay game four weeks later.
Those are the only two times they have been on the field this year as a tandem in the club's 3-4 hybrid defense. Indianapolis had five of its nine sacks against the Packers, but has posted but one of its nine sacks for the year since.
"It's a little bit of hit-and-miss," said Manusky of the team's pass rush. "I think losing Dwight (Freeney) and Robert (Mathis) early in the season (hurt). It's hard because I think both of those guys feed off one another. We have to put more pressure on the quarterback, put him in the situation where he's moving his feet and making errant throws."
Hasselbeck hit 22-of-30 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown last week in the comeback win at Buffalo. While running back Chris Johnson scooted for 195 rushing yards, Hasselbeck hit wide receiver Nate Washington on a 15-yard game-deciding score with 1:03 to go. He threw for 290 yards in the Pittsburgh win, hitting wide receiver Kenny Britt on the tying score with less than five minutes to play and then leading the 21st game-winning drive of his career.
"He presents a real challenge because he gets rid of the ball so quick," said Freeney. "He's a veteran, he doesn't want to get hit. Because of that, he recognizes the defenses quickly and gets rid of the ball when he sees the blitz. He picks you apart. He's definitely a challenge. Hopefully, we can get to him."
Safety Tom Zbikowski saw Hasselbeck hit 30-of-42 passes for 358 yards and one touchdown last year as Tennessee beat Baltimore. Zbikowski echoes his new teammates' sentiments.
"He knows where he's going with the ball. He has a quick release," said Zbikowski. "He gets the ball to his receivers in position for them to be able to do something with it afterward. Also, what he does on third down is pretty impressive. He still can play. A lot of years experience is helping him also."
Indianapolis has seen one of the game's finest in Aaron Rodgers this year. An early second-half interception and multiple second-half sacks helped spur a 30-27 comeback home win for the Colts.
Safety Antoine Bethea has seen the club prosper well at home with a 3-1 mark, with three of those four outings being decided in the final seconds. He also has seen the club struggle through its first two road games and while there is a familiarity with Tennessee, it will take a strong effort on Sunday.
"I think it (previous experience) does (help), just knowing what we're up against and knowing the caliber of players they have at each position," said Bethea of having played Tennessee. "Playing them twice a year is good, but every year is a different year. Every game is a different game. We have to go out and play well. They're coming off a big win against Buffalo. It's going to be exciting. Every game we've won has come down to the last minute. We know we have to play 60 minutes. This is a division game. We know it's going to be tough. We know it's going to come down to the end."