Titans can't push Colts around anymore

The Titans used to be able to bully the Colts, but it looks like it's the Colts doing the bullying now.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For all the it-was-only-one-game rhetoric that emanated from the home team's locker room here Sunday evening, and despite the rationalizations of several Tennessee players that their 31-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts might be an early season springboard, this was a stinging defeat that could linger for a while.

Remember the Titans? Hey, the Titans are likely to remember, maybe in elephantine fashion, the manner in which they dominated in the first half, squandered away scoring opportunities, and then were thrashed in the second half by a Colts team that made more plays and certainly made better adjustments.

"We let this thing slip away in the second half," acknowledged coach Jeff Fisher. "It was frustrating. Players didn't make plays."

And, in some cases, the Tennessee coaching staff made dubious calls. It was, in several cases, a tacit admission that the Titans, still a very good team but one that is bordering on transition with the departures of key veterans like tailback Eddie George and defensive linemen Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith, are no longer the Colts' equal.

To me, when they tried that fake punt, it basically was a message. And the message was that they didn't think they could stop our offense. I'm never going to say they surrendered or anything, because they are still a great team, but that kind of fired us up. They were playing kind of desperate at that point, you know, but came up short.
Nick Harper, Colts CB

Tennessee, which once quietly questioned Indianapolis' toughness, has now lost three straight to the Colts, including the last two matchups here. The teams meet again in the RCA Dome on Dec. 5 and, even looking nearly three months down road, it will be very interesting to witness how the Titans approach that game.

Noted defensive tackle Kevin Carter, who had a standout performance Sunday with four tackles, a half-sack and a pass defensed: "Nobody's sending up any white flags."

There were occasions in the Sunday contest, however, when it appeared the Titans all but conceded the Colts are a better all-around team, one against which Tennessee must now do some things that are out of character.

Two of the more interesting junctures on Sunday came on special teams. On fourth-and-two at the Indianapolis 27-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and with the scored tied 17-17, Fisher eschewed what would have been a 44- or 45-yard field goal attempt by the venerable Gary Anderson. It's rare in the NFL when a placement specialist can't kick his own age but, apparently, Anderson, 45, can't do it. The NFL's scoring leader, signed this week to replace an injured Joe Nedney for a second straight season, has limited range, but 45 yards should be makeable.

"We were slightly out of Gary's range," explained Fisher. "It made perfect sense to go for it."

Unfortunately for the Titans, the gamble backfired, with Colts cornerback Nick Harper making a superb play, raking the ball from the hands of wide receiver Derrick Mason in the end zone, turning a would-be touchdown into an interception. Eleven plays after the interception, the Colts scored to grab the lead for good at 24-17.

On the Titans' following offensive series, with a fourth-and-10 at the 50-yard line and just under five minutes left in the game, Tennessee called a fake punt. The pass from punter Craig Hentrich, who had completed 4-of-10 for 55 yards in his career, to backup fullback Troy Fleming was good for just four yards. It appeared the Titans tipped off the play a bit by having Fleming in motion from his outside "gunner" spot.

Indianapolis players, and coach Tony Dungy as well, insisted afterward that they spent considerable time last week working on combating the Titans' various gimmick plays.

"To me, when they tried that fake punt, it basically was a message," said Harper. "And the message was that they didn't think they could stop our offense. I'm never going to say they surrendered or anything, because they are still a great team, but that kind of fired us up. They were playing kind of desperate at that point, you know, but came up short."

In fact, coming up short was a theme that permeated the game for the Titans, who fell to 1-1 and host an emerging Jacksonville Jaguars team next week.

Four times in the game, including once from the Indianapolis 1-yard line, new starting tailback Chris Brown was stuffed on short-yardage plays. The first came on the goal-line play, with Colts tackle Josh Williams and middle linebacker Rob Morris combining to hold Brown to no gain.

"They've always had good luck with the quarterback sneak in that situation," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, "so, yeah, we were surprised."

On a second-and-two at the Tennessee 19-yard line in the second quarter, Brown was stopped by Morris for one yard. The ensuing play, a third-and-one, resulted in no gain, as Brown was caught by Williams on a toss around left end. And, finally, Brown got zero on a third-and-one run off left guard from the Tennessee 45-yard line in the third quarter.

"When it comes to those third- and fourth-and-one plays," allowed McNair, "that's when everybody has to step up and we didn't. We definitely had chances."

Brown, however, got precious few chances during a second half in which the game just slipped away from the Titans. Although he averaged a gaudy 6.9 yards per rush in the second half, Brown notched only seven attempts. In the first half, when the Tennessee ground game clearly dictated pace and tempo, he carried 11 times for 104 yards.

"It's frustrating not being able to (convert) the short-yardage plays," McNair said. "We expect to go out and dominate every front line in the NFL. That's our expectation."

The play-calling on Sunday, though, certainly suggested the Titans might not expect to push around the Colts the way they once did.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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