Week 10 opens with a battle between the top two teams in the AFC South. Thursday night’s Colts-Texans matchup could be a pivotal contest in deciding potential playoff seeding and who will have the advantage in the division moving forward. The Colts are coming off a tough loss to the Ravens and the Titans coming off a gritty win against the Bears. It still may be fair to say neither of these teams has peaked just yet. Here are the keys to the game that each team needs to fulfill in order to win this week:
Keys to the game for the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Run more wildcat sets with Trey Burton
The Colts have been below average on offense this season, playing a very conservative brand of football with Philip Rivers under center. The Colts are averaging 5.6 yards per play, which is 17th in the league. Furthermore, the Colts have only totaled 2,884 yards this season through eight games, which is 20th in the NFL. The conservative approach really did not help in their Week 9 loss to the Ravens; Indianapolis didn’t score any points in the second half after taking a 10-7 lead. Two of the best offensive performances by the Colts were in Week 8 against the Lions and Week 6 against the Bengals. In these two games, the Colts did a good job of utilizing the versatility of veteran tight end Trey Burton, famous for his role in Super Bowl LII’s Philly Special when he threw a TD pass to QB Nick Foles. The Colts have been able to use Burton in a similar role this season, mostly allowing him to run the ball. Don’t be surprised if Colts head coach Frank Reich tries to throw off the Titans by using Burton creatively, especially since tight end Jack Doyle will most likely miss the game with a concussion. The Colts need to change things up in order to be less predictable on the offensive side of the ball.
2. Take more chances downfield with Philip Rivers
This key goes hand in hand with the previous one. Rivers and the Colts offense has not been diverse enough this season, much of the reason why this team isn’t better than its 5-3 record indicates. In Week 9, Rivers only had 5.3 yards per attempt. For most of the season, he has played the role of game manager rather than aggressor. This season, Rivers is only averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has only one game in which he averaged more than 10 yards per attempt (Week 3 vs. the Jets). As a result, Rivers comes into this Week 10 affair with 10 touchdown passes against 7 interceptions. Considering how good the Titans are at draining the clock due to the sheer volume of carries Derrick Henry gets per game, the Colts cannot fall into the trap they did last week by not trying to push the ball down the field. Look for Rivers to get rookie Michael Pittman Jr. involved a lot, like he did against Baltimore, along with taking some deep shots to T.Y. Hilton (if he plays) in order to make sure the Titans are not able to get into a groove against the Colts.
3. Force Ryan Tannehill to be the primary playmaker for the Titans
This could be the biggest of the three keys presented here. Ryan Tannehill has been very good this season (19 TD passes, 3 interceptions in eight games); however, Tannehill has cooled off his past few games, as he struggled against the Steelers, Bengals and Bears for various stretches. Much of this could be due to Derrick Henry’s production. In those games, Henry only ran for 75, 112 and 68 yards, respectively, but it hasn’t been the most efficient. The Titans are very good at using play-action in order to bring the defense in and open up players like Corey Davis, A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith; however, when Henry has not been as effective, the play-action doesn’t work nearly as well. In this game, the Colts are going to have to stop Henry from burning them — not only to give the ball back to their offense, but also to force Tannehill into having a shaky game like he did in Week 9 against the Bears. Tannehill completed less than 50% of his passes in that game. The Ravens did not have their way with the Colts on the ground in Week 9, but they certainly did enough in the second half to make sure the Colts did not have a lot of time to come back. The Colts cannot afford to have this happen once again or else they may find a similar result.
Keys to the game for the Tennessee Titans:
1. Drop back to pass early and often
The Colts have one of the best defenses in the NFL this season. Indy ranks in the top five in both passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The reason the Titans should drop back to pass a lot early on is because the Colts will fully expect the Titans to come out with a chew-the-clock type of game plan. If the Titans can potentially catch the Colts napping early, then this could lead to an easier implementation of the run game. Moreover, the Titans certainly have the receivers to accomplish this feat, as Corey Davis, A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith have proven to be fully capable of making big plays. Also, even though Xavier Rhodes comes into this game as one of the better corners in the league, it was only a year ago that Rhodes struggled immensely as the top corner with the Vikings. With the speed and physicality of Davis and Brown, the Titans can certainly take advantage.
2. Force Jonathan Taylor into more turnovers
A major play in the Ravens’ win last week was rookie Jonathan Taylor’s first career fumble, which led to a scoop and score. Not only did this give Baltimore some life, it also led to Taylor not getting as many carries after that. In fact, Jordan Wilkins got the bulk of the carries for the Colts in that game, which is definitely not something that was to be expected coming into that game. In college, Taylor proved he can be a workhorse at running back, and the Colts have seen that in certain games this season. Taylor is certainly not having a bad rookie season. The key for the Titans, a team that is currently giving up the 16th-most rushing yards in the NFL with 119.1 per game, will be to force Taylor into another turnover that will bring Wilkins into the game. Wilkins is certainly not a bad player, but he does not have the ceiling Taylor has. In order for the Titans to ensure their own winning formula is not used against them, they should try to get Taylor out of the game by stripping the ball from him and making Reich less confident in his abilities as a bell cow.
3. Make Philip Rivers uncomfortable
Coming into this season, the Colts offensive line was considered one of the best in the league. That has been the case in 2020, as the Colts have only allowed eight sacks through eight games. Even with good protection, Rivers has thrown seven interceptions this season and is only averaging 7.6 yards per attempt – imagine what those numbers might be if he was under more pressure. With players like Jadaveon Clowney and Rashaan Evans, there is no excuse for the Titans not being able to generate some pressure in order to force Rivers into making some poor throws that will put the Colts behind the eight ball early. The Colts have not been great at coming from behind against the better teams in the league, and the Titans need to do their best to upset Rivers’ rhythm. If the Titans are able to succeed at breaking through the Colts offensive line, it could be a very long night for Indianapolis.
Stats from: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference