INDIANAPOLIS —The Indianapolis Colts hop into AFC South Division play for the first time in 2017 on Monday, when they travel to take on the Tennessee Titans.
The Colts (2-3) are coming off their 26-23 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Titans (2-3), meanwhile, fell to the Miami Dolphins, 16-10, last week at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
So what should fans be looking for in this Colts/Titans matchup on Monday at Nissan Stadium?
1. Communication, Execution
For a fourth straight game, the Colts last week had a second-half lead, but were unable to pull away, and let their opponent sneak back in. This time around, against the San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis would see the 49ers tie the game late, forcing overtime, but, fortunately for the Colts, they would have the last laugh, as Adam Vinatieri connected on a game-winning field goal from 51 yards out to send the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd home a happy bunch. Several Colts coaches and players talked about the need to not only have better communication down the stretch in games — the defense had some troubles against the 49ers' no-huddle offense at times in the second half last week, for example — but how simple execution of the game plan would also go a long way. To defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, for the Colts to properly protect a second-half lead, his unit must constantly be in the opposing quarterback's face, allowing the secondary to be in position to make more plays. "We've got to be better at getting the ball out of the (quarterback's) hand," Monachino said.**
- Will Mariota Play?** A huge storyline entering Monday's game is the status of Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota suffered a hamstring injury two weeks ago against the Houston Texans, and then sat out last week's loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mariota, who was limited in practices this week, has been labeled as questionable against the Colts, and Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said on Friday that the decision on whether he plays could come pretty close to game time. "Can he play and not risk himself further injury? That's the biggest thing," Mularkey said, via TitansOnline.com. While Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has prepared his team to face Mariota, the Colts' defense will also have a plan to account for his backup, 13-year NFL veteran Matt Cassel, who completed 21-of-32 passes for 141 yards with a touchdown last week against the Dolphins. But even if he's able to play and isn't quite 100 percent, Mariota's abilities to make plays with his arm or his feet presents obvious challenges for the Indy defense.3. More Mack? Marlon Mack was a major catalyst behind the Colts' victory last week against the 49ers, as the rookie running back reeled off several big runs on the day, one of which resulted in a sensational touchdown, while the other set up Vinatieri's game-winning attempt in overtime. His final stat line — nine carries, 91 yards and a touchdown — suggest Mack was able to embrace his role and fully take advantage of his limited opportunities, but those opportunities could be expanding, perhaps as soon as Monday's game against the Titans. Pagano said last Monday he thinks "it'd be wise to find ways to get (Mack) the football and get him more involved," and if it weren't for a shoulder injury that kept Mack out in Weeks 3 and 4, the team might've already been employing the "More Mack" strategy into its offense by now. Look for the Colts to continue finding ways to get Mack into space with the ball in his hands, whether that's lined up next to the quarterback or lined up out wide as a receiver, to create tough matchups against the Tennessee defense.4. Woods' Revenge Al Woods' stat line to this point of the season — nine tackles (three for a loss), one sack, one quarterback hit — might not look like a whole lot, but make no mistake: Woods' presence has been felt for the Colts' defense, whether or not it shows up on the stat sheet. And against his old team, the Titans, on Monday, perhaps Woods will be even more motivated to make an impact. The nose tackle "changes the math for us inside," Monachino said, meaning opposing offenses oftentimes send more than one blocker to account for Woods, leaving opportunities for those around him to be freed up to make plays. And then, when he is in a one-on-one situation, Woods has been able to create "knock-back," which has been a key for Indy's rush defense, which comes into Monday's game ranked 16th in the league against the run (103.4 yards allowed per game).5. 1-2 Punch Speaking of stopping the run, it sure doesn't come easy against the Titans and their 1-2 punch at running back, which consists of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. While their stout offensive line has been effective in opening up holes, there's no denying the specific talents that Murray and Henry each bring to the table, as Murray is more of the workhorse back, while Henry is certainly more the bruising, punishing type — though both guys have shown they can play either role. Thanks to Murray and Henry, the Titans currently rank ninth in the league in rushing at 124.8 yards per game, so no matter who's at quarterback, priority No. 1 for the Indy defense will be to limit the Tennessee run game on Monday. "We've got to do a great job of stopping the run, and then off of the run action comes the play-action pass, and they make a living off of big plays, so we've got to make them go the hard way," Pagano said.6. The Streak One underlying theme for Monday's game is certainly the Colts' long-running string of success against the Titans in recent years. Indianapolis has won its last 11 games against Tennessee, and has come out victorious in 16 of its last 17 matchups in the series. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Colts' current streak against the Titans is tied for longest active win streak between two teams, as the Denver Broncos have also defeated the Cleveland Browns 11 straight times, dating back to 1991. Monday's game, in Nashville, certainly represents a prime opportunity for the Titans to end the streak, and Tennessee has been close in its home games recently, as four of their last five games against the Colts at Nissan Stadium have been decided by eight points or less. But don't think the Colts aren't dead set on the idea of flying out of Nashville with their 12th straight win in the series — and, more importantly, the chance to get to .500 on the year with another divisional opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, coming to town next week.7. Milestone Watch
Here are several milestones to look for this week, courtesy of Colts PR:
• Cornerback Vontae Davis needs four passes defensed to reach 100 for his career.
• Running back Frank Gore, with a 100-yard rushing performance, would tie O.J. Simpson (42) for the 16th most in NFL history; he needs 23 carries to pass Barry Sanders (3,062) for sixth on the NFL's all-time list; he needs one rushing touchdown to tie Tony Dorsett (77) for 21st on the NFL's all-time list; and he needs two rushing touchdowns to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 20th on the NFL's all-time list.
• Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton needs two receptions to reach 400 his career; he would become the sixth player in franchise history to accomplish that feat.
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri, with one field goal attempt, would pass George Blanda (639) for the third most in NFL history; he needs to convert one field goal from 50-plus yards to tie Josh Brown (37) for the eighth most made field goals from that distance in NFL history; he also needs to play in one game to pass Jason Hanson (327) for the fifth most regular season games in NFL history.
Game highlights from the Colts win over the Titans.