INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts got physical Sunday night, and the change of pace led to the best defensive performance in years.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus sent his cornerbacks tight to the line of scrimmage and jousted with the Kansas City Chiefs’ receivers instead of permitting a free release.
It’s a strategy previously employed by the New England Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship Game and the Detroit Lions just a week prior to the Colts. It’s worked before, but it’s never been as successful as it was for Indianapolis.
The Colts held the Chiefs to 13 points — half the previous low output for the team since Patrick Mahomes became the starting quarterback in 2018. And Kansas City managed just three points in the game’s final 44 minutes.
“I thought Flus and the whole defensive staff and the players obviously did a good job executing it,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “Just trying to disrupt timing a little bit and play a little bit tighter coverage. Not give much space but try to disrupt timing and coverage. We felt pretty good about some of our matchups up front.”
The Colts managed to win the majority of those matchups despite the absence of some key defensive backs. Starting safeties Malik Hooker (knee) and Clayton Geathers (concussion) missed the entire contest, and cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir each missed time in the first half before returning.
Quincy Wilson, a third-year corner who also made his debut at safety in the dime package against the Chiefs, did a tremendous job against Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. And safety George Odum and cornerback Shakial Taylor were among the lesser known players who stepped in with timely contributions.
Odum tied for the team lead with six tackles, forced a critical second-half fumble and made a huge open field tackle to prevent the Chiefs from converting on third-and-28 in the second half.
He said the strategy to play press coverage was endorsed by defensive end Justin Houston, who played the first eight years of his career with Kansas City.
“Justin came out and told us in practice, every day, ‘Jam ’em at the line. Jam ’em at the line,’” Odum said. “’Cause they’re not physical. But you can’t let them run through the defense. So we jammed ’em at the line, and hit ’em over top.”
The Chiefs also suffered some key personnel losses during the contest — most notably wide receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive tackle Andrew Wylie.
But the Colts allowed Kansas City to reach the end zone just once — on a spectacular throw across his body on the run by Mahomes early in the second quarter — and kept the heat on the quarterback all night.
Mahomes was sacked four times — once more than his season total entering the game — and he was hit a total of eight times.
After being out of sync for much of the season’s first four weeks, the Indianapolis defense finally stayed true to its rush-and-cover mantra. The defensive backs and pass rushers worked in tandem to keep Mahomes from getting comfortable and to keep the pressure on.
It was a physical, aggressive approach that was as well-received in the locker room as it was throughout the fan base.
But it also was the epitome of Eberflus’ core philosophy: Assignment, alignment, key and technique.
In short, it means be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there and use the fruits of your study and preparation to make a play when you get there.
“If that wasn’t a prime example, I don’t know what is,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “Not a huge, one standout player (Sunday night). As far as defensively, I felt like we just all played great football as far as a team effort, and guys made plays that came their way. And when you do that, man, you’re hard to beat.
“Justin (Houston) talked about it earlier, if you make a team have to beat you, it’s pretty scary. If you’re doing everything, you’re in position, everybody’s on the same page, if you make them have to beat you, it’s gonna be pretty hard. And we feel like we have a great team.”
After missing the past three games while navigating the NFL’s concussion protocol, all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard announced on his InstaGram account Tuesday he’s cleared to play.
With the Colts on the bye this week, however, there’s been no official word from the team.
The Colts signed tight end Ian Bunting to the practice squad Tuesday. An undrafted free agent out of California, Bunting spent training camp with the Chicago Bears and spent time on the New York Jets’ practice squad during the regular season.
Indianapolis called cornerback Shakial Taylor up from the practice squad prior to the game at Kansas City and waived tight end Hale Hentges from the active roster. Hentges was claimed off waivers Monday by the Washington Redskins.