NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Indianapolis Colts travel to The Music City tonight to take on the Tennessee Titans in a game that decides who advances to the playoffs and who gets an early start on New Year's Eve plans.
Unfortunately for the Titans, they are going to be without arguably their best defensive player in perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who suffered a sprained MCL last week and was placed on the Injured Reserve list.
Although Tennessee’s seventh-ranked defense will be without Casey and edge rusher Brian Orakpo in the front seven, Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo explained that the coaching chess match that Tennessee’s defense presents makes things just as difficult as the actual talent on the field.
“Jurrell Casey, it’s easy to pick him out on screen and say, ‘Hey, look at this guy. He’s a superstar,’ but if you look at the totality of the defense, there’s a bunch of guys that play really good football,” DeGuglielmo told Colts.com this week. “That’s why they’re in ball games. That’s why they’re in an upward swing as well. They have an abundance of talent.
“They’re a big, thick, strong unit is what they are," he continued. "They’re strong. They have a very deep linebacker corps in terms of guys that’ll blitz, guys that’ll line up in different areas and pick tackles, pick centers and things like that.”
The Colts and Titans faced off earlier this season in Week 11, a 38-10 Colts victory. However, Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees left the game and had to be taken to a hospital following a medical episode, and although head coach Mike Vrabel is a defensive-minded coach, Pees’ absence may have played a role in the Colts’ dismantling of the Titans that day.
“You can see the attitude in their play that comes from the head coach, comes from their defensive coordinator,” DeGuglielmo said. “You see that both of their backgrounds are very well represented when these guys take the field when they present themselves. Whether it be extending a rush, gang tackling, pursuing to the ball. They’re really smart about their technique.”
Schematically, Vrabel and Pees put together a game plan that makes opponents study almost endlessly; their mixture and alignment of personnel, the tasks they perform and when they do them keeps offenses on their toes.
“They make a lot of things look the same, but they’re very different. And that’s part of the chess match with this team, is not only do they have talented players,” DeGuglielmo explained regarding the looks Tennessee gives defensively. “Again, they’re very strong from a two-gap and base where they get their hands on 'ya, and you can see it when their hands are on 'ya, they separate, they shed, they’re very, very physical even when they’re in substituted defense. Then, when they start throwing in those one-D-line personnel groupings, and all of a sudden, the next series they’ll have five D-linemen in, and the next play they’ll have three D-linemen and two linebackers.”
DeGuglielmo said opposing offenses face a "constant flow" of defenders coming from all over the place against the Titans.
"You have to figure out who’s who, where they are, what they’re playing, what are the corresponding pressures that come from those particular personnel groups and looks," he said. "So, they make you be on top of your game. That’s what makes them really good is that they’re a smart team and they’re deep when it comes to what they have in terms of their scheme is very deep, very vast.”
To help counter some of these issues, the Colts have spent quite a bit of time this past week preparing for all of Tennessee’s different looks, specifically in pass protection. Earlier this season, Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni elaborated on how the team typically prepares for their upcoming opponent’s pass rush, or what head coach Frank Reich calls their "S.O.P.," or Standard Operating Procedure.
“I think it all starts on the week before with Marcus Brady, our quarterbacks coach, and Coach Guge (DeGuglielmo), our offensive line coach, and Coach (Bobby) Johnson — they kind of get all the looks together," Sirianni said. "I want to say they start the Thursday the week before just so they methodically go through every blitz that the defensive coordinator has shown for the past year, year and a half.”
DeGuglielmo explained just how tough preparing for Tennessee’s defensive front has been because of the evolution that Vrabel and Pees have enacted on that side of the ball.
“It’s not easy, now. The paperwork when it comes to our, what Frank calls our 'S.O.P.' in terms of our pass protection, is as lengthy as it comes," DeGuglielmo said. "It’s probably the most information we’ve had to deal with in terms of pass protection based on looks as we’ve had all year long. They’ve virtually doubled the amount of looks they had from the previous time we played them [since Week 11], so they’re advancing themselves to a whole different.”
The Colts handled the Titans’ pass rush in Week 11, as quarterback Andrew Luck was kept clean for zero sacks and was only pressured three times. However, as DeGuglielmo mentioned, the Titans have brought even more to the table just in the last six weeks since the two teams last played.
“It’s almost like we’re playing a second team, it’s a different team," he added. "But you can’t disregard everything they did before when we played them, so now we have a volume of information that we have to kind of simplify and get it down into some manageable numbers.”