INDIANAPOLIS – Slow starts have plagued one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Remember Cleveland? In week 5, the Browns scored on their first four possessions – two touchdowns, two field goals – and held on for a 32-23 win.
And remember Cincinnati? The following week, the Bengals followed a similar script – three TDs, one field goal on their first four drives – but were unable to close as the Philip Rivers-led offense dug out of the early 21-0 hole and delivered the Indianapolis Colts to a 31-27 victory.
DeForest Buckner shook his head as he considered the second straight first-half malaise against the Bengals.
“We have to come out with more juice,’’ he said.
A delivery of juice might be on the way.
Nothing’s official and won’t be until Friday, but signs point toward Darius Leonard and his energetic persona returning to the Colts’ defense for Sunday’s road trip to Detroit. The All-Pro linebacker has missed the last two games with a groin injury.
“We shall see,’’ a coy Leonard said Thursday on a Zoom conference call. “I get better each day. Just taking it day-by-day, playing it smart.
“Just trying to make sure we cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘I.’ Just making sure we take every precaution we’ve gotta take and hopefully when Sunday comes, hopefully I’ll be out there.’’
Leonard indicated he’ll know if he’s ready to return from how he’s able to handle his practice reps.
“It’s all about being you,’’ he said. “You don’t want to go out there and (it’s) not you. I just feel like it will be a disservice if I go out there and I’m not what I need to be for this team. That’s all it is.
“Just making sure you’re confident in yourself and be there to make plays for your teammates.’’
Leonard suffered the groin injury Oct. 4 at Chicago, and it kept him out of the Browns and Bengals games. His rehab benefited from the Colts having their bye last week.
Leonard was limited in Wednesday’s practice and a full participant Thursday.
While all injuries and rehabs are different, it’s not a stretch to consider Trey Burton’s return to the lineup.
The veteran tight end opened the season on IR after straining his left calf Aug. 29. He missed the first three games and practiced for the first time Sept. 30. Four days later, Burton was on the field for 50% of the offensive snaps in the 19-11 win at Chicago.
It was thought Leonard might only miss the Browns game, but the Colts never seriously considered allowing him to step on the field against Cincinnati. Caution always in use, and that starts with the medical staff protecting the player from himself.
Last season, Leonard suffered a concussion in week 2 at Tennessee that forced him to miss three games.
“Like last year with my concussion, you’re in so much pain, and then that one day that you feel like, ‘OK, maybe I can just go out and do whatever,’’’ he said. “That’s when they are like, ‘OK, wait a minute. You still have to take it easy.’
“There have been a couple of times earlier in this injury where like, ‘You know what? I feel good. I can run full speed.’ Then they are like, ‘No, don’t do it.’ I’m glad they are there because people like me who are just eager to get back, want to be out there, want to be in the battle with your teammates. They definitely hold me back a little bit.’’
If there are no setbacks in the next few days, Leonard could return and provide that unique blend of emotion and production.
Coordinator Matt Eberflus pointed to Leonard’s presence.
“I know that sounds simplistic, but that’s deeper than just the word,’’ he said. “His presence in practice, his emotion, his passion certainly is contagious, and we all know that. He is contagious for the entire building when he is in the locker room and on the practice field . . . his passion and the enthusiasm he brings every single day because this guy comes to work every single day.
“Obviously, we have him standing right over the football on the hash right there over the quarterback, and that’s by design because we feel he is one of our premier players.’’
Coach Frank Reich agreed.
“He’s just a consummate playmaker,’’ he said. “He just has that knack. He is an emotional leader. I think those are the two things that stand out the most.
“His numbers and his playmaking ability has already established itself. He is going to make a few plays here and there that just nobody else makes.’’
Despite Leonard missing two games, Pro Football Focus has him ranked No. 3 among linebackers this season. He trails Jacksonville’s Myles Jack and San Francisco’s Fred Warner.
In four games, Leonard has 28 tackles, two tackles for loss and two passes defended.
The normal big plays should come as the season unfolds. Leonard’s 32-game regular-season resume includes 12 sacks, 21 tackle for loss, seven interceptions, 17 passes defended and six forced fumbles.
“I just try to being that leadership role, that contagious energy through the good and the bad,’’ he said. “A lot of people get down on bad plays, but that’s when you have to dig deep. You have to be the leader out there and say, ‘OK, you know what? They made a play. It is what it is.’’’
Leonard’s return should boost a Colts’ defense that ranks 2nd in total yards and passing yards, 3rd against the run and 4th in scoring.
The defense also has piled up an NFL-high 10 interceptions, but oddly has yet to recover a fumble. The only other team without a fumble recovery: 1-6 Jacksonville.
The 10 interceptions are the most by the Colts through the first six games of a season since they had 11 in 2005. This marks just the second time in their Indy era they’ve failed to recover a fumble in the first six games. The only other time: 2015, when they opened the season with a seven-game drought.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly did not practice Thursday because of a knee injury. He was limited Wednesday. If he’s unable to play at Detroit, rookie Danny Pinter might step in. The fifth-round pick out of Ball State is listed as Kelly’s backup.
Also, tight end Jack Doyle missed a second straight practice with a non-injury issue.
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee) was limited.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.