Titans looking to put Colts in hole

The Colts' tough schedule has them at risk of starting 0-2 after Sunday's game against rival Tennessee.

Originally Published: September 15, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 2.

First … Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans:
The schedule maker hasn't taken kindly to the defending AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts.

Three of their toughest games -- New England, Tennessee and Green Bay -- come at the start of the season. The two opening games against the Patriots and Titans are on the road. When they saw their opening schedule, the Colts knew they were handcuffed.

Because of the salary cap and the $98 million Peyton Manning contract, the Colts knew they would be a young team, particularly on defense. As it turned out, the Colts ended up being the second youngest team in football, the average player being 25.64 years old. They have only three players in their 30s. The key to the start of the season was coming out of training camp healthy.

That's why the Colts are fretting heading into Sunday's showdown against the Titans in Nashville, Tenn. They aren't healthy. The secondary is banged up. Cornerback Joseph Jefferson probably is out until the Oct. 17 bye week coming off knee surgery. Safety Mike Doss pulled a hamstring in the opening loss to the Patriots and is out three weeks. Second-round choice Bob Sanders, a safety, was a training camp long holdout and is coming off a stress fracture, so he's not able to do much.

Steve McNair
AP PhotoSteve McNair faces fellow Co-MVP Peyton Manning on Sunday.
So the secondary is the primary concern heading into the Titans game, which is not good because the Titans rely more on Steve "Air" McNair than they do the running game. To win this game, the Colts will have to rely more on their offense and turn this into an offensive shootout, which is tough for any team to do in Tennessee.

Surprisingly, the Colts proved last season they could score on the Titans. They won in Indianapolis in Week 2 a year ago 33-7 and pulled out a 29-27 road victory in December. Even though both teams finished with 12 wins, the Colts' sweep earned them the AFC South title.

Manning and the Colts are still reeling from their opening night loss to the Patriots. Edgerrin James remembers his two fumbles in the Patriots red zone. Manning is trying to shake off his red-zone interception. In their eyes, the 27-24 loss to the Patriots should have been a win.

Now, the Colts face the risk of going 0-2 heading into a game at home against Brett Favre and the Packers. It's a critical game. Internally, the Colts realize the first part of the schedule is a matter of survival. They need safety Cory Bird to shake a concussion problem that sidelined him for the opener to have enough depth in the secondary to handle spread formations.

Meanwhile, the Titans offense heads into this game banged up, which could be a problem. The Titans got off easy in their opening win over the Dolphins because McNair only had to throw 14 passes. They can't throw deep because Tyrone Calico is out with a knee injury. The loss of guard Zach Piller forces rookie Jacob Bell, a fifth-rounder, into the starting lineup. They can't afford another offensive line injury.

And they will need a full game from Chris Brown, the halfback who made Titans fans temporarily forget Eddie George by having a 100-yard first half against the Dolphins. Brown sprained a knee and couldn't finish, reminding everyone he has a history of injuries dating back to college.

Though the Colts and Titans are directed by defensive head coaches Tony Dungy and Jeff Fisher, this could be a high-scoring game.

And 10. Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs: It's hard to believe one of these teams will be 0-2, but it's going to be harder to stomach if the team is the Panthers. Monday night's loss to the Packers showcased an area of weakness for the defending NFC champs. Losing Jeno James, Todd Steussie and Kevin Donnalley from last year's offensive line left them vulnerable to the Packers aggressive blitzes. The Panthers gambled that Adam Meadows could handle the right tackle transition, but he retired and the Panthers had no answers. The loss of wide receiver Steve Smith further bottles up their offense. They won't be able to throw deep because they are overloaded with possession receivers: rookie Keary Colbert, Muhsin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl. The inability to stretch the field will allow defenses to gang up more against the Panthers running offense and try to force Jake Delhomme to throw quicker when they blitz. The surprise is how the Packers overpowered Carolina's defense with the run. Ahman Green had 119 yards on 33 carries, and that's amazing when you consider they did it against the best defensive line in football. This is a perfect rebound game for the Chiefs. First, they have won 13 consecutive home games. Second, they need to play an offense that won't score many points in order to take the heat off a defense that allowed 34 points in the opener.

9. Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (Monday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC): Randy Moss versus Terrell Owens. It doesn't get much better than that. Owens opened his era as an Eagles receiver by catching three touchdown passes from Donovan McNabb. The Cowboys' extra attention on Moss didn't pay off as Daunte Culpepper threw five touchdown passes and had a 35-point explosion. This should be a high-scoring game because of the matchups. First, the Eagles haven't shown they are great stopping the run. With Michael Bennett and Moe Williams injured, the Vikings can use their best workhorse back, Onterrio Smith. If Smith can gain 100 yards rushing behind the Vikings big offensive line, they have a chance to win on the road. Culpepper plans to drive defenses crazy by running when coverages dictate. At 265 pounds, Culpepper is impossible for one defender to tackle. Both defenses have to show an ability to stop the pass. The Eagles will blitz. They always do. But the Vikings have so much speed at the receiver position, it's going to be a challenge for their cornerbacks to stay in coverage. What would be interesting to watch is how the Eagles handle a second-half lead. They don't like to pound the ball and really can't risk getting Brian Westbrook more than 20 carries in a game. He's not a big back. If the Vikings trail and the Eagles rely on short passes to kill the clock, they may have the ability to rebound from a 10-point deficit because of their offensive weapons as long as Culpepper doesn't force passes that could be intercepted.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens' loss to the Browns is explainable but it isn't forgivable. The Browns lined up with a 4-4 scheme and basically Kyle Boller couldn't beat it with his arm. He averaged only 5.03 yards per throw and had a 49.3 quarterback rating, second worst in the conference last week. The Steelers are strong in the front defensive seven but have deficiencies in pass coverage. If Boller can't exploit those weaknesses, the Steelers will be in this game late into the fourth quarter. This game figures to be low scoring. The Ravens only scored 28 points in their two-game split last year, and the Steelers plan to run the ball. Ultimately, this game should come down to the field goal kicking of Matt Stover of the Ravens and Jeff Reed of the Steelers. What the Ravens can't afford is turnovers, and the Ravens are more prone to have them than the Steelers. Bill Cowher will use a conservative game plan of mixing running plays with Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. The Ravens will try to overpower the Steelers with Jamal Lewis. Fans of defense will love this game.

7. Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs have big worries on offense, but they're even more concerned about stopping the run. That's a problem if the Seahawks have Shaun Alexander healthy. Alexander won't know until Sunday whether he'll be able to play on his bruised knee. If he does, he will be the second of eight 1,400-yard runners the Bucs face. The Bucs defensive weakness will be stopping the run until they find solutions. Last week, they didn't do as bad as the stats indicated. Sure, they surrendered 148 yards to Clinton Portis of the Redskins. But they made a mistake on the first Redskins run and let Portis go 64 yards for a touchdown. After that, they held Portis to 84 yards on 28 carries. On offense, the Bucs look old and slow. Losing speedy wide receiver Joey Galloway takes away a deep threat. Brad Johnson has to rely on rookie Michael Clayton and an assortment of veteran castoffs -- Charles Lee, Bill Schroeder, Tim Brown and Frank Murphy. Expect the Seahawks to blitz and put more pressure on Johnson, who had a horrible 4.57 yards an attempt against a blitzing Redskins defense last week.

Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer had an impressive debut against the Jets last week.
6. Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): How times have changed? When was the last time the Bengals were a 4½-point favorite against the Dolphins, who are coming off a 10-win season and look as confused as past Bengal teams? Second-year coach Marvin Lewis is a big part of that. He's done miracles in Cincinnati. Carson Palmer doesn't look like the usual second-year, first-round draft pick Bengals quarterback. Those quarterbacks of the past were inaccurate and scared, still reeling from horrible first seasons. Lewis was wise enough to give Palmer a first-year redshirt and let him learn from the sidelines. He has already established a big-play relationship with Chad Johnson, who will flirt with 100-yard games each week. But the Bengals could be in danger in this game. For one, the defense is banged up and had troubles last week. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal missed the opener with an ankle injury and Jets quarterback Chad Pennington had his way with rookie replacement Madieu Williams. The Bengals need the leadership of linebacker Brian Simmons, who was out with a knee injury. The Dolphins have made dramatic changes since their opening loss to the Titans. A.J. Feeley is in at quarterback. Lamar Gordon gets the start at halfback. They had eight new guys in the offensive lineup at times in the opener. If they can settle down, the Dolphins could have a chance for an upset.

5. Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders: Talk about a bad time for a bye week? The Bills get a chance to rest after Sunday's game against the Raiders. That's bad. If they lose, the Bills will be under two weeks of intense criticism heading into a key home game against the Patriots. Mike Mularkey is in his first season as head coach and he is already facing a crisis. "Where's the offense?" fans scream. Mularkey was hired to turn around Drew Bledsoe's career and reviews weren't good in Week 1. Bledsoe completed 17 passes for only 153 yards. The good news is that he was sacked just once. The bad news is that he got rid of the ball so quickly the offense was invisible. They possessed the ball and did nothing with it, holding onto the ball for almost 34 minutes and losing to the Jaguars, 13-10, on the last play. Raiders new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows Bledsoe from his days as the Patriots linebacker coach. Though his 3-4 scheme is off to a slow start, he will devise plenty of blitzes to affect Bledsoe. He will also blitz to stop the Bills solid running game. Though the Bills have a great back in Travis Henry, they have an inferior offensive line. With games ahead against the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins after the bye, the Bills season could be determined in the next few weeks.

4. Cleveland Browns at Dallas Cowboys: Bill Parcells was wrong. His defense didn't drop from No. 1 to No. 32 after an opening-day loss to Minnesota. It finished 26th. That's no consolation for Parcells, who is still fuming about his defense's poor play. The criticism comes with the team's inability to find a replacement for Mario Edwards, who left to be Tampa Bay's third cornerback. Pete Hunter was beaten for two touchdowns. So was star cornerback Terence Newman. Daunte Culpepper had a 147.1 quarterback rating against them. Parcells will try to tighten things up this week, but he won't be able do it unless he gets better play from defensive ends Greg Ellis and Marcellus Wiley. They were invisible in the opener. Unlike the opener, this game against the Browns is a good matchup for the Cowboys. The Browns have problems along the offensive line so the Cowboys will try to overload the left with pressure. They know Jeff Garcia can give them problems when he runs out of the pocket, but the Cowboys have the speed on defense to give him problems. What will be interesting to see is how the Cowboys will use Eddie George, who stood on the sidelines after eight carries for 25 yards.

3. San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: Both teams are in disaster mode. The Saints are in disarray because of an opening home loss to the Seahawks, but the biggest distraction is Hurricane Ivan. The Saints evacuated New Orleans and trained in San Antonio. Players worried about the damage to their homes and families. Jim Haslett has the tough task of trying to keep the team focused during a very difficult time. If he can pull this off, it could be a bonding experience for what appeared to be a disjointed team during the first game. Aaron Brooks needs to show more leadership and the receivers have to stop dropping passes. They dropped five Sunday. That's five too many. The 49ers have $28 million of dead cap money and the most unsettled quarterback position in the league. Ken Dorsey starts for injured Tim Rattay, who has a second-degree shoulder separation. Dorsey is a favorite of Haslett's son, who was angry with his dad for not drafting him last year.

2. Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars: Byron Leftwich played horribly last week but was a hero because he threw the game-winning touchdown pass on the last play. The Broncos won't make things so easy. For one, the Broncos can score. Shanahan knows he can't run up the middle against Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, but that's okay. Quentin Griffin gets his best yards to the outside where the Jaguars are weak. Without true pass rushers along the defensive line, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio will have trouble containing the Broncos speed at receiver with Ashley Lelie and Darius Watts. The excitement from the opening win over Buffalo could dissolve if the Broncos spoil the Jaguars home opener.

1. St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons: Despite their offensive prowess, the Rams struggled on the road last year. They were 8-0 at home and 4-4 on the road. This is a good matchup because if the game becomes high-scoring, the Rams can have a lot of fun. The Rams are playing in a dome where they do the best. They have all of their offensive weapons healthy. And the Falcons don't have the cornerback to match up against any of the Rams receivers because of the hip injury to rookie DeAngelo Hall. Michael Vick managed two reasonably long touchdown drives in his opening win over the 49ers. He threw for 163 yards and ran for 10, hardly numbers to inspire a high scoring games. And the Rams match up well with their defense because they have speed. This puts a lot of pressure on the Falcons to win against a better team.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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