The main problem with the Indianapolis Colts' offense is something that's likely here to stay this season: It is easy to prepare for and easy to defend.
Any defensive coordinator can zero in quickly:
1. Pressure Andrew Luck.
2. Keep track of T.Y. Hilton.
That sound simplistic, and it is. But since Reggie Wayne's season ended with a knee injury, stopping the Colts became simple. You can add "bottle up the running game" if you'd like, but Trent Richardson's lack of production and Donald Brown's scarcity in touches says that aspect isn't going anywhere anyway.
Pressure Luck. Cover Hilton.
It's not complicated. You can bet the Tennessee Titans' defense will focus on those two goals at 1 p.m. Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Oh, and Hilton was listed as "day to day" with an injury Wednesday, so things could get worse before they get better.
The Arizona Cardinals put cornerback Pat Peterson on Hilton and dared someone else on the Colts to beat them. Hilton's stats: five catches, 38 yards. Hilton is good enough to make plays, even with extra defensive attention. But those plays will be fewer. With no other Colts wide-receiver playmakers in the mix, opposing teams can get away with game-planning for Hilton.
"(Hilton's) a game-wrecker," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "If we were playing ourselves, we'd identify T.Y. as a guy that we can't let wreck the game for us, and so we'd try to plan accordingly. That's what he's going to see from here on out."
Normally, I'd be alarmed by a coach revealing one of the keys to slowing his team down. But Pagano is stating the obvious. Several receivers have been given a chance to step up, and the list of those who haven't made an impact includes Darrius Heyward-Bey, Griff Whalen (cut last week), LaVon Brazill and David Reed (cut Tuesday). Colts center Samson Satele had more catches than Reed at Arizona and only two fewer than Heyward-Bey. (Satele caught a tipped pass for no yards, although you have to love how the official box score lists him as having been "targeted" once.)
Pagano told the media Wednesday that Da'Rick Rogers will get his shot at wide receiver after spending most of the season on the practice squad. He can't be any worse.
The other part of the mix – putting pressure on Luck – is a given, too.
Luck has been sacked 24 times in 11 games. He is under fire immediately every game, and especially if the Colts fall behind. As Colts fans have noticed, the Colts always fall behind.
It's so much easier for opposing teams to pressure Luck when they've got a lead and they know the Colts will be forced to pass. They also they know that Luck remains young enough to make mistakes under pressure. An illustration: Instead of taking a sack against Arizona on Sunday, Luck forced a throw to Coby Fleener. Fleener didn't react soon enough to come back and break up an interception. The result was an interception return touchdown.
"The margin for error is small right now," Pagano said, again honestly reiterating what everyone can see. "We've just got to get back to playing football and playing better fundamentals and techniques and doing the things that we did early in the season, doing the things that we did to beat the football teams we beat early in the season, teams like Denver, Seattle and San Fran."
Those games were won by a different Colts team, one that wasn't so easy to defend.
There are no quick answers, either, short of one of one of the receivers stepping up and becoming the type of reliable option that can make teams regret stacking the deck to pressure Luck and cover Hilton. There was talk Wednesday of possibly opening the game in a no-huddle offense. It couldn't hurt to try.
Falling into early game deficits has hurt the Colts, too, leaving them no choice but to pass and nowhere to hide from an all-out pressure assault.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants the Colts to be a power-running team. It can't happen if his offense starts the game running in place – or backpedaling – and then has to try to make up for falling behind.
"We can't get behind 14, 17, 21, 24 points and not be able to stick with a game plan," Pagano said. "We've got to be able to get our runners going. Again, we get behind like that and you end up having to throw every down. You get a playmaker like Donald Brown, who's been playing at such a high level for us the previous weeks, and he only has three touches in the ball game. That's certainly not Donald's fault. That's our fault for putting ourselves in the hole that we put ourselves in."
Luck completed 20 of 39 passes for 163 yards (his second-lowest total of the season). He threw only one touchdown. His passer rating (60.1) was a season low. He was only sacked once, but the Cardinals' pressure was relentless. He looks like a quarterback in the eye of a hurricane.
The Colts have had four games to see what life is like after Wayne. It's not fun. And it's way too easy for opposing defenses to pressure Luck, cover Hilton and roll to an insurmountable lead.