INDIANAPOLIS –Through six games, Indianapolis finds itself in the middle of the jam-packed AFC standings.
The Colts are 3-3 and are one of 10 teams with at least three or four wins. Only Houston (6-1) and Baltimore (5-2) have a nose ahead of that 10-team pack, and the Colts are aiming to keep pace of clubs harboring aspirations of extending playing opportunities beyond the regular season.
Indianapolis travels to LP Field for a Sunday showdown with Tennessee. The teams have been divisional mates since 2002, and the Colts have won six of nine meetings hosted by the Titans as well as 14 of the last 18 matchups overall.
The teams held service at home in the series in 2011, with the Colts falling in Nashville, 27-10. The Colts visit this year with only 20 returning players and a cast of new faces that includes eight rookies and 30 players with no more than three years of league experience.
A team that is growing and gelling hopes to produce three firsts this weekend – a winning streak, a road win and a divisional win.
Indianapolis came up short against Jacksonville at home on September 23, 22-17, and this Sunday is the next of six AFC South games. The club has responded from a loss each time this season with a victory, a "L-W-L-W-L-W" scenario through the first six games. The first and third losses came on the road at Chicago (41-21) and the New York Jets (35-9), games where the team turned the ball over five and four times. The Colts are one of five teams that have not earned a road win this season.
This Sunday would be a great time to address those three areas.
"I think definitely the guys have a lot of pride. You never want to lose two in a row," said interim head coach Bruce Arians of the team's ability to bounce back from losses. "We need to start stacking some chips and learn how to win on the road so we can do that and start putting some (wins) together."
Indianapolis was successful last week against Cleveland by rushing the ball (season-high 148 yards) and stopping the run (season-low 55 yards allowed). The Colts started fast with touchdowns on their first two possessions.
The club was down by 10 points at the half in Chicago and by 15 at the Jets, and Indianapolis has a minus-eight turnover ratio (1:9) in those games. Competing better away from home is a must for a club Arians says at the moment is "in the hunt."
"You've got to learn how to finish the game and protect the football," said Arians. "For us, it's protect the football, create some turnovers, and we did a nice job at home of getting off to fast starts. We need to get off to a better start on the road. That's the main goal, get a good strong start offensively and play solid defense early."
Defensive end Cory Redding plans to return to action this week after missing the Cleveland game. Competing well this week is an urgent matter to him.
"Everything is a mindset. I don't know what it is. Teams play well at home. You are faced with adversity and struggle on the road. We've been that team this year," said Redding. "We've yet to prove that we can go on the road and win. Saying that, this weekend is a huge test for us. It's an opportunity to go out there and put the first one (win) under our belts, get the first one on the road and continue to be successful on the road just like we are at home.
"(We need to) find ways to overcome adversity and situations on the field and put ourselves in a position to win the game. It's easy to win at home. It's tough to win on the road. If you don't win on the road, you don't make the playoffs, period. You have to split on the road, 4-4, or win more than you lose on the road. But at the end of the day, you have to stack up wins. You have to stack up wins in this league, and we can't let any go when we're on the road."
Safety Tom Zbikowski partnered with Redding on some Baltimore defenses. Zbikowski sees growth and hopes the team can improve on its seasonal total of three takeaways.
"I think mentality a little bit (is how to win on the road)," said Zbikowski. "I think we're growing as a team. We're getting better as a team, just with trust, with personalities meshing, with having a feel for everything. That should bode well for us, but we still have to be able to perform on the field come game day.
"I think we took a little bit of a step back after the Green Bay game, but I think that was the first sign that we were playing together, that we could shut down a premier offense and quarterback and be a very good team. It's just building each week, not letting the setback play too big a role, letting that one go and moving on and get better."
Earlier in the week, cornerback Jerraud Powers said the club's two losses on the road were not due to the physical side of play. Preparation and ethic are not the problems, just getting a better level of play and getting accustomed to a road environment.
The team's last division road win was in Nashville in 2010. Its last road win came two weeks later in Oakland. Safety Antoine Bethea was a participant that night and hopes to help rebuild Indianapolis into a team that functions successfully on the road.
"It was another good week of practice and preparation. We have to put an emphasis on taking that on the road," said Bethea. "The previous two road games haven't ended up well. We have to take it on the road and piggyback off that last defensive performance. We've been having good weeks of practice. We just have to find a way to rally on the road. How we play at home when our fans are cheering for us, we can use that to our benefit. We have to use their crowd as our benefit as well. We have to find a way to get the show going on the road."
INJURY UPDATE –Arians said the only two players ruled out for Sunday are cornerback Darius Butler and defensive end Fili Moala. All other players with injury matters will be game-time decisions. Arians said linebacker Pat Angerer and defensive end Cory Redding are cleared for action. Jeff Linkenbach will start at guard for the fourth consecutive game.
COLTS FRIDAY NOTEBOOK (QUOTE-UNQUOTE): BRUCE ARIANS (On Josh Chapman return)"It's pretty much right on target. He was targeted to come back earlier. We didn't know if we'd get him back at all. He's progressed nicely, no worries about where he's at physically. I think he's as excited as we are to see him out there.* We'll take our time with him. If he's ready to play, he'll play. He's a great talent. He's so strong, quick, powerful. He has every attribute you want in a nose guard." (On if he pays attention to advanced QB statistics) "No, not at all. There are so many quarterback ratings now and everybody's got their own. I just judge the one that we have and how he's playing."(On if worried about Luck's completion percentage because of the number of deep throws in the offense) "If you go back and look at my history, I throw it deep more than anybody in the league. We do spread people out. We throw it quick. We think we have everything, but we also use our tight ends and backs a lot to help our offensive line. We want to throw the football to the guys that are getting paid to catch it and hand it to the guys who are paid to run it. Not that they're not quality receivers, Vick (Ballard) obviously had a big play on the empty backfield when he caught the ball and got 19 or 20 yards. We're not a West Coast offense by any means."(On Chris Johnson) "I think it's more his opportunities. I think they're starting to gel. They look like they hit their stride pretty good as far as the running game this past weekend, and he's always a challenge. He's as much a challenge on the checkdown as he is on a stretch play. You've got to corral him. You can't let him loose in space because no one is going to catch him. He's always been a speed matchup problem for every team he's ever played."(On Tennessee defense)"I think it's a young defense. When you think of all the names of the Tennessee Titans that I've played against over the last few years, you only see one or two guys over there. They've got a lot of new faces like we do, second year in the system. They are improving each week. They had two big turnovers against Buffalo on the road. They had a plus-two when they've been minus all year. They learned that plus-two wins games."(On shutting down the run against Cleveland with multiple starters out) "I think that's a credit to the coaching staff and to the players. Gary (Emanuel) did a heck of a job getting new guys ready. They went in and played their tails off. We loaded up the box and put a lot of pressure on our corners and safeties to play man-to-man. They did a very good job and credit to them, especially when we put them in that situation in the second half with the turnover in the fourth quarter, they responded extremely well."(On if pleased with run game after watching Cleveland tape) "That was huge for us. We haven't had it this year. We needed to get it going, especially against that front. Once it starts going, it's easy to stay with it. You get some good play action going. I wish we had hit a couple more chunks. We left some yards out there when we had some chunk plays out there. On the road, we're going to have to hit those chunks off the play action. It slows the pass rush down. (The) emphasis all week last week was run the ball and stop the run, and we did it. Let's see if we can do it two weeks in a row." (On if it is important to keep the discussion of "in the hunt" alive) "That's why we're here. We're here to get in the playoffs and play the game and go. We're with a bunch of teams right now, and it's time to start stringing some wins together and adding to the excitement. There's nothing like getting in the playoff hunt and coming to practices with a bit more verve and ready to go every Wednesday. I think our guys will show up Wednesday extremely excited."(On if this is premature to think that way)"I think it's a terrible feeling not to be in it. Now you're just judging, 'Are you getting better each week?' We want to do both. We want to get better each week with these young guys and offensively and get healthy defensively. I think we're going to be a pretty solid football team coming down the stretch."(On his confidence in Vick Ballard)"Oh, exactly what I thought he would. When he came here, I thought he had that in him. It was nice to see it come out. Making guys miss, being powerful, he blocked extremely well when he was asked to. He's a good, solid back, and I think the future is bright for him. I just want to stack those weeks together now on the practice field and in the game where he gets better and better."GREG MANUSKY*(On Tennessee QBs) "You have to prepare for both of them. 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." (On strengths of Matt Hasselbeck) "He knows where to go with the ball. He knows. 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." DWIGHT FREENEY (On Matt Hasselbeck) "He presents a real challenge because he gets rid of the ball so quick. 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." TOM ZBIKOWSKI (On Matt Hasselbeck) "He knows where he's going with the ball. He has a quick release. 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." ANTOINE BETHEA (On Chris Johnson) "He's the type of back when he gets the ball, he can take it yard. If we can piggyback off last week, everybody play gap-sound, 11 hats to the ball, hit and tackle, we'll be fine. Every play, if it's two plays, 60 plays, everyone has to do their part. We have to trust in the guys to our left and right and play as a unit. He had almost a 200-yard game last week, but we see great backs week in and week out. We have to get 11 hats to the ball, rally around each other and be gap-sound." JERRELL FREEMAN (On is it easy to stop the run)"Coach always says, 'You have to do your job.' During the week, we have to do our jobs. We have to know what we can and can't do within in the defense then in the game go ahead and let it go. Go play fast." DWIGHT FREENEY (On where he is with ankle)"The ankle is still there. Whenever you have a high ankle, it kind of just lingers. I'm still waiting for that day or that game when it's gone. But it is what it is. Other guys have injuries that they have to fight through. This is just one more injury that I have to fight through, and that's it." (On Chris Johnson)"Chris has always been a challenge. He's a guy I guess with Barry Sanders-type of game-breaking ability. He'll have 10 runs that you stop him and then all of a sudden, all he needs is one, and that one is big. It's going to be important that guys collectively, on each and every play, stop him." ANDREW LUCK (On if road games feel different for him approach-wise)"I've tried not to. In a couple of games, we got behind early. That felt different, but not the approach to it." (On turnovers) "It's nigh impossible to win when you're minus whatever we are on the road. We know we have to clean that up. It goes to the overall theme of a little more focus, a little more consistency offensively, a little more attention to detail. We realize if we want to be a better football team, we're going to have to start winning on the road. If we want to get consecutive wins in weeks, we're going to have to start winning on the road." (On if likes progression of run game)"Yeah. It was nice to finally see the production in numbers in the run game because guys have been working their butts off all year. It was nice to see some yards on the stat sheet. Hopefully, that'll continue throughout the year." (On what he thinks he does better after six games than after one or two)"I think I'm learning when to throw the ball the away, when to take a sack, when not to force a ball. These are some things that I'm nowhere near perfect on and will continue to learn. Hopefully, I'll get better. I have a better grasp for certain situations of games. Whether it's four minutes and we have the ball and we are trying to run the clock out, or we have a minute-and-a-half left and you're down four at the end of the game. Situational football (I think I'm better). I think I've learned a little bit more about the playbook every week, maybe a little bit more about opposing defenses. (There's) still a long way to go." (On if it felt earlier that there may have been 20 guys, then 15, then 11 that comes with experience)"Yeah, I think so. There have been times where I've come off the sideline and sat down with Clyde (Christensen) and said, 'I have absolutely no clue what just happened.' We will look through the pictures and say, 'Okay, it's just this front, this coverage,' and say, 'Okay next time I see that hopefully we'll recognize it as such.' I guess I sympathize with that a little bit and just try and learn a little more each week and get comfortable." (On how good it was to see that type of rushing performance against Cleveland) "It was great, a total offensive effort in running the football. (The) wide receivers, after watching the film, (they had) some great blocks downfield, especially when they're in tight and Reggie (Wayne) is having to come and cut a back, and cut a defensive end. That's a 12-, 13-year player that's doing that. (The) offensive line working their butts off and the running back's running well (were important). It really helped the offense." (On if it's number of yards or commitment to run) "I think it's the yards per carry, which was good. I think it was around four something. To me, just to be able to string first downs together with runs. We were getting into second-and-short and then getting another first down off a run. I think that's really beneficial." (On if feels he has taken too many hits) "No, it's part of it. I realize (that) as a quarterback. I know when the hits are my fault for not getting rid of the ball. I'm not going to blame anybody else for it or different things. When I miss the 'hot' (read), I realize that. Those are nice physical reminders that I've got a lot of work to do within the offense (laughs)." CORY REDDING (On limiting Chris Johnson) "If you want use (a baseball) analogy, he'll get a few singles. He's going to make his plays, but no home runs, (hopefully) a lot of pop-ups. If we get pop-ups, we'll get him out. No home runs, definitely no grand slams." (On a little extra) "It's basically doing your job and once you do your job, go make plays, period. It's nothing extra to be done. It's doing your job and making plays. Speaking from a defensive lineman (standpoint), doing my job is staying in my 'B' gap. Now doing more is when I see the ballcarrier bounce to the 'C' gap, shed my blocker and make the play in the 'C' gap. That's doing my job, and more. It's nothing as far as not adhering to my assignments or disregarding the total defense and doing whatever. It's, 'Doing your assignments first, then go make plays.' That's what B.A. (Arians) has preached to the team." JERRAUD POWERS (On answering a win with a win) "Hopefully, we'll get a few wins in a row and not keep going on a see-saw. It's always good to bounce back with a win after a loss. We're definitely trying to separate ourselves from the pack right now. (There are) a lot of teams with a 3-3 record, or somewhere around that range. We're in the middle of the pack, especially in the AFC. Houston and the Ravens are the only teams that have separated themselves. Other than that, it's the middle of the pack. We have to string together a few wins." (On getting teammates healthy) "You always want to have everybody healthy out there with you. That's just the nature of the business. When you look around the league, there's probably lot of teams saying the same thing, 'I wish we got this guy back, or that guy back.' If we can get Fili (Moala) and Cory (Redding) and Rob (Mathis) and all those guys back on the floor with Free (Dwight Freeney) and everybody else that's healthy, that'll be a big plus for us, especially on the defensive side of the ball." VICK BALLARD (On if felt team was committed to run game against Cleveland) "I don't know. Every week we kind of have a different game plan. We ran the ball early and we ran it successful. I think what B.A. (Bruce Arians) wanted to do was stick with it, stick with what worked. He stuck with it and we were productive with it throughout the whole game, and we came out with a 'W.' " (On if run game has to be a part of the offensive recipe)"I believe any football team wants to have a balanced offense. You want to be able to throw the ball and run. One complements the other. When you have a good running game, it obviously opens up the passing game and vice versa." (On playing with Jerrell Freeman) "It's great. He's such a good athlete. It's always nice when you have to cover a fast guy, 'Hey, Free….' It's real fun to play with him. He's fast and physical." ANTHONY CASTONZO (On bouncing back from loss with win) "After a loss, we don't get down as a team. We're looking forward to the next game. Even after a win, we're looking ahead. We always put things behind us. I'd say we are resilient. We come back from games, whether it's a loss or a win, and we look to come back play hard." (On who keeps team even-keeled) "I think it's across the board the coaches and the players. We still have our core veteran leaders who always keep us on the right track. I'm talking about Robert Mathis, he's a leader for the offense and defense. He's a very vocal guy who makes sure we're on the even keel. Reggie Wayne is looking forward to the next play. It's a testament of leadership with our coaches and players."