D-lightful: Colts D setting tone with record-breaking start

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 27: T.J. Carrie #38 of the Indianapolis Colts and other members of the Indianapolis Colts defense celebrate after Carrie ran an interception back for a touchdown during the third quarter of the game against the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – We’re not here to argue these guys should be next-door neighbors to some of the best defenses in the Colts’ Indy era.

There’s no mistake-erasing safety (Bob Sanders) or terrorizing pass rushers in their prime (Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis) or play-making cornerbacks (Ray Buchanan, Jerraud Powers).

But coordinator Matt Eberblus’ group, top-to-bottom, is doing things none of their predecessors accomplished.

With the admitted caveat the Colts’ defense hasn’t exactly faced a trio of offensive juggernauts to open the season, they rank as the stingiest collection since the franchise’s relocation in 1984.

In a bottom-line business, here’s the bottom line: 676 yards. That’s the defensive yield against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.

And that’s the fewest allowed in the first three games in the Indy era. Next in line: 751 yards in 1991.

Don’t go away, there’s more. In Sunday’s 36-7 smothering of the Jets, the defense:

  • outscored the Jets, 16-7. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes returned the first of his two Sam Darnold interceptions 44 yards for a touchdown that staked the Colts to a 7-0 lead, and corner T.J. Carrie added a 47-yarder on the final play of the third quarter. Justin Houston bear-hugged Darnold in the end zone for a fourth-quarter sack/safety.
  • generated two pick-6s in the same game for the first time since getting two against the Joe Namath-led Jets in 1970. Broadway Joe, by the way, was picked six times that day.
  • had three interceptions in consecutive games for the first time since weeks 15-16 of 1992.
  • tacked up safeties in back-to-back games for the first time since weeks 10-11 of 1960. DeForest Buckner did the honors in week 2 against the Vikings.
  • entered the day ranked No. 1 in the league in fewest yards per game allowed (208) and probably still will be leading the pack heading into week 4.
  • completely overshadowed another efficient, workmanlike afternoon by Philip Rivers (17-of-21, 217 yards, one TD) that included a pair of career milestones – his 400th TD and moving past the 60,000-yard mark.

“Defensively that was quite an effort,’’ Frank Reich said on a Zoom conference call after the game. “Just guys making plays all over the field.’’

The defense not only made life miserable for Darnold – three interceptions, the safety, two sacks, five other hits, five times he was forced to scramble – but impacted Reich’s approach on offense. There wasn’t the need to take unnecessary risks and, perhaps, give the Jets a reason to believe there was a comeback in their immediate future.

“Absolutely,’’ Reich said. “There’s maybe one fourth down in there that I might have gone for in a different game, a different situation. A couple of the decisions along the way in that game were made specifically because how good the defense was playing.’’

The Jets managed 93 yards on their first two first-quarter drives, then 177 on their final nine. Four of the drives failed to move the chains.

Quite simply, it was a performance to behold.

So Jonathan Taylor and the offense did precisely that when first Rhodes, then Carrie turned in a pick-6.

“When the defense scores, at first it’s like, ‘Wow, is he going to go all the way? What kind of move is he going to make?’’’ Taylor said with a wide grin. “You start looking at his ball-carrying skills. You get a little laugh how they carry the ball.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, not only can we score, but our defense can score, too.’ Pick your poison.’’

Rhodes has done this before. His only prior career pick-6 occurred in his previous two-interception game: Nov. 20, 2016 against Arizona when he snared a Carson Palmer pass and returned it 100 yards.

“Having a pick-6, put points on the board on the defensive side of things,’’ said Rhodes. “The second pick is stopping them from putting points on the board.

The Jets trailed 17-7 midway through the second quarter, but Darnold was looking at a first-and-goal at the 7.

“I just followed the quarterback’s eyes,’’ Rhodes said. “I (saw) him looking at the ‘7’ route and he threw it and I just settled right into it.’’

Carrie’s was added cushion, and an NFL novelty for him. He had a pair of pick-6s in his final game at Ohio, but none in his first 94 games as a pro despite six interceptions.

His eyes brightened as he considered his handiwork.

“Get in that end zone, baby, that’s what I’m talking about,’’ said Carrie, like Rhodes a part of Chris Ballard’s offseason free-agent shopping spree.

The scheme on the play was one Eberflus installed during training camp and was executed to perfection.

“Definitely (a) disguised play that we felt like would give the quarterback post- and pre-snap read (problems),’’ Carrie said. “Defensive line came in and did their job and forced him to make an unadvised decision.

“The great ones always told me, ‘Catch the ones that come to you and you’ll lead the league.’ After that it was just my job to catch it and return it.’’

The defense has been on top of its job since a lackluster opener at Jacksonville.

After failing to generate a turnover in the 27-20 loss to the Jaguars when Gardner Minshew carved ‘em up (19-20), the defense has had back-to-back games with three interceptions and a safety.

“Our goal is in that 40-range,’’ Carrie reminded everyone of the team’s takeaway objective.

And more than that when the opportunity presents itself during a game.

“Anytime we touch that rock, man, that’s the most prized possession on the field,’’ Carrie said.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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