Colts’ notebook: Defense overcomes another first half, seals the deal vs. Bengals

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – OCTOBER 18: Julian Blackmon #32 of the Indianapolis Colts intercepts a pass intended for Tyler Boyd #83 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 18, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – So, it’s not how you start, but how you finish?

That’s been the maddening trend for the Indianapolis Colts’ defense.

Safety Julian Blackmon continued to build on an impressive rookie season by sealing Sunday’s 31-27 win over the Cincinnati Bengals with an interception of Joe Burrow with 39 seconds remaining.

“It was big,’’ coach Frank Reich said on a Zoom conference call. “Really a great play.’’

Added tackle DeForest Buckner: “He’s a playmaker. Week-in and week-out, he’s making plays in practice, and then it transfers over to games.’’

Blackmon’s second interception in the last three games was the exclamation mark on the afternoon. It capped another solid second half by the defense, but came after another ineffective first half.

The Bengals’ offense took efficiency to the extreme while settling into a 24-21 halftime lead. It scored on its first four possessions – three TDs, one Randy Bullock field goal – and piled up 227 yards and 13 first downs in the process. Burrow converted 3-of-5 third-down situations during the hot start.

But then a Colts’ defense that entered the game ranked No. 1 in most significant categories got its act together.

Consider Cincinnati’s final six drives, excluding a kneel-down to end the second quarter: 43 plays, 172 yards, one Bullock field goal and one Bullock attempt that ricocheted off the upright, Blackmon’s interception.

Night and day, which makes it two weeks in a row.

Last week’s 32-23 loss at Cleveland saw the defense allow two TDs and two field goals on four first-half drives, along with 284 yards on 43 plays. In the second half, it tightened things down considerably: 101 yards, one field goal and two interceptions on 29 plays and five drives.

Buckner shook his head.

“The past two games. . . starting off slow,’’ he said. “We have been saying that all week, and we can’t come out slow like that. We can’t keep putting ourselves in a hole. It was a good thing the offense was clicking on all cylinders.

“We played great complementary football today, and we were able to dig ourselves out of that hole.’’

The reason behind another slow start?

“We have to come out with some more juice,’’ Buckner said. “We know what we’re capable of. You see it in the second half all the time.’’

Big day for MJ

Marcus Johnson’s perseverance is paying off.

When rosters were trimmed to 53 Sept. 5, he was on the outside looking in primarily because a hamstring injury limited him in training camp. Johnson was signed to the practice squad Sept. 23 and been one of the players who’ve yo-yoed from the practice squad to the active roster this season.

Sunday, Johnson was one of the Colts’ co-stars with five receptions and 108 yards, both career highs. His 55-yard reception early in the second quarter helped kick-start a dormant offense. It produced a first-and-goal at the 1 and led to Trey Burton’s 1-yard TD.

Johnson’s 2019 training camp also was marred by an injury.

“These last two training camps have been tough, but I just have peace, you know what I mean?’’ he said. “I leaned on my faith during those times. I knew that Indy was a great opportunity even when I had those setbacks and it was just God’s plan for me to be back here two years in a row.’’

The Colts first acquired Johnson in a September 2018 trade with Seattle, and that season ended Oct. 14 against the New York Jets when he tore ligaments in his right ankle.

Rivers first noticed Johnson and his deep-threat skills when the Colts were in their pre-camp “ramp up’’ mode.

“I knew his name: Marcus Johnson,’’ Rivers said with a smile. “I knew him, but you guys know I like to use numbers. And so I said, ‘I’ll tell you, what’s this 83 now? He has some juice.’ . . . I just felt that way.’’

Johnson has emerged as the big-play threat in the passing game. He’s averaging a ridiculous 20.9 yards on nine catches. Sunday, his five receptions included a 55-yarder (the team’s longest completion since 2018) and a pair of 20-yarders.

He also had a 36-yard catch at Cleveland.

Offensive efficiency

The Colts entered the game ranked 27th in third-down efficiency (34.9%) and 29th in producing touchdowns in the red zone (42.1%). That changed against the Bengals.

They were 4-for-4 in the red zone – three Rivers’ TD passes, Burton’s 1-yard run – and 7-of-11 on third down.

This and that

Safety Khari Willis led the Colts with 10 tackles, all solos. Nickel back Kenny Moore added eight. . . . Buckner finished with five tackles and 1 sacks while Tyquan Lewis and Taylor Stallworth split another sack of Burrow. . . . T.Y. Hilton finished with just one catch for 11 yards on five targets, but that extended his streak of consecutive games with at least one catch to 78 games. He passed Marshall Faulk into sixth place on that list.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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