Colts defense ahead of schedule, but there’s still work to be done

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Running back Wendell Smallwood #28 of the Philadelphia Eagles makes a first down against defensive back Malik Hooker #29 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on September 23, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There’s so much to like about the Indianapolis Colts defense.

“The sky’s the limit,’’ safety Malik Hooker has said on more than one occasion.

But there’s still work to be done, and we’ll get to that later.

Initially, it’s a defense replete with young talent: Darius Leonard, Kemoko Turay, Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore and George Odom are rookies; Hooker, Nate Hairston, Anthony Walker, Kenny Moore II, Quincy Wilson and Tarell Basham are in the their second seasons.

In Sunday’s near-miss upset at Philadelphia, Leonard continued his early-season onslaught with 13 tackles and 2 sacks, 3 additional tackles for a loss and 1 defended pass. Walker came up with his first career interception and Turay contributed 1.5 sacks.

“Just buying into what they’re coaching, believing that on plays where they’re saying somebody’s going to be there, they’re going to be there,’’ Hooker said Tuesday. “(It’s) running to the ball and being physical when you get there.’’

There’s no question coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense has been a surprise. It has generated an NFL-high 22 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, tied for fourth-most in the league. It ranks 10th in the league in fewest yards per play allowed (5.3).

Individually, everything has revolved around Leonard. The second-round draft pick leads the league with 41 overall tackles and 30 solos, and is second with 6 tackles for loss. The league-leader in tackles behind the line of scrimmage? End Margus Hunt, with 8. Safety Clayton Geathers ranks 7th in the league with 29 tackles.

“Like we said in training camp, it’s just a little bit farther ahead (of expectations) now,’’ Eberflus said Tuesday. “It’s a work in progress. I think we’re starting to understand the principles of it.’’

The cornerstones of Erberflus’ 4-3: hustle, intensity, creating turnovers, and understanding and successfully handling “situational football.’’

Anyone questioning whether the Colts’ defense – youth and all – is legit hasn’t been paying attention. It limited Washington’s offense to three field goals in week 2 and tightened the screws against Carson Wentz and the Eagles after yielding a game-opening 12-play, 79-yard TD drive.

But there’s no denying the defense failed to execute – over and over again – in the fourth quarter of the 20-16 loss to Philly.

“We had plenty of chances on defense to end that game,’’ Eberflus said.

Instead, Wentz directed an wilting 17-play, 75-yard drive that seemed to last all afternoon. In fact, it lasted 11 minutes, 18 seconds and ended when Wendell Smallwood plowed up the middle with the go-ahead 4-yard TD.

Wentz didn’t need the help, but the Colts offered it anyway with four defensive penalties. Two resulted in critical Philly first downs:

  • Hairston’s holding penalty against tight end Zach Ertz on second-and-26 at the Philly 20.
  • Hunt’s encroachment on first-and-10 at the Philly 36.
  • Jabaal Sheard’s rare holding at the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-5 at the Indy 42 with 6:24 remaining. He was flagged for wrapping up an Eagles offensive lineman on a stunt designed to free up Hunt on an outside rush.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad’s encroachment on second-and-7 at the Indy 9. Smallwood scored on the following play.

Sheard’s holding penalty raised the most eyebrows. If the flag hadn’t been thrown, the Colts would have taken over with a 16-13 lead with 6 minutes remaining. Of course, if Sheard hadn’t held, it’s possible Hunt wouldn’t have had the opportunity hit Wentz’s arm and force the fourth-down incompletion.

“He was trying to run the stunt and that’s the way it came out,’’ Eberflus said. “It’s not something we coach. He was trying to run that pick-stunt and that’s what was called.’’

As for the four defensive penalties that aided the Eagles’ game-winning drive – a fifth on cornerback Pierre Desir was declined – Eberflus looked at them with a wide lens.

“You can agree or disagree with a lot of things that happened in that last drive, but what we looked at today was what we can control,’’ he said. “Control the controllables. That’s us and our execution and what we can do.

“The players saw it. We understand what it is.’’

The defense suffered a similar meltdown in the season-opening loss to Cincinnati. The Bengals overcame a 23-10 third-quarter deficit and grabbed a 24-23 lead with seven-play, 55-yard drive early in the fourth quarter. Three defensive penalties were crippling: interference on Geathers on third-and-15, a horse-collar by Turay on the following play and a substitution infraction on Hunt with the Bengals facing a second-and-goal at the 3.

In the third quarter, a 39-yard interference penalty on Wilson set up Andy Dalton’s 3-yard TD pass to John Ross.

“We can’t have those penalties, especially in crunch time like that,’’ said Hooker. “It’s crucial and ended up being a major part of the game (at Philly).

“We’ve just got to be smarter defensively, know the DPIs and stuff like that are fixable mistakes. We’ve just got to be smarter. At the same time, you can’t fault nobody because they’re playing physical.’’

Eberflus stresses not aiding offenses with penalties even while demanding constant aggression from his players.