Forget QB issues, Colts’ defense might be bigger concern

Darren McFadden #20 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball for a first down against the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of a preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 19, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Let’s get past the Stephen Morris vs. Phillip Walker debate.

Let’s not waste too much time discussing whether Scott Tolzien can direct an offense capable of scoring 14, maybe 17 points until Andrew Luck is back under center.

Finally, let’s quit wondering when Luck will be taken off the physically unable to perform list, added to the active roster, start practicing with the team and be up to speed enough to actually play sometime in September.

Let’s concentrate on what represents the most pressing – and distressing – aspect of the Indianapolis Colts in the wake of Saturday night’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

And that would be a defense that was summarily worked by the Cowboys.

Whether the Colts follow Tolzien’s lead in the Sept. 10 opener against the Rams in Los Angeles or Luck makes a quantum leap in his rehab and starts, it’s doubtful the offense is going to be capable of piling up points. Tolzien has shown no ability to push the ball down the field in a Rob Chudzinski scheme predicated on a vertical passing game, and it’s ridiculous to expect Luck to simply pick up where he left off. He hasn’t practiced in more than eight months, for cryin’ out loud.

That means it’s on a defense in serious reboot mode to play sound and smart, and keep games manageable and winnable.

So, you feeling better after the Cowboys’ domination?

By and large, that was coordinator Ted Monachino’s starting unit. Only rookie safety Malik Hooker, who’s dealing with a shoulder injury, missed the game among front-line defenders.

Dallas’ first two possessions netted 166 yards, nine first downs and an 18-yard Dak Prescott-to-Dez Bryant touchdown pass. Only Darren McFadden’s red-zone fumble on the second drive kept the Cowboys from tacking up back-to-back TDs. The Prescott-led Cowboys averaged 9.2 yards per play and faced just one third-down situation, which they converted.

That wasn’t what anyone associated with the Colts expected or wanted to see. Saturday evening at AT&T Stadium was supposed to serve as a barometer for just how much progress a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL a year had made. The Cowboys’ offense ranked 5th in total yards and scoring a year ago. Their starters, save suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott, played and dominated the first two series.

“Ted was telling us going up against an offense like Dallas is a good opportunity for us to establish ourselves and show we’ve made improvements since last year,’’ tackle Henry Anderson said Monday. “I don’t think we did a very good job of it.

“There’s a lot of good on the tape, but there’s also a lot of bad. It’s not like everybody had a terrible game. There are certain (plays) where maybe one or two guys are out of their gaps. Dallas has a very good offense and all it takes is one guy out of his gap and they can exploit that.’’

No one should have expected the defense to be on top of its game at Dallas. Tackle Johnathan Hankins, inside linebackers Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison and cornerback Rashaan Melvin played for the first time after missing the Detroit game with injuries. Morrison was credited with only three plays while backup Luke Rhodes was on the field for 61. A knee injury limited rookie cornerback Quincy Wilson to five snaps.

But most of the starters were on the field for approximately 30 percent of the game, including cornerback Vontae Davis, safeties Darius Butler and Matthias Farley, outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon, and linemen Al Woods, Anderson and Hankins.

At halftime, Dallas had amassed 281 total yards and 16 first downs. Only a pair of Colts’ takeaways, including Lavar Edwards’ returning a fumble for a touchdown, kept things from getting out of hand.

Had it not been for Farley forcing McFadden’s fumble on Dallas’ second possession, “we’re sitting there down two scores; minimum 10, probably 14 points on the road,’’ Pagano said. “And you can’t play football like that.

“We talk about the first 5 (minutes) all the time, how we want to start the game.’’

The Colts countered Dallas’ quick start on offense with a pair of three-and-outs.

That, Pagano noted, “is a recipe for disaster. We know that. We’ve gotta get it corrected.’’

That’s true regardless of which QB directs the offense.

“Whatever Andrew’s status is, we know we’ve got to go out there and do our job, get the ball back to our offense,’’ Anderson said. “We’ve been emphasizing getting turnovers this year and we’ve done a pretty good job so far.

“We’ve got to do better than we did last week, no matter who’s playing quarterback for us.’’

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