‘A lot of bad’ as Colts’ defense takes first step into 2019

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: Running back Austin Ekeler #30 of the Los Angeles Chargers celebrates his touchdown against free safety Malik Hooker #29 of the Indianapolis Colts in overtime at Dignity Health Sports Park on September 8, 2019 in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There were few details about what went on behind closed doors, but it’s safe to assume Matt Eberflus wasn’t exactly in a warm and fuzzy mood Tuesday.

“Yeah, he’s hard on everybody,’’ linebacker Anthony Walker said Tuesday with a wry smile.

And that’s normally following a solid performance by the Indianapolis Colts defense. Eberflus is fair, but demanding. He’s a stickler for being on point with individual assignments and adhering to techniques and fundamentals.

Suffice it to say the unit’s first step into 2019 was anything but solid in the 30-24 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

“Little bit of positives,’’ Walker allowed, “but a lot of bad. Tackling, run fits, stuff like that we’ve got to clean up.

“We’ve got to be fundamentally sound, and we weren’t.’’

 One of the NFL’s better tackling teams a year ago littered the field with too many whiffs.

How many? Six? Ten? More than a dozen?

“I don’t know off the top of my head,’’ Eberflus said, “but we’ve got to do a better job, I know that.’’

The most glaring whiff(s) came in the third quarter on an otherwise simple Philip Rivers screen pass to Austin Ekeler. As Ekeler headed up the right side, Darius Leonard gave pursuit. But when the All-Pro linebacker converged on Ekeler, he attempted to chop the football out of Ekeler’s right hand rather than wrapping him up and pulling him to the ground. Ekeler ran through Leonard and cornerback Pierre Desir.

Instead of a 15- or 20-yard gain, it was a 55-yard touchdown that staked the Chargers to a 24-9 lead.

In the locker room after the game, Leonard shouldered the blame.

“Being that guy,’’ he told reporters, “you’ve got to make those plays.’’

Eberflus and his staff have stressed the importance of 11 defenders flying to the ball carrier, and players attempting to get takeaways at every opportunity. Leonard was tied for sixth a year ago with four forced fumbles. Sunday, that probably contributed to Ekeler’s catch-and-run.

“This has happened before where you stress that fundamental so much,’’ Eberflus said. “It’s got to be in the right order. You’ve got to be able to hit, wrap and then strip. Sometimes they get those things out of order.’’

Tackling, he added, requires remaining sound in assignment and technique “and then playing that technique with violence and swiftness. The run game is always that.’’

The Chargers were without Melvin Gordon, but Ekeler, Justin Jackson and others gouged the Colts for 125 yards and 6.0 yards per attempt. Jackson clicked off runs of 24 and 23 yards. Ekeler added a 19-yarder. The Colts allowed only 12 runs of at least 19 yards in 16 games last season.

Was the early erratic tackling a byproduct of Frank Reich opting to play his front-line players sparingly during the preseason? Walker, for instance, was on the field for just 30 preseason snaps and Leonard only 11. Also, tackling in training camp largely was limited to the two joint practices with Cleveland.

Walker shrugged.

“I didn’t hear that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was said,’’ he said. “If you look at college football, you don’t have preseason games. You just go out there and play. If you look at the Rams last year, I don’t think any of their starters played in the preseason at all, and I don’t think they had an issue.

“If we won, then nobody would have been talking about it. That’s outside talk we can’t worry about. We know what we have to do as a team.’’

Walker’s argument aside, Eberflus admitted poor tackling occasionally is an issue in September.

“Tackling is sometimes an issue early in the season. It just is,’’ he said. “It’s the first time you’re out there live. This is my 28th or 29th year of coaching, and every few years or every other year it’s always that issue because it’s the first time you’re out there live, guys are playing full speed, angles.’’

Two prevailing issues with Eberflus are limiting missed tackles and “loafs.’’ The latter are instances when a player isn’t playing with the required intensity.

Eberflus seeks a “90% hustle rate,’’ although the overall number hovered in the 80s last season.

“We were in the 80s,’’ he said of the Chargers game, “so we weren’t quite where we wanted to be.’’

Walker agreed.

How many loafs were there?

“Enough that we didn’t win the game,’’ he said.

And how many missed tackles?

“Enough that we didn’t win the game,’’ he said.

Overall, it was an uncharacteristic performance by a defense that got better as 2018 unfolded. It allowed 52 completions and runs of at least 20 yards, among the fewest in the NFL, and yielded 131 points over the final eight games, the third-fewest in the league.

Sunday, Rivers had six completions of at least 20 yards. The Chargers converted 7-of-11 third-down situations.

“We didn’t play well. That’s it,’’ Walker said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t play well. It doesn’t matter what the weather is, no matter what field we’re on, we’re not going to make excuses.

“We’ve got to find a way to win and we didn’t do that.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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