The NFL reminds on a weekly basis that every team has flaws, and the Indianapolis Colts exploited the Tennessee Titans’ greatest weakness in a surprisingly resounding Thursday night road triumph.
Colts head coach Frank Reich decided during the short turn-around from a discouraging Sunday home loss to Baltimore to let quarterback Philip Rivers rely upon the no-huddle offense against a Titans’ 25th-ranked defense that has given up yards in bunches and failed to generate a pass rush.
That’s the simplest explanation for how the Colts, who failed to score a point in the second half against the Ravens, bounced back to dominate the Titans after halftime in a 34-17 victory at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.
The Colts’ Rivers-led, no-huddle offense dictated situations in scoring 21 of 24 consecutive points in the final two quarters. The Colts’ No. 1-ranked defense didn’t allow a single point after halftime.
That’s why the Colts moved alongside the Titans atop the AFC South Division at 6-3, but the Colts gained the head-to-head tiebreaker edge.
“I think it just kept the pressure on, it kept the pace moving,” Rivers said of going no-huddle. “Frank and I have been together before and done that and had some success getting in and out of some plays.”
Rivers was in the no-huddle for much of the game, which didn’t allow the Titans to substitute freely and often kept defenders off-balance. The 38-year-old quarterback in his 17th NFL season used his smarts and quick-release passing to utilize several weapons — most notably running back Nyheim Hines and rookie wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. — as the offense generated 430 total yards. Rivers completed 29-of-39 passes for 308 yards and one TD.
“He was close to perfect,” Reich said of Rivers. “I mean, (I) had that feeling all week. We got in the no-huddle mode and he and I have done a lot of that together over the years.”
Reich and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni previously worked with Rivers as Chargers offensive assistants. And Reich was convinced Rivers was worth signing for $25 million to play this season. On this night, Rivers proved himself invaluable and, in the process, surpassed Hall of Famer Dan Marino (61,361) for fifth on the NFL all-time passing yards list.
The Colts got into such an offensive rhythm, Rivers said he didn’t need to check out of many plays that Reich called.
“We were in a good flow, and it's interesting off a short week,” the quarterback said. “I felt so in sync and well-prepared this week and the amount of focus we had in the walk-throughs, the amount of time we spent in the meetings, the dialog was just dialed in. We had a walk-through that went about 40 minutes, which is probably longer than normal on a game day, but it just felt like we were dialed in and ready to go.
“So, this performance from our team doesn't surprise any of us.”
Perhaps most importantly, Rivers didn’t have a single turnover. In the Colts’ six wins, an efficient Rivers has 10 TD passes and just two interceptions. In the three losses, the risk-taking passer has one TD pass and five INTs.
The Titans’ anemic pass rush, which entered 29th in sacks with just 10, had only one sack and failed to generate consistent pressure to rattle Rivers.
Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni mulled the no-huddle option and didn’t decide to commit until Wednesday.
“He and I and Nick talked about it, and then in the last 24 hours just really decided to have conviction about going with it almost the whole game, and Philip is just in this control that puts him in the driver's seat,” Reich said. “It allows him to see everything and get us in the right play when he needs to, which he did with regularity tonight. He was just really good in that mode and he was accurate. Good decisions, good checks in the run game, good situational football, so he was on point tonight, for sure.”
It also helped that Hines and Pittman each enjoyed career games. Hines, a third-year pro typically utilized as a pass-catching back, celebrated his 24th birthday with a career-high 115 total yards and two touchdowns, one receiving and one rushing, for his third multi-score game of the season. Pittman, a second-round draft choice who missed three games due to leg compartment syndrome surgery, caught a game-high seven passes for 101 yards, including a 40-yard reception. He also had a 12-yard rush. Pittman had entered with just 14 receptions for 135 yards.
Hines put the Colts ahead 20-17 with a 2-yard TD rush in the third quarter.
“This is the best birthday ever,” Hines said. “My 24th birthday is a birthday I will never forget, for sure.”
Then special teams played a pivotal part after the Titans had to punt in the next series. E.J. Speed blocked the punt, practically swallowing the football as it grazed the lower part of his face mask and bounced off his chest, and T.J. Carrie scooped and scored from 6 yards out to give the Colts a 27-17 lead.
That proved more than enough for the defense, which couldn’t prevent 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry from gaining 103 yards on 19 carries, but the workhorse was a non-factor late with the Titans trailing by multiple scores.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who drove his offense to an opening TD, was only sacked once but took several nasty hits — DeForest Buckner had three of the Colts’ five. After that opening series, the Titans passer completed just 11-of-23 passes for 88 yards. He finished just 15-of-27 for 147 yards and one TD.
Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, who had a game-high nine tackles, waved a towel in jubilation on the sideline with the game decided. He was asked how happy he would be going to bed knowing his team is back in first place.
“It is going to feel amazing going to bed knowing that,” Leonard said, “win on the road, got a win, and, like uncle Phil (Rivers) said, it’s a mini-bye week, so we can rest up a little bit.”
The remaining schedule is still demanding, but for a Colts franchise that has missed the playoffs in four of the past five years, this was an encouraging outcome, to say the least. It’s the first time this season the Colts have defeated a legitimate playoff team. After the Colts faded to 7-9 last year, the Titans reached the AFC title game.
The division rivals meet again in 17 days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“There's a lot of things that need to be changed,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “When you don't play well, you don't coach well enough, you lose.”
If nothing else, this game provided Colts and Rivers doubters another reminder.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)