Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Five games is hardly all the distance between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans after the visitors' 31-9 Sunday night rout. These rivals heading in opposite directions don’t have a gap, but a gulf between them.
Here’s one man's look at five elements from a game that showed us the difference between the AFC's elite and a squad might be jostling for a top 10 draft slot.
1. Last season in an Oct. 27 victory on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," the Titans didn’t sack Peyton Manning. That didn't seem to matter then, as Tennessee ensured the Colts couldn’t catch up in the AFC South race. Less than a year later, Manning remained unsackable. When the Titans got close, they paid the price. Roughing the passer penalties on Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jacob Ford provided 30 of 93 yards the Colts traversed in a 47-second drive before halftime en route to the touchdown that made it 21-9.
The high-motor Vanden Bosch doesn’t have a sack this season. While he got the better of Colts tackle Tony Ugoh on many snaps, that didn’t change. KVB doesn’t currently make the list with Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Mario Williams as the division’s premier pass rushers. He had an offsides and facemask penalties, too.
As for the roughing call against him, where he lunged at Manning and referee Walt Anderson said he made contact with the quarterbacks knees, Vanden Bosch said: “The officials’ job is to protect the quarterback, my job is to sack the quarterback.”
“I’ve never asked for a call, I’ve never clapped when they’ve made a call,” he said. “I clap when we get the yards because of execution. The first one, I’ve had that hit before to the knee. I don’t know if I have to validate it or not, but I’ve got to see the doctor after this and get treatment. Obviously when you plant that left knee it’s in a vulnerable position, I wear that brace for that reason alone, hopefully it protects me there.”
2. The Colts (5-0) were without injured cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, their two best veterans at the spot. They unhesitatingly started rookies Jerraud Powers (third round) and Jacob Lacey (undrafted) while using fourth-year man Tim Jennings as their nickel. Jennings got their lone turnover, wrestling position from Nate Washington to intercept a Kerry Collins pass.
“The way we gain trust in [the young guys] is that they perform,” Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said. “In order for us to feel real comfortable with them, they have to do well in terms of a practice session and they have been doing just that.”
The Titans (0-5) started without Cortland Finnegan and nickel Vincent Fuller and lost Nick Harper (broken right forearm) along the way. They worked super hard to hide rookie Jason McCourty (sixth round). Before Ryan Mouton took over for Harper the Titans avoided using a nickel package where Mouton would have occupied the slot receiver.
Did Tennessee really think a base defense with a linebacker on inside receiver Austin Collie (eight catches for a game-high 97 yards and two touchdowns) was preferable?
“Our personnel in our secondary right now is obviously a little tough,” linebacker David Thornton said. “You look at those things and you may have to make some adjustments on the fly and that’s what the coach decided to do.
“Whatever the coaches call, players have to go out there and execute. Of course, typically you don’t see too many linebackers on receivers but if that’s what we have to do we have to go out and do it.”
3. The Colts averaged only 2.5 yards per carry. But factor in the steady diet of throws to halfbacks Joseph Addai and a couple to rookie understudy Donald Brown and all those touches boosted the average to 3.2. That’s still not great, but it’s more palatable and clearly enough to win with as a supplement to Manning throwing to receivers and tight ends.
“One thing we are doing well, we’ve done well all year, we are catching short passes and getting yards after the catch,” Manning said. “Sometimes it’s long ones. But when you take a three-yard catch and turn it into a seven-yard game, I think that’s a win for the offense, that can be deflating for a defense: A short pass, all a sudden it’s second-and-three and you can get a first down.”
4. Jeff Fisher said the benching of a healthy Jevon Kearse boiled down to the Titans head coach wanting to see Dave Ball. But pushing Kearse aside moved William Hayes into a starting role with Ball working as part of the rotation. Quite frankly, it’s the least Fisher could have done to indicate a willingness to make some changes -- beyond altering the practice schedule during the week -- in seeking to provide a spark.
But who’s next? A roster that once seemed deep doesn’t have a lot of alternatives at positions where production is down. Harper said he hopes he’s only out four to six weeks while his forearm heals, but the alternatives beyond him weren’t appealing if he’s healthy. (See No. 2 above.)
I’m not expecting the members of the next generation to find their way into the starting lineup soon. Don’t hold your breath for the next move like this, looking for Leroy Harris or Jared Cook/Craig Stevens or Gerald McRath. I don’t believe the team sees the production of Kevin Mawae, Alge Crumpler or Thornton is nearly the question Kearse’s is.
And while Collins has been bad, Fisher said he was merely putting backup Vince Young into a blowout.
5. Indy’s not a top run defense, but it’s plenty good enough when working with the team’s pass rush and secondary. Even as the Titans have been losing, Chris Johnson got at least 15 carries in each of the first four games. He got only nine against the Colts, for a season-low 35 yards.
Johnson did too much East-West running and not enough North-South and then fell victim to the traditional Colts run defense -- a big lead that needed to be addressed by passes.
“I think our defense was able to keep him contained and didn’t get him loose,” he said. “If he finds a crack, he can take it to the house. They played well [against him].”