NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans tonight square off in a regular season finale in which the winner advances to the postseason, while the loser heads home to begin their offseason.
And for a game with so much at stake, there’s a chance the Titans could be without their starting quarterback.
In fact, ESPN is reporting Marcus Mariota is not expected to start tonight as he continues to deal with a nerve issue that has been affecting his right side, including his throwing shoulder.
According to NFL reporter Chris Mortensen: “Mariota is officially listed as questionable and reportedly will test his arm in pregame warm-ups. But one source told ESPN that an independent spine specialist has warned the Titans that further damage would put Mariota's ability to throw the football at significant risk beyond this weekend.”
That would lead to the Titans starting backup Blaine Gabbert, who has already played in parts of seven games, with two starts, in place of an injured Mariota this season. Gabbert has won both of his starts in 2018, both against AFC South Division opponents: Week 2 against the Houston Texans (20-17) and Week 3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-6).
In all, Gabbert this season has completed 43-of-72 passes (59.7 percent) for 461 yards with three touchdowns to two interceptions.
Gabbert actually came on to replace an injured Mariota just before halftime of the Colts’ 38-10 victory over the Titans back in Week 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium, when he completed 11-of-16 passes for 118 yards with a touchdown and an interception each.
Gabbert played under similar circumstances last week against the Washington Redskins, this time coming in just before halftime and then leading the Titans to a crucial 25-16 road victory to help set up tonight's win-and-you're-in showdown.
Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus this week said he has been preparing his players for the possibility of either quarterback being under center tonight. Whether it’s Mariota or Gabbert, however, Eberflus has stressed the importance of his defenders staying true to their system by hustling to the ball and being sound tacklers.
The rest will work itself out from there.
“We’ve got some snaps on Gabbert and Mariota both. So they are both really good players,” Eberflus said. “I think they run their offense. If you look at it, I think they certainly have positives to both that are a little bit different, but I think you play them pretty much the same. Again, we are going to focus on us and focus on our execution first and foremost and then we will adjust and adapt a little bit based on what they’re doing.”
While Indianapolis certainly respects whichever quarterback it faces, its primary defensive focus will remain the same: stop the run.
Running back Derrick Henry has been on fire for the Titans the last three games, combining for 71 rushing attempts for 492 yards (almost seven yards per carry) and seven touchdowns.
The Colts limited Henry to nine carries for 46 yards back in Week 11, and are hoping to have a similar performance tonight — which is certainly easier said than done.
“He has popped some huge runs — we’ve all seen those,” Eberflus said of Henry. “Just his style, he’s just a really good runner, plays with great pad level and he’s got great ability to cut – to bounce or cutback – for his size. I mean you don’t see that. That’s the rare ability that he has.
“So he has done a great job, their line has done a really good job and the receivers block. I know their receiver coach and he gets on them about blocking and, man, they buy into it. They’ve done a good job with that.”