Colts defense turns to youth to deal with missing starters

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Edwin Jackson #53 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after stopping Matt Forte #22 of the New York Jets in the second quarter during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 5, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Youth will be served Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

What’s uncertain is how that youth serves the Indianapolis Colts defense in the team’s most pivotal game of the season.

With first place in the AFC South and inside position on a playoff spot at stake as the Houston Texans visit, coordinator Ted Monachino could start as many as three rookies: end Hassan Ridgeway, safety T.J. Green and inside linebacker Antonio Morrison.

A fourth starter, inside ‘backer Edwin Jackson, is in his second season with the Colts but got on the field for the first time in the opener against Detroit as a special teams contributor. His first career start came Nov. 30 against Kansas City.

That’s the byproduct of Monachino being without rush linebacker Robert Mathis (bicep), safety Clayton Geathers (neck), cornerback Patrick Robinson (groin) and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (suspension).

The absence of Mathis and D’Qwell Jackson robs the defense of a combined 24 seasons and 330 games.

“We’ve been down this road before; had a bunch of guys out,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said Friday. “I think we’ve been in worse shape, so we’re OK.

“It’s all hands on deck.’’

Most concerning is the loss of D’Qwell Jackson and filling his void with Morrison. His team-leading 81 tackles aside, D’Qwell Jackson was the quarterback of the defense. He made the calls and made certain players, including Edwin Jackson, were in the right place at the right time.

Monachino described D’Qwell Jackson as “one of the real heartbeats of our defense. You lose a great communicator and you lose a teammate that really puts everybody else first.

“It’s an unfortunate thing, but you treat it just like you would an injury. You move on and you get the next guy as prepared as you can.’’

Now, that leadership role largely falls on Edwin Jackson. His NFL resume consists of 12 games and four starts.

Morrison, meanwhile, primarily has been a special teams contributor as a rookie. He’s been on the field for just 93 of 726 defensive snaps this season (12.8 percent), including only 28 in the last six games.

When relying on so many young players, Pagano stressed, the idea is tailor the game plan so that it accentuates each player’s strengths and steers clear of his weaknesses. Don’t be surprised if Monachino attacks the Texans with a simplified approach to lessen the risk of confusion and blown coverages.

“Even with a 10-year vet, we can do so much that we paralyze them,’’ Pagano said. “We don’t want to do that with a rookie certainly in a ballgame of this magnitude of any game for that matter.

“We’ve got to be able to play fast. If they’re out there thinking, that’s not going to happen.’’

The biggest concern with Morrison and Edwin Jackson is how well each holds up when asked to contribute in coverage. The Texans feature a pair of solid tight ends in C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin – a combined 83 catches for 797 yards and five touchdowns – and they’ll undoubtedly be active over the middle of the field.

Moncrief streaking:

Don’t look now, but Donte Moncrief is starting to rub elbows with some elite company.

The third-year wideout has caught a touchdown pass in five straight games, tied for the second-longest streak in a Colts history that features elite receivers. Hall of Famer Raymond Berry holds the record with a TD catch in seven straight. The last player with a five-game streak: Reggie Wayne in 2009. Another Hall of Famer, Marvin Harrison, fashioned a five-game streak only once.

Moncrief has maximized his 6-2, 222-pound frame and emerged as a formidable red-zone threat. He’s had 12 TD catches in his last 23 games, and 11 have come inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, including seven inside the 6.

“Throughout the whole field he is a great target and he is doing a heck of a job this year,’’ Andrew Luck said. “Down in that red zone, he is a big body, he runs great routes, he is physical. He has a very good knack for finding the open spot if it is zone and man he can win against his matchup.’’

Moncrief’s third season was put on hold when he suffered a fractured left scapula in week 2 at Denver. He missed five games while rehabbing.

Since returning, Moncrief has been a steady complement to T.Y. Hilton. Over the past five games he’s registered 21 catches, 204 yards and the six TDs.

Medical update:

Along with Mathis, Robinson and Geathers, Pagano ruled out defensive tackle Zach Kerr (concussion) and guard Denzelle Good (neck).

Rookie linebacker Curt Maggitt (concussion) is questionable. He remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and must gain medical clearance from an independent neurologist.

Pagano said Mathis is making progress while dealing with a partially torn left biceps, but “he’s not quite there, yet. It wouldn’t make any sense to put him out there, just from hurting himself more and not being able to go out there and function and play at the percentage we need to play at.

“He’s close, but he’s not there, yet.’’

Also, Robinson, who missed the Jets game with a groin injury, aggravated the injury in practice this week.