INDIANAPOLIS — In the simplest of obvious assessments, an Indianapolis Colts defense missing three key starters was no match for Tennessee Titans workhorse running back Derrick Henry on Sunday.
The NFL’s rushing leader gashed the short-handed Colts for 178 yards, including 140 and three touchdowns in the first half, as the Titans avenged a previous loss to their AFC South Division rivals with a 45-26 road romp at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The 2019 rushing champion bumped his 2020 run total to 1,257, and the fifth-year star has 12 rush TDs.
The Titans (8-3) took a one-game division lead on the Colts (7-4), whose No. 2-ranked defense was missing defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, defensive end/tackle Denico Autry, and outside linebacker Bobby Okereke.
And those absences, particularly Buckner in the middle of that D-line, were quite apparent from the outset.
The Titans drove 75 yards on back-to-back scoring drives, which the Colts answered, but the visitors kept coming. Henry’s second TD on a 1-yard rush, made possible by a pair of third-down penalties by cornerback Rock Ya-Sin including illegal hands to the face that negated a sack, provided a 21-14 lead.
Henry powered through for an 11-yard TD rush to make it 28-14 with 1:41 remaining in the second quarter. It was his 12th rushing score of the year.
After a Colts three-and-out, the Titans converted a fourth-and-four play as quarterback Ryan Tannehill hit Corey Davis, who made a sliding catch for a 37-yard pass play. Tannehill scored on a 1-yard keeper on the next play to push the lead to 35-14 with 20 seconds remaining before halftime.
What made the Titans’ performance more impressive is the fact that their offensive line was missing three starters and a 25th-ranked defense lost leading tackler Jayon Brown for the season last week.
The Colts were without five starters overall — Buckner, Autry, and running back Jonathan Taylor are on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Buckner, who was put on that inactive list on Wednesday, tweeted a message to teammates before the game.
The Colts have won 20 of 25 in the series, but the Titans have won three of the past four on the road at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The visitors announced their presence before the game as the Titans congregated at midfield on the Colts helmet logo.
The motivational moment was reminiscent of last week, when the Titans did the same on the Baltimore Ravens logo at midfield. That angered Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who refused to shake hands with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel after the Titans’ 30-24 overtime victory.
Just like the last time these teams met 17 days ago in Nashville, Tenn., the Titans scored on their opening drive, 75 yards in 10 plays, the last a Henry 12-yard rush on the right side. Tannehill actually threw a pass to Henry, but because it was backward, the score was ruled a rushing play and Henry’s 10th rushing touchdown of the season.
The Colts rallied from a 17-13 halftime deficit with 21 second-half points, including a blocked punt TD return, for a 34-17 win on Thursday Night Football.
This time, the Colts responded with a 75-yard scoring drive which required 12 plays and culminated in a Rivers 12-yard TD pass to tight end Trey Burton.
The Titans quickly answered as Tannehill threw a 69-yard TD pass to wide receiver A.J. Brown for a 14-7 lead, but the Colts countered to tie the game at 14 as Rivers completed 19-yard passes to Burton and Nyheim Hines, and backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett scored from 1 yard out.
Each of the first four touchdown scoring drives covered 75 yards.
The Colts suffered another injury to a key position as 10th-year veteran offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo exited in the second quarter with a knee injury and didn’t return.