'Game-changer' Kevin Byard making impact for Titans' defense

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Safety Kevin Byard quietly emerged as an All-Pro last season when he led the NFL with eight interceptions, and the third-year player is becoming the heartbeat of the Tennessee Titans' defense.

Though he flew under the radar last season, his play has not gone unnoticed by his peers.

Tennessee faces Indianapolis on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) in a key AFC South showdown, and Colts safety Malik Hooker says Byard stands out on film.

"He's dynamic -- a game-changer," Hooker said. "He makes a lot of great plays out there. Definitely one of the leaders of that defense."

Byard's interception in the end zone against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football turned the tables for the Titans in their Week 9 win that ended a three-game losing streak. Byard's ensuing celebration on the Cowboys' star at midfield woke Tennessee up after two early turnovers nearly doomed them.

Tennessee will need another inspiring performance from their All-Pro safety against the Colts, a team they have yet to beat with Andrew Luck under center.

It's the latest big challenge for Byard and the Titans, who faced New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Week 10. New England entered the game riding a six-game winning streak during which it averaged 35.5 points per game. The Titans held the Patriots to 10 points and now lead the NFL in points allowed at 16.8 per game.

Tennessee's game plan was to force Brady to come off his first read and cloud the short passing lanes while the pass rush closed on him. Brady finished with a 51.2 completion percentage, his lowest of the season, and failed to throw a touchdown pass for only the second time in 10 games.

This week, Byard and the Titans' secondary turn their attention to Luck and the Colts. It will be a tall task to slow down Luck, whose 26 touchdowns passes are second most in the NFL. Unlike Brady, Luck is a threat to take off from the pocket, giving the defense another element to consider.

"He definitely extends plays and is dangerous when he is on the move," Byard said. "We are aware of that, but he's making some good throws from the pocket. He's doing a better job of protecting himself and not getting hit."

When Frank Reich was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, he used to tell quarterback Carson Wentz to make at least one play per game using his legs, but not to be careless. That same request went with Reich to Indianapolis when he was named coach of the Colts. Luck is now running with less abandon and keeping himself from taking too many big hits.

"Andrew knows how to extend plays without being reckless and taking chances," Reich said. "There's a lot of ways to extend plays and make one play a game without putting yourself in harm's way. Andrew is at a point in his career where he has really matured and understands that. He's been doing a really good job of that."

Luck is sitting in the pocket and spreading the ball evenly to a collection of wideouts, running backs and especially the tight ends. The Colts' tight ends have caught a league-leading 15 TD passes, a pace that would break the single-season record of 24 set by New England in 2011.

Tight end Eric Ebron has emerged as the most dangerous pass-catcher for Indianapolis, and his nine touchdown receptions tie him for the second most in the league. Tight ends typically become a security blanket for quarterbacks because targeting them usually involves high-percentage throws.

"One of the keys is it starts with trusting route running and the fact that he'll make plays," Reich said. "Eric [Ebron] and Andrew have slowly built this chemistry. Eric really stepped up and made a bunch of plays and has been really good for us. The tight end position, a lot of times you get good matchups there. You have an athletic tight end running routes on a safety or linebacker. We think those are good matchups for us."

When the Titans go to man defense, Byard likely will be the one to cover Ebron. It will be another challenge, but Byard is up for it.

"He's a bigger pass-catcher that runs routes and moves like a receiver," Byard said. "He's making some plays. I can match up against him and I'm looking forward to the challenge."

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells contributed to this post.