Is it too early to suggest the Colts have put the “D” back in Indy?
Two games into preseason, the first-team defense has been downright stingy. The Colts have stuffed the run and pressured the pocket. In six possessions, running backs have gained 36 yards on 15 carries (2.4 ypc). New York quarterbacks Geno Smith and Eli Manning have combined to complete just 5-of-13 passes for 39 yards. Manning was sacked once.
The only scoring blemish has been a New York Jets 51-yard field goal.
After three offseasons of tinkering, the Colts are giving every indication the defense is ready to rise to the level of their Andrew Luck-led offense. GM Ryan Grigson has spent millions of free-agent dollars to get to this point, bringing in inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (from Canada), defensive end Cory Redding, defensive tackle Arthur Jones, defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois, outside linebacker Erik Walden, inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, safety LaRon Landry and cornerback Greg Toler.
Grigson parted with a second-round pick to obtain cornerback Vontae Davis from Miami in 2011, then paid $39 million over the next four years to keep him. Just like that, the Colts’ only starting defensive holdover from the pre-Grigson era is outside linebacker Robert Mathis.
“It’s still too early,” said Jackson, who labored his previous eight seasons in Cleveland. “It’s still preseason, but we have a long way to go. As long as we keep the mindset of where we are right now, there’s going to be bumps in the road at times, but I’ve got faith in the guys that we’re going to do whatever we can to make this defense better and ultimately this team.”
The Colts’ defense seemed to endure with smoke and mirrors last season. Indy ranked ninth in scoring defense at 21 points allowed per game. But the statistics take a turn after that — 26th in rushing yards allowed per game, 20th in total yards allowed and 13th in passing defense.
While Colts turnovers contributed to Kansas City and New England piling up a combined 87 points in the playoffs, such a gaudy number can’t be blamed solely on giveaways. As Redding sat at his Gillette Stadium locker after being bounced out of the postseason by the Patriots, he said, “We’ve got to learn from this.”
Others uttered the same words. An offseason later, the Colts have more parts. They’ve been through two postseasons. They’ve been humbled. They would like to think they’ve learned a lot. Some suggest Chuck Pagano’s team is a bona fide Super Bowl contender, if the Colts can survive while Mathis sits out his four-game suspension to start the new NFL season.
Again, Jackson is quick to caution anyone from arriving at an early conclusion.
“Right now, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, but that’s the trap you’ve got to avoid,” he said. “You can’t go in like, ‘You’re this. You’ve arrived,’ because we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a great test coming up in the regular season. We’ve got another great test coming up with New Orleans and Drew Brees and the weapons that they have.”
Oh yes, the Saints are marching into Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night. It could be ideal timing. Few offenses can compare. And the third preseason game is when starters play the longest, typically a half and maybe even a series into the third quarter.
The next game should be telling. Another strong performance and Colts regulars will take a seat for the preseason finale at Cincinnati and set their confident minds to preparing for Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
“I’ve been saying it every day since OTAs. We’re building chemistry every single day,” said Jones, who came over from Baltimore in the offseason. “We’re getting closer and closer. The sky is the limit for this defense.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.