After post-game euphoria, Colts’ defense remains a work in progress

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 22: Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons is wrapped up for the tackle by Anthony Walker #50 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Shortly after the post-game euphoria had waned, a dose of reality was delivered.

We’re gonna get this fixed. We’re gonna get back to where we were and where we expect to be.

We’re paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the message Anthony Walker delivered to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus last Sunday in the aftermath of the Indianapolis Colts’ 27-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

The victory pushed the Colts to 2-1 for the first time since 2013, and it was a shared experience. But one area was lacking, and Walker knew it.

“We’re not there yet,’’ he said. “We’re not there at all.’’

The evidence had been pounded home in the second half by a ridiculously-efficient Matt Ryan. The Falcons had just three possessions, and maximized each. Ryan completed 22-of-23 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns – that’s a 145.4 passer rating – and Atlanta worked the Colts defense for 245 yards on 34 snaps. It was 8-for-8 on third-down conversions and a third-and-11 was converted when Quincy Wilson was penalized for questionable interference against Julio Jones.

So even though the battle had been won, Walker was dissatisfied with the battles waged by the defense. He relayed that to Eberflus while keeping an eye on the long term.

“I told coach after the game, ‘We aren’t even scratching the surface as far as run defense and third-down defense, red-zone defense,’’’ Walker said.

Critics of the defense have ample ammunition. It ranks 18th in total yards allowed (358.3 per game), 26th in yards per play (6.36), 29th in yards per rush (5.3), 28th in third-down efficiency (51.6) and 28th in red-zone efficiency (seven touchdowns allowed on nine trips inside the 20) and 13th in scoring (23.7).

That’s not the standard established last season. Over the final half of the year, the Colts relied on what was a top-10 defense. It allowed 131 points over the final eight games, third-fewest in the league.

Last season, the Colts were among the NFL’s best at limiting “chunk’’ plays. They made teams grind it out, earn every yard. Through three games, the defense has been gashed for four runs of least 20 yards – two by the Chargers’ Justin Jackson, two by the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman – and 10 passes that have gained at least 20 yards. The first offensive play by the Falcons was Freeman’s 28-yard burst through the heart of Indy’s defense.

Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were Act 2. Act 1 was Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen. The defense had a chance to do something in overtime in the opener. But after the Chargers won the toss, Rivers needed just eight plays and 5 minutes to navigate 75 yards for Austin Ekeler’s game-winning 7-yard TD.

The stat that shines like a beacon in the fog? Quarterbacks are completing 76 percent of their passes. That’s the second-highest in the league – QBs are piercing the Redskins on 79 percent of their attempts – and would obliterate the franchise record (71.1 percent in 2011).

That’s why it’s understandable warning bells are ringing after three weeks. This isn’t the defense that finished ’18. Walker agrees, and that’s his point.

Critics, he insisted, “are seeing the finished product of last year. The 1-5 (start), it was pretty much the same thing. Now we’ve just won those games.

“We’ll get better each week.’’

That’s imperative if the Colts are going to be one of those teams challenging for the playoffs in December.

Eberflus remains in the moment rather than allowing his mind to drift a few months ahead. He’s focused on players being more technique sound and honed in on assignments. Be in the right place at the right time and make the play.

The numbers will take care of themselves.

“You focus on what good football looks like and just have to do a better job at what that looks like,’’ Eberflus said. “We just have to keep honing on the details. It’s the position coaches. It’s me. It’s the individual players.

“We’re going to keep getting better. The younger players are going to keep getting better – keep getting more playing time and we’ll get better.’’

Speaking of those young players, how well a few adjust from being a backup to a starter or playing extended minutes likely will determine the developmental arc of the unit.

Safety Malik Hooker is expected to miss at least a month after tearing the meniscus in one of his knees against the Falcons. Linebacker/catalyst Darius Leonard likely will miss his second straight game with a concussion. Top corner Pierre Desir (hamstring) and end Al-Quadin Muhammad (neck) have yet to practice this week. Veteran mainstay Jabaal Sheard (knee) continues to practice on a limited basis, but might be another game away from making his first appearance of the season.

The Colts have trusted their young players to serve as their depth, but now those roles will expand. Khari Willis should step in for Hooker and Bobby Okereke will start his second game in place of Leonard. Rock Ya-Sin has gotten significant reps in the nickel package. End Ben Banogu has been in the d-line rotation.

At one point against the Falcons, Eberflus had five rookies on the field.

“That’s why it’s so important to develop your depth,’’ he said. “That whole pair-and-a-spare idea so guys can step in and still function in there and do a good job.’’

Despite the erratic start by his defense, Frank Reich remains upbeat.

“When it’s going bad, when you feel it’s going bad as an individual player or as a unit or as a team, it’s not as bad as you think,’’ he said. “You’ve got to, as they say, keep chopping. You never know when you’re about to break through.

“The breakthrough is just around the corner. That’s our mentality.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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