INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Whether due to being out of position, overpowered or deceived, things are amiss.
The Indianapolis Colts’ run defense, for lack of a better phrase, is broken. The one phase that was so reliable last season is getting manhandled, exposed or downright bamboozled – you choose – at an alarming rate.
There were a slew of issues for Frank Reich to deal with in the aftermath of Sunday’s 31-24 loss to Oakland, but near the top of the list was his defense yielding 5.9 yards per rush and 188 yards overall.
“That’s the most disappointing thing to me,’’ he said. “I’ve always felt – last year and going into this year – that teams can’t run the ball on (the defense).
“We don’t let teams run the ball.’’
Now, teams are running whenever the mood strikes.
The most misleading and meaningless feel-good stat through the first month of the season? The Colts haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 22 consecutive regular-season games. That’s the NFL’s second-longest active streak, trailing New Orleans (26).
Virtually every other run-related number represents a red flag.
The run defense ranks 25th in yards per game (132.5) and 31st in yards per attempt (5.5). For context, that’s more than 30 yards per game ahead of last year’s pace (101.6). More telling, only three times in franchise history has the defense allowed a per-carry average at or above 5.0. The team record: 5.3 in 2006.
The frustration was gnawing at linebacker/leading tackler Anthony Walker Tuesday afternoon.
“The finger is pointing at the entire defense, starting with the linebackers,’’ he said. “It’s up to us to stop the run, and we’re not doing a good job of that right now. We have to fix that. Again, it starts with the linebackers, and it goes throughout the whole defense.’’
At times, linemen are losing gap control and allowing running backs to reach the next level with a head of steam. Also, a line that disrupted last season with penetration isn’t getting into the backfield with any regularity.
At times, linebackers aren’t filling the proper hole or shedding a block, leading to a gashing run (think of the 28-yard up-to-the-gut run by Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman’s on the first play in week 3).
There’s no question the possible return of All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard will help Sunday night when the Colts meet the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium. He’s missed the last two games with a concussion and remains in the league’s concussion protocol, although he’s making progress, according to Reich.
In the loss to the Raiders, the run defense was on the wrong end of a bit of trickery.
With the entire Colts’ defense reacting to Derek Carr’s fake pitch to the right to rookie running back Josh Jacobs, Carr flipped the football to wideout Trevor Davis – he was lined up on the right side – on an end around. Right end Ben Banogu crashed inside to pursue Jacobs. Walker, the WILL ‘backer, took several steps to his left, essentially taking himself out of the play.
The right side of the defense was exposed and exploited.
“That’s me,’’ Walker insisted. “I can tell you right now that play was on me first and foremost. We were in man coverage, and the tight end swapped back. I should have seen that early and come back with that.
“I put that on me, and I told the team in the defensive meeting I’ve got to go back and set the edge and give us a chance and I don’t think I did that.’’
Coordinator Matt Eberflus broke down the play in meetings and pointed out the mistakes made with players trusting their keys and “taking good angles and getting him on the ground.
“It’s OK if it’s a 15-yard gain on a reverse.’’
The 60-yarder was their longest run allowed this season. The longest last season: a 34-yard TD by New England’s Sony Michel.
The defense already has yielded five runs that have gained at least 20 yards. In 2018, it allowed just 11.
There’s nothing more disheartening to a defense than being vulnerable to the run.
“It’s not a good feeling, especially for a linebacker,’’ Walker said. “When teams feel they can run the ball at you, they’re saying it’s mano a mano (and) they’re going to win.
“That’s not a good feeling.’’
That’s the fundamental approach Reich takes on offense. Establishing the run, even the threat of the run, opens the entire playbook and keeps a defense on its heels.
“When our running game is going,’’ Reich said, “it seems easy to call plays. When you are running the football well, it just seems like you can dial up almost anything and it works.
“We know this game starts up front on both sides of the ball.’’
Started in Kansas City?
As solid as the Colts’ run defense was last season, it was largely ineffective in the second-round playoff loss to the Chiefs. It allowed 180 yards and all four TDs on the ground. The Chiefs averaged 5.5 yards per attempt with Damien Williams finishing with 129 yards on 25 carries.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Kansas City once again will give Patrick Mahomes a two-pronged attack Sunday. While he leads the NFL with 1,510 yards and a 120.4 rating and is tied for the league lead with 10 TDs and zero interceptions, the Chiefs rank 20th in rushing (101.8).
It wasn’t certain how much Jabaal Sheard would play – if at all – against Oakland. He had missed the first three games while completing his rehab from a procedure on his right knee early in training camp.
Not only did the veteran end play, but he probably was the most effective defender. Sheard was on the field for 34 of 67 snaps and credited with four solo tackles. That included chasing down tight end Darren Waller on a middle screen and holding him to a 3-yard gain on third-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
“I went out there pretty hungry,’’ Sheard said. “I haven’t played football in a while, so hungry and happy to get back out there.
“I just went out there intending to play. I had no expectations going in.’’
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