Colts defense remains a work in progress

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Robert Mathis.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Coming soon to an NFL stadium near you: the Indianapolis Colts defense.

But patience is required.

What fans see Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium when Ted Monachino’s defense takes its latest step against the Baltimore Ravens hopefully won’t be the group that faces the Detroit Lions Sept. 11 when things get real.

“To be able to say this is what our defense is going to look like right now, we can’t,’’ Monachino said Wednesday. “Right now as we sit today, that’s what our defense looks like.

“Three weeks from now, we don’t know how that’s going to look.’’

In last Saturday’s preseason opener at Buffalo, Monachino was without four projected starters: linebacker Robert Mathis, end Kendall Langford, tackle Henry Anderson and safety Clayton Geathers.

Mathis tweaked a knee during training camp, but there’s no indication it’s remotely serious. However, there’s uncertainty with when the other three might be available.

Langford underwent arthroscopic knee surgery during camp that threatens his availability for the opener and his consecutive streak of 128 appearances. By all appearances, Anderson is ahead of schedule in his rehab from surgery on his right knee that cost him the final seven games of his rookie season, but even if he gains medical clearance to play, it initially will be on a limited basis.

And Geathers suffered a broken bone in his right foot in July and still has a walking boot on the foot.

Along with four front-liners being out altogether at Buffalo, Monachino required only limited work from several starters. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson took eight snaps and safety Mike Adams nine. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Patrick Robinson and linebackers Trent Cole and Erik Walden were on the field for the first two series, then done for the night.

With that initial game plan, Monachino relied heavily on backups and young players striving to be backups. Six players were on the field for at least 40 of the 77 defensive snaps, and five were rookies: safeties Stefan McClure (57 plays) and Lee Hightower (47), cornerbacks Frankie Williams (42) and Darius White (40) and end Sterling Bailey (40).

So, how does a coordinator walk away from a game such as Saturday’s and make sense of the defense he’s overseeing?

The stat sheet offered mixed messages.

Buffalo averaged 4.5 yards on 28 rushes, but converted just 3-of-15 third-down situations.

The Bills generated 10 plays that gained at least 14 yards, but suffered four three-and-outs in the first half and two other possessions that netted one first down.

Bills rookie quarterback Cardale Jones led an eight-play, 83-yard beat-the-clock drive and brought Buffalo to within 19-18 with a 4-yard TD pass as time expired, but the Colts defense denied what would have been a game-winning 2-point conversion pass.

Rather than dwell on the raw numbers at this point of the preseason, Monachino is focused on the sturdiness of the defensive foundation.

“Are we communicating well? Are we exhibiting some toughness and competitiveness? And do we have the mindset to finish?’’ Monachino said, reeling off concerns against the Bills. “I think we can say we can do that.

“But right now we are what we are and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we can play good defense with those 11 guys on the field. To say that we’ve gone very far in evaluating our defensive roster . . . we haven’t finalized any pieces to the puzzle, yet.’’

It’s difficult to speculate the impact the insertion of Mathis, Langford, Anderson and Geathers will have on the defense.

“We won’t know how those guys plug in until they’re back.’’ Monachino said. “I know some will be back sooner than others. We know what they are when they’re healthy. We can predict what impact they’ll have on our defense.

“But we can’t really say what we’ll look like when they trot out there until they trot out there with them as a group.’’

The fluidity of preseason has afforded Monachino additional time to evaluate several younger players. At first glance, he’s been impressed with rookie safety T.J. Green and linebacker Edwin Jackson.

Green, a second-round draft pick, is the presumptive starter alongside Adams until Geathers returns. Jackson is pushing for a roster spot at inside linebacker after spending the final three weeks of 2015 on the Colts’ practice squad.

Green described his NFL debut at Buffalo as “amazing. I was a little nervous going out there for the first time, but just to be able to get that in and go out there in front of a lot of people and prove myself was good.’’

He was on the field for just 20 plays, but was credited with four tackles.

“T.J. is not where he wanted to be, not where we needed him to be, but what he did show was his willingness to be physical, to fit in the run game and he showed some great range in the back end in the passing game,’’ Monachino said. “Love where he is.’’

Jackson, meanwhile, led the defense with eight tackles.

“He can hunt the football with any guy we’ve got on our roster,’’ Monachino said. “We think we’re starting to scratch the surface with Edwin.’’