Substandard performance by defense contributing to Colts’ 0-3 start


INDIANAPOLIS – So many of those involved and responsible for the end result are in agreement: the Indianapolis Colts defense has been substandard.

Or more to the point, it’s not been up to its own standards through the team’s 0-3 start.

Don’t take our word for it.

How have things been against the run?

“It’s not to our standard yet,’’ All-Pro tackle DeForest Buckner said.

On coordinator Matt Eberflus’ watch from 2018-20, the run defense was the NFL’s 5th-stingiest, allowing averages on 96.7 yards per game and 3.9 per attempt. Through three games, it ranks 28th in yards per game (140.3) and 24th in yards per attempt (4.5).

Yes, mobile quarterbacks have boosted the numbers, most notably Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill who escaped pressure three times and scrambled for 56 yards, but that’s part of the job description.

“Obviously it’s not where we want it to be,’’ insisted Buckner, who’s in the middle of it all and remains an interior force. “The run game every week is getting a little better, but it’s not up to our standard.’’

And on the back end? How’s coverage been?

“I feel like our communication and our consistency can be better,’’ said nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II. “It has to be better.’’

Moore took exception when it was mentioned receivers appear to be open on too many occasions (Seattle’s Tyler Lockett, the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, etc.).

“I don’t think that’s how we see it,’’ he said flatly.

The pass defense ranks a so-so 12th in yards per game (233) but is 28th in yards per attempt (8.74). Opposing quarterbacks are completing 68.8% of their passes, averaging 13.3 yards per completion and have delivered nine TD passes. The latter is tied for the most in the league. The league average: a shade under five.

In Sunday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans, Tannehill tossed three touchdowns, including a 10-yarder to running back Jeremy McNichols – he was wide open in the right flats – when it appeared All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard was late in coverage.

What happened on that particular play?

“They scored. That’s what happened,’’ Leonard said after the game.

Leonard had offseason ankle surgery and aggravated that ankle issue. It has diminished his sideline-to-sideline mobility and burst.

Breakdowns in coverage have contributed to quarterbacks compiling an NFL-best 119.2 passer rating.

Moore reiterated consistency has been the issue.

“We have to do better as a team,’’ he said.

A better pass rush would help. The Colts reside in the middle of the NFL pack with 5 sacks, but anything resembling steady pressure has been nonexistent. They’ve been credited with just an additional seven QB hits.

Against the Titans, Tannehill was sacked just once (by linebacker Bobby Okereke) and hit on one other occasion.

And it’s been a group effort. Rookie end Kwity Paye, whose status for Sunday’s trip to Miami is uncertain due to a hamstring injury, and Tyquan Lewis each has zero sacks and just one hit. Al-Quadin Muhammad has 1.5 sacks. Kemoko Turay and Ben Bangou don’t even appear on the team’s defensive stat list: zero tackles, zero sacks, zero QB hits.

 A bedrock of Eberflus’ defense has been aggression and intensity. Even those seem to be lacking at times.

Moore disagreed.

“Three games in, still pretty early of finding our stride,’’ he said. “I’m not really sure how you guys view us, but there’s a standard that’s here and we’re all doing our best to exceed that mark.’’

Eberflus indicated the start-to-finish intensity has been, well, substandard.

“I would say that we need to improve the hustling every single week,’’ he said. “I think you look at it play-by-play, game-by-game and I would say that right now we’re clipping at about 85% and when we’re humming really good, it’s in the low 90’s.

“Right now, the last couple games we’ve been clipping in the high 80’s.’’

That takes into account each player’s percentage of plays and the loafs Eberflus assesses for less-than-acceptable hustle.

“Our goal is to be at 90% in terms of that and your goal as a player is to be in the 90% club. We need to improve on that just a little bit. A little bit more intensity, a little bit more hustle and we’ll make plays.’’

There’s no time like the present, which is Sunday and a meeting with the Jacoby Brissett-led Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

If we accept the Colts’ defense is struggling, they’ll face a Miami offense that’s been even worse.

The hard numbers: 29th in yards per game (268.3), 31st in yards per play (4.0), 23rd in rushing (92.7), 29th in passing yards per game (175.7), 31st in passing yards per attempt (5.0) and 30th in scoring (15.0).

The defense had to deal with Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Tannehill, who’ve combined for 2,593 yards, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 115.8 rating.

Brissett doesn’t offer a similar threat. In two games since taking over for Tua Tagovailoa (ribs), he’s been one the league’s least threatening QBs. He ranks 33rd in yards per attempt (4.3), 31st in passer rating (67.8) and 31st with 384 yards.

Brissett is averaging 6.9 yards per completion. In last Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Raiders in Las Vegas, wideout Jaylen Waddle had 12 catches for 58 yards and tight end Mike Gesicki had 10 for 86.

If not now, when?

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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