NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a different feel this time around for Ryan Fitzpatrick as he again replaces Titans quarterback Jake Locker.
The first time this season subbing for an injured Locker, Fitzpatrick was thrust into the second half of a win over the Jets on Sept. 29 before starting the next two games in losses to Kansas City and Seattle. All the while, though, the plan was that Locker would return soon from hip and knee injuries to regain the starting nod.
Starting Thursday night versus the visiting Colts (6-3), Fitzpatrick becomes “the guy” at quarterback for the Titans (4-5), who lost Locker for the season when he injured his right foot in the second quarter of last Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville.
“The remainder of the year it has to become my deal,” said Fitzpatrick, the nine-year NFL veteran and four-year Bills starter who was signed as a free agent this year to be Locker’s backup. “I am no longer holding the seat warm for Jake. With him being out for the remainder now, it is my gig.”
The Titans trail the Colts by two games in the AFC South Division standings and could have been playing for first place had they taken care of business and beaten the previously winless Jaguars. At the same time Sunday, the Colts were losing to St. Louis.
The Titans also play at Indianapolis on Dec. 1, and they still sit just one game out of the final AFC wild-card playoff spot behind the Jets, who they beat earlier this season.
“It’s way too early to think about that at this point,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said about whether a loss Thursday would eliminate his team from playoff contention. “We know how important it is, yes. In our mind it is a must-win. We must beat a division opponent.
“We’re going to play this team at their place in two weeks. We have to win this one, and we know that. We know what we’re facing, but it’s not the end of the season if we don’t.”
The Titans must now hitch their offensive fortunes to Fitzpatrick, who has essentially played in three full games — second half against the Jets, the two starts, and second half against the Jaguars — for the Titans. In the losses to the Chiefs and Seahawks, Fitzpatrick struggled against two of the NFL’s better defenses. But he played well in the second half while nearly rallying the Titans past the Jaguars.
“I felt more comfortable going into the last game for whatever reason,” said Fitzpatrick, who completed 22-of-33 passes 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions last Sunday. But he also fumbled what turned into a touchdown return by the Jaguars when the Titans trailed by only two points in the fourth quarter.
“Maybe it was the experience of getting the two starts out there with the guys on the field and me having a feel for them and them having a feel for me,” said Fitzpatrick, who spent NFL stops at Buffalo (2009-12), Cincinnati (2007-08) and St. Louis (2005-06), who selected the 6-foot-2, 223-pounder out of Harvard in the seventh round of the 2005 draft.
Fitzpatrick started 16 games each of the last two seasons for the Bills, passing for 3,400 yards last season and 3,842 yards in 2011. He tossed 24 touchdown passes each season, but also totaled 16 and 23 interceptions, respectively. In four games for the Titans, Fitzpatrick has completed 63-of-111 passes for 790 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions and a 76.0 rating. He has also fumbled five times.
“Now, it’s Ryan’s offense. It’s Ryan’s team,” Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said of the change in approach with Fitzpatrick this time around. “The direction of (the offense) can change now. Before it was a stop-gap. Hey, this was Jake’s offense. We’re still going to play around his strengths. We can’t change it. We can’t be too drastic with things.”
But what do the Titans do now with the offense led by Fitzpatrick, who is far less mobile than Locker and is the prototypical pocket passer?
“Obviously, we need to play to Ryan’s strengths and things he does well,” Loggains said. ” … He’s a guy who has a good feel for certain things. There are several things we think he does that can help us win.”
Establishing the running game again would take a lot of pressure off Fitzpatrick. It had finally re-emerged a week ago Sunday when running backs Chris Johnson (150 yards) and Shonn Greene (39) rushed for season highs in the win at St. Louis. But last Sunday going against the worst rush defense in the NFL, the Titans managed only 83 yards on the ground, including only 30 yards from Johnson on 12 carries.
Conversely, the Titans will face a Colts team that is coming off its worst performance of the season in last Sunday’s 38-8 home loss to the Rams.
“We’re eager to get back out there,” said Colts second-year quarterback Andrew Luck, the 2012 No. 1 overall draft picked who guided the Colts to an 11-5 record and playoff berth as a rookie.
“I think we’re excited that it’s a Thursday game that we can get back on the field as soon as possible and atone for our sins, if you will,” he added. “I’m sure the Titans are feeling the same way, but it should be a fun, tough-nosed, heavyweight matchup.”
Thus far this season, Luck has completed 183-of-311 passes (58.8 percent) for 2,198 yards, 14 touchdowns, six interceptions and an 87.5 rating. Last year, he recorded the most passing yards (4,374), attempts (627) and 300-yard passing games (six) by a rookie in NFL history. He also set the rookie single-game passing record with 433 yards against Miami.
Before being lost for the season with a knee injury suffered Oct. 20 in a win over Denver, Colts veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne was Luck’s favorite target and security blanket. Wayne had played in 189 straight games, the longest streak at the time among active players, and not missed a game since his rookie season in 2001.
“It’s tough,” Luck said of losing Wayne, a 13-year veteran. “It’s not ideal by any means, but we’ll make it work. It’s part of football. Next man up is I think a theme, an unfortunate theme, but part of football.”
Second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton (41 catches for 663 yards and five touchdowns, all team highs) and second-year tight end Coby Fleener (38-503-2), Luck’s collegiate teammate at Stanford, have emerged as Luck’s go-to guys since Wayne’s departure. Earlier in the season, the Colts also traded for former Browns running back Trent Richardson, who has a team-high 250 rushing yards.
Defensively, the Colts play a 3-4 alignment and are led by outside linebacker Robert Mathis, the 11-year veteran who leads the NFL with 13 ½ sacks. Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman tops the Colts with 75 tackles, followed by strong safety Antoine Bethea with 63.
Conversely, the Titans are expected to sit rookie center Brian Schwenke with a high ankle sprain and start veteran Chris Spencer. Middle linebacker Moise Fokou (knee) will also be replaced again by former starter Colin McCarthy, who has topped the Titans in tackles the last three games.
Wide receiver Damian Williams, who had taken over return duties for Darius Reynaud when he was released, is also out with a hip injury. The Titans elevated from their practice squad Devon Wylie, who returned punts and kicks last season for Kansas City after being a 2012 fourth-round draft pick.
But all eyes will be on Fitzgerald and how he will not only lead an offense, but a team that is still in the playoff hunt, if only barely
“The communication just has to step up that much more,” Fitzgerald said of the adjustment to being the starter for the remainder of the season. “It’s the same kind of stuff that I talked about, but that much more with the linemen, running backs, the wide receivers, the tight ends, but also in the meeting rooms with Dowell.
“That relationship has got to grow even more now in terms of our comfort level with each other.”