Titans at Colts: Areas of interest

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Tennessee Titans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Who steps up?: That’s the biggest offensive concern for Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni. They must devise a game plan that compensates for the absences of their top runner (Marlon Mack), top wideout (T.Y. Hilton), top tight end (Eric Ebron) and top rookie wideout (Parris Campbell).

Reich insisted he’s excited to attack the pending challenge and optimist the remaining supporting cast will respond. We wish we were as confident. The Colts are 1-7 without Hilton, 1-6 without Mack and 0-1 when both have been out.

Jonathan Williams has been a solid replacement for Mack with back-to-back 100-yard games – the first two of his four-year career – and can become the first Colt since Edgerrin James in 2004 with three straight. Tennessee’s defense is nothing special – 17th overall, 12th against the run – but look for it to crowd the line of scrimmage and make things difficult for Williams. Even so, we expect Reich and Sirianni to remain stubborn in that area.

If the Colts are going to have more than modest success running the ball and be effective enough overall, the Jacoby Brissett-led passing game must be more aggressive and productive. It’s been limited to less than 200 net yards in five straight games, including just 121 yards in the loss at Houston. That matched Indy’s season low, which also occurred in the week 2 road win over the Titans. We’re not asking for Brissett to become a gun-slinger, but he must be more decisive with his throws.

Who steps up? Zach Pascal? Chester Rogers? Jack Doyle? Nyheim Hines? We’re betting on Pascal. He’s had three games with at least 72 receiving yards, topped by a 106-yard outing against Houston in week 6, but has had just four catches for 43 yards in the last three games.

The absence of Hilton probably shifts the focus more to Pascal.

Set the tone: If the offense is going to do enough, it will be because of the line. It’s still spotty in protection – 14 sacks allowed in the last five games – but has been stout giving backs room to operate. The Colts bring the NFL’s No. 3-ranked run game (144.2) into the game.

The only issue is the group’s health. All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson is dealing with a hip injury while center Ryan Kelly missed a portion of the second quarter at Houston with a knee injury. Kelly was a full participant in practice this week, but Nelson was limited Wednesday, didn’t practice Thursday and was full-go Friday.

The Titans’ pass rush has produced 30 sacks with Harold Landry III setting the tone with 8.

Step up on D: Much of the attention this week was focused on the offense, and for good reason with Ebron going on IR with his ankle issues and Hilton being ruled out Thursday after suffering a setback with his calf injury the previous day.

Considering the makeup of that offense, it’s imperative the defense experiences a bounce-back outing. If played at a high level for much of the game at Houston, but there were too many breakdowns that led to gashing plays. The Texans generated 236 of their 396 yards (nearly 60 percent) on just seven plays.

The Titans have regained playoff relevancy since Mike Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota, turned to Ryan Tannehill and unleashed Derrick Henry. They’re 4-1 and are averaging 29.4 points and 384.4 yards behind Tannehill. He’s pushing the ball down the field – 9.2 yards per attempt, 12.8 yards per completion – and benefitting from Henry’s presence. The 6-3, 247-pound Henry is 4th in the NFL in rushing and needs just 9 yards to post his second straight 1,000-yard season. He’s coming into Indy on a roll. Henry exploited Kansas City with 188 yards two weeks ago and followed that up with 159 yards against Jacksonville.

Playoff watch: Neither team should be distracted by scoreboard watching. Even though a month will remain after the game, it’s not a stretch to assert the playoff push essentially ends for the loser. The Colts would fall to 6-6 with their fourth loss in five games and the next two on the road (Tampa Bay and New Orleans). A Titans loss would also leave them at 6-6 and their final four games are hardly easy: at Oakland, home with the Saints and two games with Houston.

On the plus side, the Colts could find themselves tied for the AFC South lead Sunday evening. That hinges on them taking care of business against the Titans and Houston losing at home to 10-1 New England.

And the winner is: Titans 23, Colts 17. We flipped on this one. Early in the week, we were looking at a Colts victory. Remember, they’ve won three straight, 14 of the last 17 and 27 of 33 in the series. Then, the T.Y. news hit on the heels of the Ebron news. We normally side with the desperate team playing at home, but it’s hard to imagine the Colts being able to do enough on offense to get the job done. This ranks as one of the more challenging games for Reich and Sirianni.

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