INDIANAPOLIS – Listen closely, and it’s almost possible to hear fictional Hickory High School basketball coach Norman Dale at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center this week.
When Dale’s Huskers were introduced to the hometown fans for the first time in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” chants rang out for missing star Jimmy Chitwood.
The coach held up a hand to silence the crowd.
“I would hope you support who we are,” actor Gene Hackman said in the starring role. “Not who we are not.”
Those exact words were not uttered this week by Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich, but the sentiment is unmistakable.
A season defined by injuries reaches a boiling point Sunday when the Tennessee Titans visit Lucas Oil Stadium (1 p.m., CBS). The Colts (6-5) will play a game dripping with playoff implications without a quartet of offensive skill position starters.
Wide receiver Devin Funchess still is not ready to return from a fractured collarbone suffered in Week 1. Running back Marlon Mack will miss his second straight game with a broken hand. Tight end Eric Ebron was placed on injured reserve Monday with ailing ankles. And wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was ruled out Thursday after re-aggravating a calf injury that cost him three of the previous four weeks.
Rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell also is likely to miss his fourth straight game with a broken hand.
All together that leaves Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle and a host of unproven or inexperienced weapons at quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s disposal.
It’s less than an ideal circumstance in preparation for the Titans (6-5), who boast one of the league’s more complex defensive schemes and have won four of their last five games.
But Reich has expressed excitement for the challenge and confidence in the team he will put on the field.
“(Tennessee) is a really good football team,” Reich said. “They are very well-coached. I told you guys at the beginning of the week, I think Coach (Mike) Vrabel does a great job with these guys.
“You can see they do the little things right, and that is what we are going to have to do to beat them. But it has been a really good week of practice. We are prepared and ready to go.”
There certainly are few secrets between these division rivals. In fact, they’re nearly mirror images of one another in the way they hope to play the game.
Punishing defense supplemented by a power running game and a quarterback who can make a few big plays when needed.
The Titans have been much more successful with the formula since Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback five weeks ago.
In five games with Tannehill under center, Tennessee has averaged 29.4 points. That includes a 77-point combined total in wins against the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars in the past two weeks.
The former Miami Dolphins first-round pick has aided the cause by completing 72.1 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
But this offense still revolves around running back Derrick Henry. He’s rushed for 347 yards and four touchdowns in the past two weeks and has 991 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns for the season on the whole.
The run-pass balance makes the Titans very difficult to defend.
“They’re throwing the ball a whole lot, and they’re complementing the play-action pass off Derrick Henry,” Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard said. “They’re throwing the ball well down the field, but it’s coming off the play-action a lot. So you definitely have to know that it’s going to come.”
Brissett has failed to take advantage of similar circumstances with the Colts.
Indianapolis has rushed for 439 yards in the past two weeks, with fourth-string running back Jonathan Williams topping the 100-yard mark in both contests.
But Brissett has passed for just 277 yards with one touchdown and one interception during that span. The biggest issue has been an inability to make big plays.
Brissett has averaged 5.7 yards on his 49 pass attempts the past two weeks.
“To me the big thing is – and you guys all know this – the big stat in the pass game is yards per attempt,” Reich said. “That is no secret. Everybody knows that. So we just need to get our yards per attempt up. You get that by chunk plays but not just by chunk plays. You get that by being efficient in the passing game.”
The offensive injuries only increase the degree of difficulty.
But if there’s one thing the Colts have consistently done well in Reich’s two seasons on the job, it is responding to adversity.
Once again, the team finds itself backed into a corner with very little margin for error. It’s not quite as dire a situation as last season’s 1-5 start, but a potential playoff berth is slipping further from Indianapolis’ grasp with every misstep.
The experience from 2018 – winning nine of the final 10 regular-season games – doesn’t hurt. But the Colts also are keenly aware this is a new season with a new cast of characters seeking a similar result.
“The confidence this year doesn’t stem from last year,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “It stems from the confident guys in this locker room, guys that believe in themselves, believe in the system and believe in one another.
“So that’s where our confidence comes from this year, and we know that our preparation and all that stuff, that’s what’s gonna be a major part of it. Last year is last year. We’re focused on right now.”