Is Colts Defense Arthur Smith's Kryptonite?

In three tries, the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator has not been able to get his unit to produce at its usual level.
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NASHVILLE – It has not taken Arthur Smith long to establish a reputation as one of the NFL’s better offensive coordinators.

It has, however, taken him some time to figure out what to do against the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, it seems he has not done so yet.

Sunday’s game at Indianapolis will be the fourth time Smith has faced the Colts’ young, speedy defense. In each of the first three, his unit has failed to move the ball the way it has done against nearly every other opponent.

“The one thing Indy has done a great job of – and you have to give them credit – is they know who they are, their identity,” Smith said. “… There’s nothing exotic about them. They execute really well, and they have been executing better than most.”

Tennessee comes into the week among the NFL’s top 10 in yards per game (10th, 379.4), yards per play (seventh, 5.9) and points per game (ninth, 27.9). Last season – Smith’s first as offensive coordinator – only three teams had better yards-per-play averages and only nine scored more points. And since Ryan Tannehill became the starting quarterback, those numbers have been even better.

Still, the Colts remain a relative mystery to him.

Two weeks ago, Indianapolis came into Nissan Stadium and limited the Titans to 294 total yards and 4.9 yards per play. Both were well below the season averages for a unit that features Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, wide receiver A.J. Brown and others (379.4 and 5.9, respectively).

Yet that performance was consistent with what happened in last season’s two meetings between the AFC South rivals. In each, the Titans fell short of 300 yards of total offense and did no better than 5.0 yards per play.

In three tries against the Colts, Smith and the Titans have scored more than 17 points just once. That was 31-17 victory at Indianapolis in Week 13 last season, when Tennessee scored the go-ahead touchdown on a blocked field goal.

A look at how the Tennessee Titans offense’s per-game averages against the Indianapolis Colts and against the rest of the NFL since the start of 2019:

Per Game Averagesvs. Coltsvs. Rest of NFL

Plays

58

61.6

Yards

276.3

381.3

Gain

4.76

6.19

Points

21.7

26.8

“They do a great job of being in the right spot, being in the right gap, having the right fit in the run game,” Tannehill said. “They're not going to give you anything cheap. … Last time we played them I felt like we missed some opportunities to get bigger chunks, whether in the run game or the pass game. It's going to come down to being able to make those plays when those opportunities arise, and then just grind out.”

In that last meeting, Tennessee’s offense only went three-and-out twice. The fourth quarter included a 12-play, 47-yard drive ended with a blocked field goal. Then came a 10-play, 63-yard possession that ended with a failed fourth down try.

The Titans’ longest gain in that contest was 23 yards – an 8-yard gain by running back D’Onta Foreman with 15 yards added because of a personal foul against Indianapolis’ defense.

The Colts come into this game second in the NFL with an average of 298.1 yards-per-game allowed and tied for third with 17 takeaways (12 interceptions, five fumble recoveries). Only four opponents have topped 300 yards against them and none have gotten to 400.

“They have a lot of speed out there and they do a great job with ball disruption,” Smith said. “No matter who they’re playing, that’s a great equalizer. They can give up some yards on a drive and they end up knocking the ball out and getting those turnovers. And that’s been huge for them.”