First-half defensive issues getting to be major problem with Colts

Colts

Justin Houston #50 of the Indianapolis Colts speaks with his teammates prior to a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s part of the game-day ritual. It sets the tone and amps up the energy.

It’s Justin Houston, encircled by his Indianapolis Colts teammates, imploring those teammates – offense, defense, special teams – to be laser-focused for the next three hours. Be on your game, trust the guy next to you.

More than anything, come out of the locker room with energy and nasty intentions.

Here’s a snippet of Houston’s emotional break-down of the huddle prior to the Green Bay game:

This is another chance to prove who we are, dawg. Let’s lock in, have fun and dominate, dawg. We’re on national TV, dawg. The world’s seeing us. Let’s make a damn statement. Let’s be who we are and that’s the best in this damn land. Alright man, let’s not wait until we get hit in the mouth to make a move today, dawg. Let’s come out of the gate swingin’. All three phases, dawg. All three phases let’s dominate and be who we are. That’s greatness. Greatness is who we are. Greatness is what we’re gonna be. Greatness is what about to happen today. Let’s prove a point.

Justin Houston

Then, something well short of greatness.

The Packers jumped in front 21-7 midway through the second quarter before settling into a 28-14 halftime lead. The Colts rallied for a 34-31 win in overtime as the defense finally got its act together and the Philip Rivers-led offense generated 22 points after the break, including four Rodrigo Blankenship field goals.

As dramatic and euphoric as the victory was, the path to it was too familiar and more than a little worrisome. Slow starts, primarily by one of the NFL’s top-ranked defenses, have gone from occasional to frequent.

Last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, the defense allowed 35 points in the first half – for just the second home game in franchise history, for cryin’ out loud – along with 346 total yards and 22 first downs. There was no dramatic rally: Titans 45, Colts 26.

Prior to the Packers meeting, the Colts met the Titans in Nashville. They trailed 17-13 at the half before taking control in the second half and winning going away, 34-17.

One thing won’t change as the Colts move forward, beginning with Sunday’s more-than-a-little-significant meeting with the Houston Texans: Justin Houston still will deliver the pre-kickoff inspirational sermon to his teammates.

But might he alter that delivery?

“I think that’s probably the problem. I think we’re too juiced up,’’ Houston said in a Wednesday Zoom conference call. “We’re over-playing and not thinking, not being ourselves. We just have to calm down, relax and play ball. I think that’s what we do in the second half compared to the first half.

“I think the first half we’re just playing off adrenalin. We’re too hyped and not settled. We need to settle down and actually play our ball. We definitely put ourselves in a bad situation, but it’s more about us and not our opponents.’’

So, Houston will tweak things Sunday at Houston’s NRG Stadium?

“We’ll see,’’ he said. “The focus point will be to start fast. So I guess I’m going to change really what I say, not how I say it.’’

If Houston is on point and the defense is coming out too geeked, that might be contributing to players failing to use proper technique or adhering to their specific assignments. Unchecked emotion can be a detriment.

“I don’t think it’s ever one thing,’’ coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “We actually looked at it last week prior to (the Titans rematch) just to see what it was, and we really looked hard at it, and we said, ‘It’s really about execution, and we have to be on our fundamentals and keys throughout the course of the game.’

“It’s about that consistency of doing that.’’

Eberflus’ attempt at correcting the slow starts might include altering how certain portions of practice unfold.

“We’re just looking at modeling the reps a little bit differently just to try to emphasize (quicker starts),’’ he said. “I know as a coach and a unit, you get what you emphasize sometimes, and we’re just trying to look at it with a critical eye.’’

Coach Frank Reich said any tweaking of the practice routine by the defense would be to “try to create a spark in a few ways.

“Some of the answer is always just to play it a little bit tighter, a little bit more fundamentally. Play it with speed.’’

No matter how you look at it, something’s got to change.

The Colts are 7-4 and the No. 7 seed in the AFC postseason picture, but that playoff push could stall if they’re continually playing from behind.

“No doubt it has to be fixed,’’ Reich said.

The Colts have trailed at the half five times this season: at Cleveland (20-10), against Cincinnati (24-21) and in each of the last three games. They regrouped and chased down the Bengals, the Titans in Nashville and the Packers.

The defensive failings in the first half of those five games are beyond ridiculous. Consider:

  • excluding one kneel-down, the defense has faced 26 first-half drives. It has allowed 20 scores. Twenty! There have been 16 touchdowns and four field goals. To its credit, the defense has gotten its act together in the second half, allowing no TDs and four field goals on 25 drives.
  • the Browns and Bengals scored on their first four possessions. The Packers tacked up three TDs in the second quarter. In last Sunday’s rematch, the Titans went 5-for-6 in the first half.
  • the defense has allowed averages of 244.4 yards per half and 7.0 per play. For the season, it is allowing just 5.2 yards per snap, 7th-best in the league. Along with piling up 346 yards in the first two quarters last Sunday, the Titans pierced an admittedly short-handed unit – no DeForest Buckner, no Denico Autry, no Bobby Okereke – for 173 rushing yards.

Rivers admitted the offense occasionally could have offered more help.

“Certainly felt like last week both sides kind of contributed to that deficit,’’ he said.

After producing touchdowns on its first two possessions, the Rivers-led offense had five straight punts and an interception. It was 38-14 at the end of the third quarter.

On a grand scale, it’s been a solid year for Eberflus’ defense. It ranks 5th overall (311.8 yards allowed per game), 7th against the run (101.9), 6th against the pass (209.9) and tied for 9th in scoring (23.0). It has 12 interceptions, tied for 4th-most.

“When you look at the numbers and when you look at the body of work,’’ Reich said, “I don’t think there’s anyone that would disagree that our defense has overall been top-notch.’’

But those poor first halves have been a problem.

“So why do have this one little Achilles heel or whatever we want to call it, this one little glitch, this one flaw with how we’ve started slow on a few too many occasions?’’ Reich said. “We’ll just keep working to get that right.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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