Insider: 22 things to watch in nasty Colts-Titans rivalry that matters deeply to Jim Irsay

INDIANAPOLIS — Colts owner Jim Irsay wants this one.

Wants it badly.

While Irsay has repeatedly expressed his belief in head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, the Indianapolis owner also made it clear at the owner’s meetings in March that the matchup against the Titans means a little bit more, primarily because Tennessee has won the last two AFC South titles.

“We have to prove that we can beat them, and beat them when it most matters,” Irsay said in March. “We haven’t. … It’s a sticking point with me, because we always talk about our division.”

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Reich is 4-4 against the Titans in his four seasons in Indianapolis, but the Colts have lost four of their last five against Mike Vrabel’s Titans, and after the first loss on the road last season, Irsay read his coaching staff the riot act.

“It was about Tennessee kicking our (expletive) because all they do is kick our (expletive),” Irsay said. “You have to know where your nemesis lies, and it’s just completely unacceptable the way they’ve dominated the division over us.”

The stakes for Sunday’s 1 p.m. showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium (WTTV-4) feel a little different.

The Colts (1-1-1) and Titans (1-2) are both off to ugly, concerning starts, and the way the Jacksonville Jaguars have played so far is an indication that the AFC South might not be a two-horse race in 2022.

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But the ramifications of this game could still be huge. When the Colts lost their first game against Tennessee last season and fell to 0-3, Indianapolis found itself chasing the Titans the rest of the season, waiting for Tennessee to go through a run of bad luck that never came.

The loser of Sunday’s game might find themselves in the same position.

Have the Colts fixed their offensive line?

1. Pressure packages have crippled the Indianapolis offense through the first two weeks, and Tennessee defensive coordinator Shane Bowen has traditionally come up with creative ways to get to the Colts quarterbacks, a development Reich acknowledged earlier this week. “They have all this simulated pressure, a lot of zone-dog simulated pressure stuff, man pressure,” Reich said. “They do it all, and they disguise it exceedingly well.” Indianapolis hasn’t handled a lot of the stuff it can see coming well yet; starting quarterback Matt Ryan has already been sacked 12 times, the third-worst mark in football. The Colts have spent the week vowing to fix their identification and communication issues. If they don’t, it’s going to be another long afternoon for Ryan.

2. Nearly every member of the Colts offensive line — Quenton Nelson being the lone exception — has struggled significantly at one point this season, but right guard Danny Pinter has struggled most consistently. Arguably Tennessee’s best two pass rushers, Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry, rush from the inside, creating matchup problems for Indianapolis. The Colts haven’t indicated any lineup changes are coming, but it’s possible that backup Will Fries could get a chance at right guard, or that Indianapolis could shuffle the deck.

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3. Colts tackles Braden Smith and Matt Pryor aren’t off the hook with Titans edge rusher Harold Landry out for the season. Young edge rusher Rashad Weaver leads Tennessee with three sacks and four tackles-for-loss.

4. Overall, Indianapolis has given up five sacks in back-to-back games for the first time in Reich’s tenure, but it’s unclear if Tennessee is ready to take advantage of a Colts offensive line that continues to struggle. The Titans opened the season with five sacks against the Giants, but they have recorded just one apiece in the last two.

Will Jonathan Taylor breakout vs the Titans

5. Jonathan Taylor hasn’t broken out for a big game against the Titans in his career yet. As a rookie, he was still establishing a role in the first game and missed the second as a COVID-19 close contact; Taylor rushed for 134 yards on 26 carries in two meetings last season. That Tennessee defense, though, is ranked second in the NFL against the run. The Titans haven’t looked anything like that defense so far. Three weeks into the season, Tennessee is ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (145.0) and dead-last in yards per carry (5.8). The last two teams Taylor faced, Jacksonville and Kansas City, have been top-10 run defenses early. This week, there might be room to run.

6. Expect Nyheim Hines, who is second on the Colts with 15 receptions, to be heavily involved in the passing game. When Hines was working with Rivers in 2020, he had 13 catches for 111 yards in the two meetings between the two teams.

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7. Rookie tight end Jelani Woods made a big impact in the red zone last week. The next step might be stretching the middle of the field vertically. Colts tight ends Mo Alie-Cox (11 yards per catch) and Kylen Granson (6.1) haven’t produced a reception that covered more than 13 yards yet. Woods has the speed, and there were a couple of times he was open downfield against Kansas City and Ryan failed to capitalize on the opportunity.

8. Rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce showed he might be capable of playing the same role outside, and he’s matched up this week against a young, unproven group of Tennessee corners, led by rookie Roger McCreary and third-year cornerback Kristian Fulton.

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9. The same is true of Michael Pittman Jr., who should be licking his chops to play a Titans secondary that ranks 24th in the NFL in both passing yards allowed (256.3) and yards per attempt (7.25).

10. Parris Campbell just hasn’t been able to get going out of the slot. Campbell has just five catches for 47 yards in 172 snaps, more snaps than any other receiver on the team. Ashton Dulin, by comparison, has nine catches for 132 yards on just 82 offensive snaps.

11. Hines might have some chances in the punt game. The Titans are giving up 11.6 yards per return, 26th in the NFL.

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12. For the first time this season, All-Pro Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard wasn’t ruled out of the game on Friday, listed instead as questionable. If he makes his 2022 debut, it’s obviously an enormous development for the Indianapolis defense.

13. Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is also questionable after missing all three practices this week with an elbow injury that forced him to wear an enormous brace on his left arm. Buckner was arguably the defensive MVP of the win over Kansas City, and he’d have a favorable matchup against Titans left guard Aaron Brewer, one of the smallest guards in the NFL. The Colts badly need Buckner on the field.

Why Colts pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue can have a big game vs. the Titans

14. Whether or not Buckner plays, the Colts defensive lineman who should be the tip of the spear this week is defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who typically lines up on the right side of the defensive line. Tennessee lost veteran left tackle Taylor Lewan for the season last week, pushing journeyman Dennis Daley into the starting lineup for the first time in his career. The Titans also signed former Colt Le’Raven Clark off of Philadelphia’s practice squad this week. No matter who starts on Sunday, Ngakoue should be a mismatch.

15. The way Indianapolis nose tackle Grover Stewart has been playing makes Brewer and Titans center Ben Jones inviting targets. Stewart has been unblockable in the first three weeks of the season, keying a Colts run defense that is third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (77) and first in yards per carry (an anemic 2.6).

Why Titans RB Derrick Henry isn’t as scary

16. The way Indianapolis is playing the run right now, this matchup would have been one of John Madden’s “unstoppable force versus the immovable object” analogies the past couple of years. But Titans superstar Derrick Henry has not been his usual dominant self early this season. Henry is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, and that average only rises to 4.1 if a 13-carry, 25-yard performance against Buffalo is factored out of the equation. With Stewart waiting inside, expect Tennessee to test the edges, Henry’s preferred spot for big plays anyway.

17. Getting Henry over the right side might be tough. Former first-round pick Kwity Paye has quietly turned in an impressive start to the season at left defensive end, tied for fourth on the team with 13 tackles and first in sacks (2) and tackles-for-loss (4). Now, Paye gets to go up against Titans rookie right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, who has played well for a rookie but remains a first-year player learning the ropes.

18. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken just four sacks in three games, but he’s also struggled, completing 62.5% of his passes and throwing three interceptions. Based on their own offense and film of the Colts defense struggling at times with play-action, Tennessee will likely use a lot of fake handoffs to Henry to try to keep the pass rush at bay.

19. Rookie free safety Rodney Thomas II was a revelation against Kansas City, displaying range, closing speed and the smarts to keep the Chiefs from pushing the ball down the field. Tennessee obviously runs a very different offense than Kansas City, but the one thing the Titans have done well this season is push the ball down the field in the passing game. Tannehill is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, and he’ll likely test the young safety.

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20. Third-year cornerback Isaiah Rodgers made two nice tackles in his first 24 defensive snaps of the season last Sunday, then came out in practice and made a pair of eye-popping interceptions on Wednesday. Considering that the Colts defense has forced just two turnovers through the first three weeks, it would be wise for Indianapolis to keep rotating Rodgers into the game.

21. Titans receivers Robert Woods (9 catches, 137 yards) and Treylon Burks (8 catches, 115 yards) have been spotty, and they seem like natural matchups for Colts cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Facyson. None of the Tennessee receivers are a true speed threat, and that means the Colts might be able to stay in the receiver’s faces a little easier.

22. One week after rookie Kansas City punt returner Skyy Moore, the Titans come to Lucas Oil Stadium with an uncertain punt-return situation. Their own rookie, Kyle Philips, has already muffed two catches this season; safety Amani Hooker also bobbled one. Tennessee also has Woods available, but it’s an unsettled situation with no easy answers. The weather is supposed to be excellent; might be a good day to open the roof and the window again.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts vs. Titans: 22 things to watch in rivalry that matters to Jim Irsay