Here are five things to watch for in Thursday’s game between the Colts and Tennessee Titans.
1. Chris Johnson factor: The Titans running back ran for a season-high 150 yards -- his only game of at least 100 yards this season -- against St. Louis on Nov. 3. Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois called Johnson the “fastest running back” in the league. The Colts have done a good job keeping the speedy Johnson in check in his career. He’s only averaging 67.3 yards in nine games against them. But the past doesn’t mean anything, especially when the Colts are giving 126.6 yards a game on the ground this season. “He’s a home run hitter and you’ve got to play disciplined football,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Again, we say, ‘No edge, no chance,’ with this guy. You got to bottle him up and you got to play sound, disciplined football with your front seven and the back end because he is one of those guys that all it takes is one play and he can go. We got a lot of evidence on film, not only this season but from the past. Our guys are obviously more than aware of what he can do.”
2. Better returns: One of the few times fans cheered during last weekend’s 30-point loss to the Rams was when kick returner David Reed downed the ball on kickoffs. Reed made three bad decisions by trying to bringing the ball out of the end zone. The average yard line where the Colts started their three drives where Reed brought the ball out the end zone was the 11-yard line. Starting deep on their end of the field adds on to the other offensive problems the Colts are dealing with.“Yeah, there were some obvious issues there,” Pagano said. “I think it’s a matter of not only, David is a competitive guy, he’s a talented guy, and you get behind like we were behind and guys start pressing a little bit and want to make a play and want to do something to help their team. We talked about obviously those situations that we just got to, there’s a time when you just can’t bring it out. There were a couple times obviously in that game where we shouldn’t have brought that thing out because of the distance of the kick and the direction of the kick and all those type of things and give our offense the ball two times inside the 10-yard line. We can’t do that and he understands that.”
3. Another backup: The Colts are facing their third straight backup quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick is following behind Houston’s Case Keenum and St. Louis’ Kellen Clemens. Fitzpatrick is starting in place of the injured Jack Locker for the Titans. Keenum and Clemens combined to go 29-of-50 for 597 yards and five touchdowns against the Colts. Fitzpatrick was 22-of-33 for 264 yards and two touchdowns after replacing Locker last weekend against Jacksonville. “Once upon a time, he was a starting quarterback,” Jean Francois said. “I know most people might look at him as a backup quarterback but he’s a starting quarterback. He’s a good one too, so we just play him as the quarterback he is.”
4. Running it: The word “power” doesn’t belong when talking about the Colts’ running game. They’re coming off their two worst rushing games of the season. They only gained 18 yards against the Rams, with quarterback Andrew Luck having 17 of those yards. Poor run blocking by the offensive line has played a factor in why running back Trent Richardson has only gained 22 yards in the past two games. The Colts are an easy team to prepare for when they’re one dimensional. The Titans are giving up almost 115 yards a game on the ground.
5. Protect the franchise: I bet you thought the days of hearing how the Colts have to do a better job of protecting Luck were over. He’s been sacked seven times in the past two games to bring his season total to 22, one more than where he was after nine games last season. Luck was sacked 41 times during his rookie season. The only chance the Colts have to win Thursday – and the rest of the season – is by making sure Luck doesn’t spent most of the game getting sacked or knocked around.