Wilson Word: National spotlight on 'D'

Primetime date on national stage with Giants should reveal whether Colts' defense is strong enough or an Achilles heal.

Athletes always say it’s just one game. That’s the mind-set, to try to remind the importance of short-term memory, regardless of the result.

But you ask Colts quarterback Andrew Luck about playing on Monday Night Football and his face lights up. So do other players.

That because sometimes, while they won’t admit this, one game does take on more significance. And that’s true for Monday night, when the Colts venture into East Rutherford, N.J., to play the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

In the standings, it’s only one game. Gotcha.

In the minds of many, it’s one game that should show whether the Colts are legitimate AFC contenders or just, well, show ponies.

We can discern this from one game? Really? Actually, yes. I think so.

The Colts are coming off a 51-34 loss at Pittsburgh that none of us have forgotten, and the players probably haven’t, either, although they will say otherwise. This team goes from a shutout to giving up 51, and we’re back where we started in the assessment process. We’re asking again if this defense is strong enough to hold up its end of the bargain.

Many of us have always wondered this. It didn’t stop when the Colts won five in a row. Not really. There were circumstances for some of those wins. The opponents weren’t really that good (Insert AFC South trio of Jacksonville, Tennessee and Houston). Or a team was banged up and missing key players (That would be Cincinnati). Or the Colts got a decent team in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium (Baltimore, although it was a struggle).

We see this now. But perhaps didn’t have that perspective while it was happening.

Then “Big” Ben Roethlisberger came along and shredded these guys with a heaping helping of humble pie. Thank you, sir, can I have another?

The Colts couldn’t touch him. The Steelers outfoxed everyone by keeping six and seven guys in to block. Why didn’t anybody else do that? Doesn’t matter now. The Steelers shut down the Colts’ blitz and exposed a secondary that lost cornerback Vontae Davis early.

It’s the first time we can honestly say the guys in the back end of the defense had a bad game. And we can attribute some of that to the lack of a pass rush, but not all. Watching the game again, it’s obvious the guys made mistakes, especially playing too soft in zone on an early score allowed. But also in just playing gritty man-to-man even when having more personnel.

There have been times this season when we credited the secondary for playing so well, it helped the pass rush get sacks. That’s what they call coverage sacks.

But we haven’t seen a complete breakdown on both ends, in the secondary and up front, until Heinz Field.

That’s why a question persists about this defense. And we won’t stop wondering until these guys show up come January. At least I won’t. Not saying that to be overly critical, but the playoffs are when the best of the best get together and advancing takes superior execution (effort is a given!).

Some are concerned the Giants got the proverbial blueprint for how to beat the Colts’ defense. First of all, keep in mind, the Colts are averaging 31.5 points per game. They’ve scored on everybody, except Baltimore really, when the defense was its most impressive in a 20-13 victory.

The Colts are going to score points on anybody. We can count on that. Luck might throw the ball to the other guys sometimes, but he’s throwing a ton and mistakes are going to happen. As much as some don’t like to admit it, the supremely talented quarterback is human. And I’ll take the upside to the few negatives. Every time.

The Giants run a West Coast offense, which means throwing quick-hit passes and a lot of short-range stuff, although we shouldn’t rule out Eli Manning taking some shots down the field. He is, after all, a Manning. This won’t be about having more blockers to stuff the blitz because the foundation of this scheme is to keep the chains moving with paper cuts, basically, dumping the ball off a lot, getting rid of it quickly, trying to expose defenders in coverage. Oh, and running the ball effectively.

Colts defenders have proven to be stout against the run. Maybe not the best in the league, based on the numbers, but reliable. We’re far removed from the days of teams lining up hat-on-hat and playing smashmouth. Presuming the Colts can do that again, it comes down to how they cover those passes, and the concern is a replay of the Philadelphia loss in Week 2.

We remember how the Colts couldn’t keep track of Darren Sproles after the catch. And the Colts still should have won that game, were it not for a non-call and a Luck interception. That said, remember how the defense had nothing for the Eagles even when ahead 27-20 late?

That’s what you keep your eye on when tuning in Monday night. The Colts don’t have to be exceptional, like against Baltimore or Cincinnati. But tacklers do have to be responsible, and cover guys have to stay close to their men. Manning has won two Super Bowls, just like Roethlisberger, so you expect him to play well. And he’s more than capable of serving humble pie, too.

If the Colts can get stops on third down — they’re still No. 1 in that defensive category — and especially in the red zone, the offense will score enough to prevail.

Don’t get it done on defense and we’ll be talking about how Monday Night Football wasn’t just another game where players must watch the film and correct mistakes and learn from it.

It will be an unforgettable reminder on a national primetime stage that this defense still has a long way to go. And, thus, the Colts can’t be taken seriously as AFC contenders.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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