Crazy or not, Colts’ D has become dominant force

Sports

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – OCTOBER 04: Darnell Mooney #11 of the Chicago Bears is tackled in the second quarter by Justin Houston #50 of the Indianapolis Colts at Soldier Field on October 04, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – This is just a tad bit crazy. As in crazy-good.

And one by one by one, they insist they saw it coming, even after being skewered by Gardner Minshew on opening day.

“Yeah, I don’t want to sound crazy, but I did see this coming,’’ coach Frank Reich said Sunday evening on a Zoom conference call from Soldier Field. “I’ve been fired up about our defense from day 1.’’

Added Anthony Walker, who saw something in this defense when everyone else saw Minshew playing pitch-and-catch with his receivers (19-for-20, remember?) in the Indianapolis Colts’ opening 27-20 loss at Jacksonville.

“You probably call me crazy, but I felt that week 1,’’ he said. “Obviously we didn’t go out there and put it on display.

“I really believe in what we’re doing and I think we have all the guys on the team that buys into that . . . that’s special and I think that’s what we have brewing over here right now. I think we have something really special brewing on defense.’’

The latest evidence: in something of a throwback game in today’s point-crazed NFL, the defense demanded top billing in the 19-11 bare-knuckle whipping of the Chicago Bears.

The Colts’ defense entered the late afternoon as the league’s best in most significant categories, and did nothing to tarnish its status. Consider it:

  • limited the Nick Foles-led Bears to 269 total yards, and 90 came on a 2-minute drive at the end of the game.
  • stuffed Chicago’s run game early and often: 28 yards on 16 carries. We’ll save you the trouble. That’s 1.8 yards per pop.

“We talked about it all week,’’ Reich said. “We’ve got to stop the run.’’

The 28 yards are the fewest allowed by Indy since holding Arizona to 24 yards in 2009, and just the 10th time in franchise history the defense has held an opponent to 28 yards or fewer.

  • finished with just one sack and Julian Blackmon’s first career interception, but asserted itself with nine tackles for loss and five defended passes.
  • has allowed 56 points in four games to start the season. That’s the fewest since 2013 (51) and the fourth-fewest in the Indy era, excluding the strike-impacted ’87 season. The yield in the last three weeks: 29 points.
  • has yielded 945 yards (236.3 per game), the fewest in four games to start a season in the Indy era and the third-fewest in franchise history. Also, it’s the fewest four-game yield to open a season in the NFL since the 2010 Baltimore Ravens (843 yards).
  • took the latest step with All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard missing the second half with a groin injury.

Again, who in their right mind saw this coming?

Well, Reich and Walker. And Justin Houston.

“I talked to Chris Ballard before training camp even started,’’ said Houston, who added a sack – that’s 3.5 in four games – another hit on Foles and two tackles for loss. “The pieces that he brought in, I knew how good they are.’’

That included DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes. Buckner has been an absolute beast at the 3-technique while Rhodes, the former All-Pro cornerback, had two interceptions in last week’s dismantling of the New York Jets, including a pick-6.

“If you watch any NFL games,’’ Houston said, “they are playmakers. You add that to what we already had . . . I knew we were going to have a great unit.’’

That was on full display at Soldier Field. The Bears’ 11 possessions included three three-and-outs and four others that resulted in punts. Another drive ended with Blackmon’s interception. The Bears converted just 4-of-14 third-down situations.

Listen to Houston.

“We know and we believe that we are the best defense that’s playing this game right now as long as we continue to show up and focus on ourselves,’’ he said.

How dominant was the defense? It allowed the offense to meander its way through a lackluster performance. Philip Rivers took it on a crisp TD drive to open the game – six plays, 65 yards, a 13-yard TD to Mo Alie-Cox – but the offense spent the rest of the day settling for field goals.

In case you lost count, rookie Rodrigo Blankenship was 4-for-4: 21-, 30-, 44- and 30-yarders.

The Rivers-led offense finished with 289 yards and 18 first downs, both season lows.

But no matter.

“Obviously our defense was unbelievable,’’ Rivers said. “They won the day and carried the day for sure.

“Offensively, I thought it was one of those games where we did what we had to do to win a game like this.’’

That included essentially sealing a third straight win with a clock-draining drive that consumed 7 minutes, 12 seconds of the fourth quarter and ended with Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 19-3 with 3:47 remaining.

On another day, perhaps Reich stays in character and is more aggressive with his play-calling as the game unfolded, but there was no need.

“I really try to feel it out and do the best thing for the team and it’s not just about always being aggressive,’’ he said. “You have to get a feel for how the game is going.’’

It was yet another defensive masterpiece by coordinator Matt Eberflus and his staff.

Even though the Bears had the Colts’ undivided attention, players still caught a glimpse of what’s to come. In an earlier game Sunday, the Cleveland Browns overwhelmed the Cowboys in Dallas 49-38 and piled up 508 total yards. The Colts are at Cleveland next Sunday in a matchup of 3-1 outfits.

“Yeah, they scored 49,’’ Rivers said with a smile. “I saw that. So Cleveland’s off to . . . (its) best start in probably over 20-something years.

“So they got it going pretty good right now. They’re scoring a lot of points.’’

In other words, yet another stiff challenge for the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Bring ‘em on insisted Reich.

“We got a lot of good teams, a lot of explosive offenses that we’re going to play that are really going to put us to the test,’’ he said. “But these are the kind of games that we feel like we got a defense that can dominate and you need to dominate some games.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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