Second half effort lifts Colts past Titans

After surviving the first half, the Colts rebounded with a huge effort in the second half against the Titans.

Originally Published: September 12, 2004
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For a team that treats every possession like it is a fire drill, that deploys the no-huddle look and the three-wide receiver set as a base offense and wants to click off three or four snaps per hiccup, the Indianapolis Colts left here Sunday evening embracing all kinds of platitudes that deal more with placid than panic.

Slow and steady wins the race. Patience is a virtue. Good things come to those who wait.

Edgerrin James
APPick your poison: Teams can hope for a James fumble or a holding call to negate his positive yardage.
In virtually every corner of the Colts locker room, following the team's key early season victory over the division rival Tennessee Titans, there was some derivation of that theme being espoused. Name virtually any adjective typically employed when describing a club that has refused to hit the panic button when facing adversity and there's a pretty good chance it was uttered by at least one Indianapolis player.

"Yeah, you can trot 'em all out, because that's really what kind of win this was," said Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne, whose seven catches for 119 yards were one of many keys to the Colts' 31-17 comeback victory. "But you know, some games are like this, where you just have to let the game come back to you. Once things settled down out there, after we took the best they could throw at us and were still in the game, that's when you saw it turn around. The big thing is, we never panicked, not once."

Not that there weren't times when the Colts, dominated in the first half by a Tennessee offense that enjoyed a yawning time of possession advantage of more than 11 minutes and that was keyed by second-year tailback Chris Brown, didn't teeter on the brink of a nervous breakdown that would have mirrored their defensive meltdown.

But by hanging in and dodging bullets, the Colts were able to stay within striking range, and then to make sufficient halftime adjustments to reverse the tempo.

The result: A third straight victory over a Titans team that, only a year ago, still felt like Indianapolis lacked mental and physical toughness. A split, bouncing back from a tough defeat at New England in the Sept. 9 league opener, of the season-starting two-game road trip. And a palpable sense that, while this remains a fairly youthful club, it has developed more than enough veteran leadership to help see it through challenging times.

Faced at halftime with its first 0-2 start since 1998, and staring at the specter of trailing the detested Titans by two games just midway through the first month of the campaign, Indianapolis responded behind those veteran leaders and some key schematic tweaking. Since 1978, just 20 of the 192 teams that opened a season 0-2 recovered to qualify for the playoffs, and the Colts didn't want to battle those kinds of odds.

Said head coach Tony Dungy, with a pithy explanation of his club's sudden turnaround, and with obvious pride in what had just transpired: "Our team just didn't panic. We have enough veteran (leaders) that they know what it's about."

Led by Brown, who has replaced the sainted Eddie George as the Titans' starter, and who pummeled the Colts defense for 104 first-half yards on 19 rushes, Tennessee controlled the pace from the outset. The Titans scored on the opening possession, with Brown going 20 yards after stepping out of a tackle in the hole and making a marvelous cutback to his left, and rang up huge first-half advantages in first downs (13-8), total yards (201-114), time of possession (20:44-9:16) and total snaps (41-22).

That the Titans led by just 10-3 at the half was attributable to their own inability to finish off drives and to the tenacity of a malleable Indianapolis defense. A goal-line stand, on which Colts linebackers Rob Morris and David Thornton stopped Brown on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, staunched the bleeding. Then, at halftime, the Indianapolis staff incorporated superb changes on both sides of the ball, and Dungy reminded his club that, being dominated in the first half didn't necessarily augur poorly for the second.

While he didn't verbalize on the sideline the need for patience in the first half, the always nonplussed Indianapolis coach used the intermission to note to his players that they had probably survived the worst and were still very much in the game.

"We self-destructed a little bit (in the first half)," Dungy said. "We didn't get them into third-down situations. We felt like, if we could get them into long yardage (situations), we could rush them. . . . In the second half, we played our game."

Indianapolis drove 75 yards on its first possession of the third quarter, tying the game at 10-10 on Peyton Manning's five-yard touchdown pass to Wayne. And then, after falling behind again 17-10, the Colts found the end zone on three of their next four series.

On defense, the Colts slowed Brown by playing a little more Cover 2 and committing one more safety, usually Cory Bird, to the run. It didn't hurt, either, that Brown got just seven carries in the final two quarters. Offensively, coordinator Tom Moore, knowing the Titans were principally playing eight defenders in the box, and gambling on the outside in single coverage, opted to throw more and put the run on the back burner.

We're pretty tough and pretty tough-minded. Anyone who can't see that, well, take a look at what happened here today.
Reggie Wayne, Colts WR

Consistently in the second half, Wayne and Marvin Harrison defeated the single-coverage of the Tennessee corners, and their performance finally opened up the running game. For the second half, Wayne had four receptions for 78 yards, including a crucial 17-yard grab that helped dig his team out of a second-and-20 hole. Tailback Edgerrin James, who has run hard in each of the Colts' first two contests, blasted for 100 yards in the second half, and had scoring bursts of four and 30 yards.

"We had them on their heels in the first half," said Titans safety Lance Schulters, "and we couldn't put them away. They made big adjustments and made big plays."

The irony of the halftime alterations was that, in the first half, when the Colts mostly used their three-wide receiver set so that Manning could better identify where the blitzes were coming from, Indianapolis had problems throwing. In the second half, going to more two-tight alignments, both the passing and running game started to click. And once the Titans were forced to play more zone, Manning and Moore could orchestrate a far more diverse attack that seemed to have an answer for every Tennessee gambit.

"Coach Dungy kind of calls it, 'doing what we do,' and that's really what it is," Manning said, after finishing with 24 completions in 33 attempts for 254 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. "I mean, early on, the way they were running the ball on us, I kind of said to our guys on the sideline, 'We may not get many possessions today and we're going to have to be really efficient on offense.' But there's a big difference between a sense of urgency and panic. We always have the first but (rarely) the second."

There were, to be sure, some brilliant Colts individual performances: All of the skill position players on offense. An incredible end zone interception by Nick Harper on a play where he simply pilfered the ball from Tennessee wideout Derrick Mason. Thirty-five combined tackles by Morris, Thornton and Bird. An over-the-shoulder catch by Harrison on which he adjusted perfectly to the ball, placed by Manning just between free safety Schulters and cornerback Samari Rolle.

But mostly, for the Colts, it was a team victory born of resilience by a team weary of all the talk of finesse over physicality.

"We're pretty tough and pretty tough-minded," said Wayne. "Anyone who can't see that, well, take a look at what happened here today."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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