Colts’ defense is trending in right direction, but Texans present major test

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 20: Denico Autry #95 and Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts tackle Javorius Allen #37 of the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter of a preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 20, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There’s a noticeable uptick with the Indianapolis Colts defense that jumps off the NFL weekly stat sheet.

A by-the-numbers look:

  • 11: overall ranking, based on total yards allowed. The last time the Colts cracked the top 10 was in 2014 (7th).
  • 15: ranking in fewest points allowed. That’s the highest since ’14 (11th).
  • 5: ranking in red-zone efficiency. The Colts have allowed 17 touchdowns on 34 opponents’ drive inside the 20.
  • 7: ranking in takeaways (21). Indy is the only team to force at least one turnover in all 12 games. The last time the defense opened a season with a takeaway in 13 straight games was in ’07.
  • 3: games the defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown. The last time it was as stingy was in ’14, and the last time it had four no-TD games was in ’05.

First-year coordinator Matt Eberflus might take a peek at the league stats, but his evaluation is more detailed.

“We have our goals every week and we assess our run defense, our pass defense, our first- and second-down and go through the whole scheme of it . . . third down, red zone, two-minute, all those things,’’ he said. “We evaluate that week-to-week and try to put ourselves in the best position to play that opponent.’’

That approach has been unfaltering, but impacted by the influx of young players and injuries. Twenty-four different players have started at least one game, including seven rookies. Linebacker Darius Leonard continues to lead the league in tackles (114) and is in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year with a busy stat line that includes 6 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.

There have been growing pains. The defense has yielded at least 400 yards in three games, and allowed Oakland’s 28th-ranked offense to score touchdowns on four consecutive possessions, excluding a first-half kneel-down, before asserting itself. And it’s tied for 27th in third-down efficiency, allowing conversions 42.8 percent of the time.

Undoubtedly influencing the recent growth is the fact the defense is regaining its health. Rookie Tyquan Lewis has started the last four games after spending the first two months on the injured reserve list with an ankle injury, Denico Autry is asserting himself after missing four games with ankle and hamstring injuries and Margus Hunt seemingly is rounding back into shape after dealing with a knee injury.

“It’s hard to play in this league if you’re not healthy and it affects the whole team,’’ linebacker Anthony Walker said. “So definitely getting a lot of guys back . . . Denico, everybody is just being healthy and available.’’

Autry is coming off the best game of his five-year career. While the defense was limiting Jacksonville to a season-low 211 yards and two field goals in Sunday’s 6-0 loss, one of general manager Chris Ballard’s offseason free-agent acquisitions – three years, $17.8 million – was piling up a career-high 3 sacks and another hit on Cody Kessler. He also had seven tackles, three for a loss.

The objective, insisted Eberflus, is performing week after week after week.

“We are just trying to be steady,’’ he said. “I would say that it’s been steady progress over the course of the year. The guys are understanding the scheme. They are understanding the style of which we play and you can see it on the field in terms of that.

“We feel that we have set the standard of how we want to play in terms of the style. Now we just need to execute on a consistent basis.’’

That figures to be tested Sunday against the potent Texans in Houston. No longer will Eberflus’ defense be facing Kessler, Ryan Tannehill or Derek Anderson.

That’ll be Deshaun Watson directing a Houston offense that stresses defenses in so many ways. The Texans can do damage on the ground with Watson, Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue – a combined 1,697 yards and six TDs – or with Watson collaborating with DeAndre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas and Jordan Thomas.

In the overtime loss in September, the Colts yielded a season-high 466 yards to the Texans. They limited the Texans to a modest 119 yards on the ground and 3.4 yards per attempt, but Watson went off for 375 yards and two TDs.

“These guys are a huge challenge in terms of just . . . No. 1, they are running the ball because of the two runners back there and then with the quarterback aspect of it . . .  the designed runs and then also the scramble,’’ Eberflus said. “Then obviously the players they have on the outside, the perimeter part of the field creates matchup issues out there.’’

Hopkins undoubtedly will be a focal point. He and Watson form one of the NFL’s most lethal combinations. Hopkins has been targeted more than twice as often as any other Texan – 114 of Watson’s 364 attempts; injured Will Fuller is next with 45 – and generated 80 receptions for 1,1115 yards and eight TDs.

“We all would vote that he is probably in the top conversation as the top receiver or one of the top receivers,’’ Eberflus said. “So he creates problems. His catch-radius and his ability to get open and his ability to stay open and his ability to always ben open, I think that creates a lot of problems for any defense.’’

That’s been especially true when Hopkins has faced the Colts. He’s averaged 5.8 catches and 81.7 yards in 10 games, and posted two of his top-4 games against Indy: 10 catches for 169 yards in Houston’s 37-34 overtime win in September and 11 for 169 in a 2015 loss.

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