Colts relying on youth movement in secondary over final month of season

Todd Gurley #30 of the Los Angeles Rams runs the ball down field against Quincy Wilson #31 of the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The future is now for a critical area of the Indianapolis Colts’ defense, and we’re about to find out if that’s a good thing.

Over the final month of the season, rookie cornerbacks will be given every opportunity to prove they deserve to be a part of wherever the franchise is headed. We’re talking about Nate Hairston, Kenny Moore II and Quincy Wilson.

The youth movement is one of necessity.

“Where we are at corner, it’s where we are at corner,’’ defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said Thursday.

Two-time Pro Bowler Vontae Davis was released last month. Pierre Desir, his replacement the last five games, was placed on the injured reserve list Monday with a torn shoulder muscle. Rashaan Melvin still is around, but arguably the defense’s best player is expected to miss a second straight game when the Colts travel to Buffalo Sunday with a broken bone in his right hand.

So, lace ‘em up, rooks.

“That’s just the nature of the game,’’ said Moore, who made his first career start at Jacksonville in place of Melvin. “Everybody wants to be a veteran, but that’s not how it is.

“I’m blessed to be in this position and just show what I have.’’

Moore was one of the late arrivals to the Colts’ roster. He was claimed off waivers from Kansas City Sept. 3. Hairston and Wilson are part of general manager Chris Ballard’s first draft class. Wilson was a second-round pick and Hairston a fifth-rounder.

Hairston quickly settled in as the nickel corner, but Wilson’s rookie season has been marred early by a knee injury and late by the coaching staff’s decision to keep him off the field. Wilson had been inactive for eight of nine games, several times as a healthy scratch, and was active but didn’t play in a 10th before seeing extensive action at Jacksonville. He was on the field for 71 percent of the defensive snaps.

“This playtime will be very beneficial to (Wilson) and our other secondary members,’’ Ballard said Monday during an appearance on 1070 The Fan’s ‘Colts Roundtable.’

The final month of the season, he added, is “an opportunity for these young guys.’’

Until Melvin returns, the rookie corners will be supported by two other players who lack meaningful experience: second-year pros Chris Milton and D.J. White. They share 27 appearances and one start, which belongs to Milton.

Chuck Pagano isn’t using his cornerbacks’ collective youth as a crutch.

“They can’t approach it that way,’’ he said. “They come in here and they’re being asked to do a job, and everybody is counting on them to prepare and do their job to the best of their ability.

“They’re more than equipped. They wouldn’t be in this building if they didn’t have the tools to go be successful. They don’t have the experience, and that’s what we’re talking about. Mostly it’s just the experience. Just like with Jacoby (Brissett) at quarterback, it’s baptism under fire. It’s growing pains, but I think they’d all rather be doing that than sitting around.’’

Those growing pains at Jacksonville included Hairston giving chase on each of Blake Bortles’ two touchdown passes. He was beaten by rookie Keelan Cole on a corner route for an 8-yard TD in the second quarter, and seemed to be victimized by Marqise Lee who ran a crossing route for his a 4-yard TD in the first quarter.

However, Lee’s TD was a result of miscommunication between a pair of rookies. Moore told IndyStar he was at fault. It was his responsibility, not Hairston’s, to follow Marqise across the back of the end zone.

“You have to be on the same page,’’ Hairston said. “You can’t be playing two different defenses – one guy doing this, one guy is doing that. At the end of the day, it’s never acceptable.’’

“It’s a combination of everything and it’s happening really fast,’’ Pagano said. “You can practice it and practice it. You can stop, blow the whistle and run it again. You don’t get to do that (in a game).’’

In the short term, the youth movement will be about dealing with the good and the bad. The only cure for inexperience is experiencing the frenzy of game day.

“You can practice, practice, practice,’’ said Wilson, “but that game experience is what you need.

“I just need to be out there. I need to make mistakes, I need to make plays so I can keep growing as a player.’’

Held needed

Ideally, a young secondary would benefit from a consistent pass rush. The less time a quarterback has to go through his progression, the less time a defensive back has to stick with a receiver.

The Colts, though, have been unable to play complementary defense. They have generated just 20 sacks, tied with Buffalo for the second-fewest in the league. The Colts have only four sacks in the last four games, two in the last three.

At Jacksonville, Bortles completed 26-of-35 passes for 309 yards and the two TDs – a 119.8 rating – in large part because he seldom was under pressure. The Colts were credited with just one QB hit to go along with rookie Tarell Basham’s sack.

“One time we brought a pressure with (Matthias) Farley and got a big hit on the quarterback and got off the field,’’ Pagano said. “We just need to do that more consistently and it helps everybody.

“Obviously when you rush the passer and affect the quarterback, it’s going to help the guys in the back end.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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