INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis has performed unevenly in three of the last four games when measured against those coming earlier in the season.
A 19-9 loss at San Diego was followed by a 39-33 victory over Denver. After a bye week, the Colts fell behind at Houston, 21-3, before roaring to life in a 27-24 victory.
This past week was a 38-8 home defeat to St. Louis that served notice that attention to fundamentals, techniques and 60-minute execution are musts to return to performance levels witnessed in big wins over NFL leaders like Seattle, San Francisco and the Broncos.
Thursday marks the final game of the first round of AFC South play. At 2-0 in the division, Indianapolis can get separation with a win at Tennessee.
At 4-5, the Titans (0-2 in the division) can close the gap and put the Colts' AFC South two-game lead in jeopardy. Playing the Colts again on December 1 could produce double jeopardy in the Colts' worst nightmares.
Getting a big leg up on the Titans is crucial, and here are SEVEN VICTORY KEYS:
EIGHT IS A START – Trent Richardson has been targeted eight times in the last two games by Colts quarterbacks in the passing game. Twice Richardson has zipped more than 20 yards with receptions, with most of the yards coming after the catch. As the club keeps adapting to life without Reggie Wayne, Richardson is a very viable option. Escaping a pass rush can be done by getting him the ball, and so can getting mismatches with linebackers. Just saying.
COPYCAT, COPYCAT –** St. Louis, under head coach Jeff Fisher, got a great deal of pressure on Andrew Luck last week. Three sacks and seven hits disrupted the Colts, and allowed St. Louis to tack its first seven points on the board. Matt Hasselbeck, a former Titan, pointed out defensive attacks in St. Louis, Detroit (Jim Schwartz) and Tennessee can look familiar given a coaching philosophy that runs partly through Fisher's long tenure Nashville. Tape is out there for watchful eyes.
SMART, NOT RASH – Last week's special teams execution and decision-making were a problem in terms of field position. Seven first-half drives had an average start position at the Colts' 15-yard line. Kickoff returns to the seven (twice) and the 13 did not help as each possession ended with a punt. One additional KOR in the third quarter reached the 13. Chuck Pagano said communication and competitive juices were issues. Discretion can be the better part of field position, and that will be important in a raucous road venue. Be smart.
EXTEND DRIVES – So many things get down to third-down conversions, and Indianapolis has converted one of its last 14 in first-half action (two games), plus zero-for-five at San Diego in a 10-point loss. Tilted scoreboards have been a problem. In the past four weeks, the club has converted 13-of-52 third downs. Extending drives is a must. The Colts have 19 10-play drives this season, but that total has not been accruing as much lately as in earlier games.
EYE ON JOHNSON – Chris Johnson never has taken over a game like Houston's Arian Foster and Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew have done. With Tennessee in reach of Indianapolis, now is not the time for it to occur. Chuck Pagano said firming up the edges against Johnson (who ran for 150 yards two weeks ago) is a must. Johnson has cracked 100 yards only twice in seven games against the Colts. The most 45-yard scoring runs in history have come by a darter (18, Barry Sanders) and a bruiser (13, Jim Brown). Johnson is third with 12 by his own style. In the words of Pagano, "bottle him up."
BACK TOWARD PERFECTION – Last week's lop-sided score had Indianapolis pressing to catch up. Four interceptions were a result. One red-zone score in four trips was a low point. Prior to the St. Louis game, Indianapolis was the NFL's only perfect team in the red zone – 25 trips, 15 TDs/10 FGs. Returning to red zone proficiency is important.
BLOCK OUT NOISE – Colts players no doubt have heard the catcalls lately. The team always has been good about negating the noise and focusing. It was a big thing last year in rebounding from 2-14 to 11-5. It would be a good thing in rebounding after last week. Listen to voices in the locker room and meeting rooms. As Vince Lombardi told his team before Super Bowl I, "play the game the way I know you can." That would be good advice for a team good enough to win six times already this year.
QUOTE TO NOTE(Chuck Pagano on the difficulty of replacing Reggie Wayne)
"Never going to replace a guy like that, we all know that. To a man, everyone in the organization and outside of football (knows) what he's done over the stretch of his career is remarkable. We see what Reggie does on Sundays, the fans do and everybody else. But, what he does for your team Monday through Saturday, his leadership, you just can't replace him. It is next man up. Guys are going to have to step up and fill that role and do the best job they can. They got a responsibility, accountability to this team and the horseshoe, and they're going to work their tails off, do the best they can."