One Big Storyline
On on sunny mid-August afternoon at Grand Park, Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay laid out expectations for the 2022 Indianapolis Colts.
"We know going into it, it's about Tennessee, it's about winning the division," Irsay said. "It's about going against those guys who have been very tough and they do a great job there getting their players ready to play football in a tough, physical way. So it's always tough going against those guys. But we know that's what we have to do, that's what we have to overcome if we want to get where we want to get."
The Colts know getting through the back-to-back AFC South Champion Tennessee Titans is an important step toward winning their division and hosting a home playoff game for the first time since 2014. And getting through Tennessee means getting through two physical games, the first of which will happen Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Gotta get back to taking over the division," linebacker Shaquille Leonard said. "It starts with Tennessee this week."
The Colts lost both matchups with the Titans in 2021, including a three-point overtime loss at Lucas Oil Stadium, and have lost their last three meetings with Tennessee. And while the Titans are off to a 1-2 start to the 2022 season, they're still the defending AFC No. 1 seed – and nobody inside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center is underestimating the kind of team they'll face on Sunday.
"There's no doubt, they have had their way with us," head coach Frank Reich said. "It's not been good, especially within your division. So, we respect them. They're a good football team. They're well-coached. This is going to be a good battle."
Sunday will be the Colts' third AFC South game of the season, and by Week 7, they'll have played five of their six divisional games. The Colts are 0-1-1 against the AFC South this year with games against the Titans (Weeks 4 and 7), Jaguars (at home in Week 6) and Texans (at home in Week 18) left.
And if the Colts expect to get to where they want to go, they'll have to take heed of their owner's message.
"At the beginning of the year when (Irsay) spoke to the team, we understand who has dominated this division for the last couple of years," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "In order to get where you want to go, you've got to beat some of the best teams in the league and they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC last year and have won the division the last couple of years. I think Jim made it very clear at the beginning of the year what he expects from all of us."
Who's In, Who's Out
The Colts' final practice report of the week, with game designations:
5 Things To Watch
- Shaquille Leonard's debut? Leonard, the three-time first-team All-Pro linebacker, will be listed as questionable for Sunday's game, meaning we'll find out 90 minutes prior to kickoff (when inactives are announced) if The Maniac will play or not. If Leonard does play, he'll provide an injection of remarkable playmaking ability and unrelenting energy to the Colts' defense; if not, he and the team have immense trust in guys like Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed – who've both played well to start 2022 – to fill in. Leonard, who missed the first three games of the season as he worked his way back from a June back procedure, this week explained the honesty he's needed to navigate the process of getting back on the field.
"If I'm ready to go, I'm going to play," Leonard said. "Everybody know me. I mean, I went out there last year with one ankle. I love this game. I love this game with all my heart and I do anything to play this game for 100 years. So there's no such thing as me standing on the sideline just because of me. So if I feel like I can play to the ability that I know I can play and help this team win, I'm gonna be out there. But if I think that my ability is putting the team in trouble, I gotta respect my decision to say okay, Zaire's playing a whole lot faster, this defense would be better with me standing on the sideline. It's just me, I gotta look myself in the mirror and tell the coaches that. I'm just going to do everything in my will to be on the field each and every week. And when that time's come, I'm ready to rock and roll."
- The Colts' run defense vs. Derrick Henry. After three games, Henry – the NFL's rushing leader in 2019 and 2020 – is averaging 3.6 yards per carry, 34th among running backs. Only seven of his 54 rushing attempts have gone for first downs, while five of those attempts have gained 10+ yards. The Colts, meanwhile, have had the NFL's best run defense: Behind defensive tackle Grover Stewart and a mauling front seven, Indianapolis is first in rushing yards allowed per play (2.6), first in tackles for a loss/no gain (23), first in run stops (58) and first in rushes of 10+ yards allowed (1). But no one – and I mean no one – on the Colts' coaching staff or in the team's locker room is viewing Henry as anything other than an elite running back and an incredibly difficult challenge.
"I have about 10 clips to show our guys on tackling plans and that's just from this year," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "Still running really hard, they still utilize him on the perimeter, breaking tackles. He looks very similar to what I've seen."
- The Titans' run defense vs. Jonathan Taylor. The Titans enter Week 4 allowing the highest yards per carry average (5.8) and the third-most runs of 10+ yards (12) in the NFL. Taylor is 15th among running backs in yards per carry (4.7) and is fourth in rushes of 10+ yards (8). But while this looks like an advantageous matchup for the Colts on paper, Taylor knows that goes out the window in a divisional matchup – especially one against a physical Titans defensive line headlined by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and versatile ex-Colt Denico Autry.
"It's a divisional game so everybody is super locked in," Taylor said. "We know these are tough matchups always. We see each other twice a year so we need to make sure we're ready for any and everything they throw at us."
- The Titans' blitz vs. the Colts' pass protection. The Colts have spent this week working on fixing their communication issues in pass protection, and getting all 11 players on the field on the same page to pick up blitzes and get the ball out. While the Colts' offensive line has been for the most part sturdy, they feel there's been too many plays where an opposing defense has had a free rusher at quarterback Matt Ryan.
"This is a good week to try and get that back on track because this front, with Simmons and Denico and with all the pressure packages that they have," Reich said. "They have all this simulated pressure, a lot of zone-dogs simulated pressure stuff, man pressure. They do it all and they disguise it exceedingly well. You can't tell what's coming, you can't tell what's not coming. So, we're really going to have to be on point."
- Keys in the red zone. The Titans lead the NFL with an 85.7 touchdown rate (six of seven possessions) when they reach the red zone; the Colts have the fourth-lowest touchdown percentage at 40 percent (though both their red zone drives against the Chiefs resulted in touchdowns to tight end Jelani Woods). Defensively, the Titans are allowing touchdowns on half of their opponents red zone possessions (9th), while the Colts' 71.4 red zone touchdown percentage allowed is 26th. But the Colts last week kept the Chiefs out of the end zone on two of their three drives inside the 20; keeping that level of success against the Titans on Sunday will be important. Also as important: Keeping the Titans out of the red zone. Tennessee enters Week 4 tied for the fewest red zone possessions in the NFL.