INDIANAPOLIS – It’s no coincidence the Indianapolis Colts’ recent defensive resurgence has come alongside the return of veteran defensive end Jabaal Sheard.
In back-to-back victories against the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, sandwiched around the bye week, the Colts sacked top-flight quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson a total of seven times.
Four of those takedowns were recorded by Sheard and fellow edge rusher Justin Houston, and the constant pressure allowed a banged-up defensive secondary the opportunity to make some plays.
While Mahomes and Watson combined to throw for 629 yards against Indianapolis, they threw just two touchdown passes. Against the rest of the league, they’ve combined to throw 26 touchdown passes.
Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus always preaches his “rush-and-cover” philosophy. That refers to the need for the front end of the defense to work hand-in-hand with the back end, and for much of the season’s first four weeks, Indianapolis’ defense was out of sync.
With a healthy Sheard forming a ferocious tag team with Houston, the rush game has begun living up to the expectations established in the spring and summer.
“I think those two guys were the highest grades on defense (Sunday), if I am not mistaken,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “They really impacted the game. Justin, of course, had two sacks. Jabaal had the one. But there were multiple other times – I mean everyone saw the pressure that Justin got on Pierre’s (Desir) interception.
“Even on the last play on the interception that Darius (Leonard) made, if you look really close – this is just my opinion – but the rush that Justin gets slightly alters Deshaun Watson’s throwing motion, which causes him to throw the ball a little bit behind, and consequently it goes up and we get the interception. To my eye, it looked like Justin altered his throwing motion and caused an inaccurate throw.”
Rush and cover.
If that theme can work against two of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, the Colts should be well positioned for their upcoming stretch.
In the next four weeks, Indianapolis faces the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars. Only Jacksonville rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew has made much noise this season among the quartet, perhaps setting the table for Indianapolis’ newly formed pass-rushing duo to continue to eat.
Houston was signed in the offseason to provide the nightmare matchup that would keep opposing offensive coordinators awake the week before the game. Once Sheard returned from a knee injury that cost him the season’s first three games, the task of protecting opposing quarterbacks became significantly more difficult.
“A lot of teams run six-man protection,” Reich said. “So what you do is you always put the (running) back to the side of the one good pass rusher to chip that side, but when you have two, it just makes it harder. Now if you want to chip both sides, now you can’t get four (receivers) vertical in a hurry. So to have two good edge pass rushers is pretty important.”
When Reich became the Carolina Panthers’ first starting quarterback in 1995, the expansion team’s defensive coordinator was Vic Fangio.
After a distinguished career calling defenses across the league, including a stint with Indianapolis from 1999-2001, Fangio finally landed a head coaching job in Denver this year.
Though the Broncos are just 2-5, Reich holds Fangio’s coaching acumen in high esteem.
“You guys see the rankings. This (Broncos) defense is ranked high in every category,” Reich said. “… I have known Vic for a long time. There are few people I respect as much as him as a coach. I think he’s one of the top defensive minds in the NFL for a very long time. So a lot of respect for him and his team.”
The Colts announced a season-low 59,977 tickets were distributed for Sunday’s critical AFC South showdown.
But whatever the crowd lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in volume.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but the one thing that really is worth mentioning again is being at home in Lucas Oil (Stadium) yesterday, the fans were incredible,” Reich said. “Just so loud. It was great from our players’ standpoint. You could feel them feeding off of that.”