NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch:
The Titans offense has hit a few speed bumps in recent weeks, and perhaps that's why I continue to hear the "Ryan Tannehill game manager" talk from some out of town outlets. The reality is Tannehill has been one of the NFL's top quarterbacks since taking over as the starter last season, and on the national stage, he'll get a chance to prove it. Tannehill has been especially good at home. How good? Well, since becoming Tennessee's starter in Week 7 of last season, Tannehill has passed for 29 touchdowns with three interceptions for a 122.4 passer rating in 11 games at Nissan Stadium. In each of those 11 games, Tannehill has recorded at least two touchdown passes. He faces a big challenge tonight against the Colts.
Run the Ball
Of course the last time Titans running back Derrick Henry appeared on the nighttime stage he was throwing Bills defensive back Josh Norman off of him en route to another memorable outing. But it's strength vs strength here, as Henry and the Titans will be facing a Colts defense that's ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (83.6). At the season's halfway point, Henry has 843 yards and eight touchdowns, which puts him above his career-best average. Can the Titans ride Henry – and open things up for Tannehill and his targets – on Thursday night?
Colts quarterback Philip Rivers is a savvy veteran who doesn't get fooled much. This week, Titans safety Kevin Byard told a story about Rivers barking at fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro from across the line of scrimmage a year ago because he knew exactly what he was doing. What the Titans need to do is disrupt Rivers, and get him outside the pocket. Whether it's pressure inside from defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons or a flash (and smash?) from linebackers Jadeveon Clowney or Harold Landry on the outside, the Titans need to make Rivers uncomfortable.
The Titans cleaned some things up on special teams against the Bears, even with a new-look group. Punter Ryan Allen and long snapper Matt Overton made their Titans debuts, joining kicker Stephen Gostkowski. And Cameron Batson gave the team a new option as a kick returner. Against the Colts, the Titans need to be successful once again on special teams, and it would be nice to see a game-turning play here. It would probably also ease the concerns of Titans fans saw the team's punter get his punts off without a rushing defender getting so close.
In the early portion of the season, the Titans put together some fast starts. There was the 24-10 halftime lead over the Jaguars, the 21-10 halftime advantage against the Bills, and the 14-0 start and eventual 21-10 halftime lead over the Texans. The Titans won all three of those contests. But the Titans have stumbled out of the gate more of late. They were down 24-7 at the half against Pittsburgh in an eventual loss, and down 17-7 at Cincinnati in another eventual L. Even on Sunday against the Bears, there were some shaky moments early. The Titans need to get out of the gate faster against Indy, and set the tone.
AFC South Positioning
No one wants to hear it, but the Titans are just 5-19 against the Colts since the 2008 season, and that's exactly why former Colts like Reggie Wayne and Pat McAfee threw shade at the Titans on stage during the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville. The Titans and Colts split last year's two games, and the two squads have split the last six games dating back to the start of the 2017 season. So yes, things have more been respectable of late. But the Titans, in search of the franchise's first AFC South title since 2008, shouldn't be looking for "respectable" results. It's time for the Titans to take care of business – and take a two-game lead in the division in the process. Will the Titans get it done? We'll find out tonight under the lights.