By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Erik Walden understands the impact of his mistake.
But he's going to have a hard time completely erasing the memory of the low point of his season.
With the Tennessee Titans driving late in the second quarter Nov. 14, Walden and opposing tight end Delanie Walker got into a scuffle following a play.
Walden tore Walker's helmet off during the altercation. When the Titan rushed back to challenge Walden, the Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker delivered a head butt.
Officials flagged Walden for unsportsmanlike conduct — the second in a string of three consecutive 15-yard penalties against the Colts — but he was not ejected from the game.
He didn't fare as well with the NFL's enforcement officials, who issued a fine and a one-game suspension. As a result, Walden watched from home as Indianapolis lost 40-11 last week at Arizona. And it gave him plenty of time to contemplate his situation.
"It cost me a game check, but most of all it cost me a game," he said earlier this week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "They can keep the money. I just wanted to play and be with my brothers. Not being able to come to work, that's really what hurt the most. But you learn from it. You move on, and we moving on."
The next step just happens to be a rematch against the Titans today at Lucas Oil Stadium. And emotions are certain to be peaked.
A loss all-but eliminates Tennessee (5-6) from the AFC South championship race and would seriously hinder the team's chances in a wide-open wild-card race. But a win for the Titans would continue the recent downward spiral for Indianapolis (7-4) and raise more questions for a team once looked at as a serious Super Bowl contender.
The result should be a playoff-like atmosphere for the 1 p.m. kickoff, with both teams facing a defining moment to open the final month of the season.
In such a heated environment, is Walden afraid he'll be the victim of retaliation from Walker or one of his teammates?
"No, no," he said. "Not at all."
Walker had some strong words after the game, suggesting he wouldn't mind another go-around with the linebacker. But he backed off those comments last week and even went so far as to express regret the incident cost Walden a full game check.
That's not a sentiment likely to be shared by many Colts fans.
There was widespread skepticism during the offseason when the sixth-year journeyman was signed to a four-year, $16 million deal. Though he hasn't lived up to the star-caliber play those numbers might suggest, Walden has proven to be one of general manager Ryan Grigson's most consistent additions.
Until last week, he hadn't missed a game. And his 28 tackles and two sacks are on track with his production in the past two seasons. The only real red flag came with the head butt, and head coach Chuck Pagano believes he's seen the last of that behavior.
"I think when he addressed it himself right afterwards, I think we all understood and knew that he knew, just by his remarks, that you can't do that and you got to keep your poise and your composure no matter the situation, no matter the circumstances," Pagano said. "I think he learned his lesson."
The Colts certainly hope so.
Walden will play a key role in setting the edge to ensure that Tennessee running back Chris Johnson doesn't get to the outside and make big plays. The Titans jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter of the last contest after a pair of Johnson touchdown runs. But the speedy back was held out of the end zone the rest of the game and finished with 86 yards on 17 carries.
Containing his new nemesis will be of equal importance to Walden.
Walker caught 10 passes for 91 yards and one score in the first meeting. Walden will go head-to-head with him as a blocker and will be asked to jam him at the line of scrimmage in pass coverage. On occasion, he'll even be the primary pass defender against the rising tight end.
Walker has emerged as one of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's favorite targets and has 44 catches for 449 yards and five touchdowns on the year.
Walden expects another hard-fought battle. But he plans to leave the extra-curricular activity out of the equation this time around.
"You never want to put yourself or your teammates in a position like that, especially when they're counting on me," Walden said. "That's one thing we hold highly of each other is being accountable. With that, I wasn't accountable. Like I said, you got to move on, and we'll make sure something like that never happens again."