After the Colts won 20-13 over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, we talked a lot about how impressive the defensive performance was by Indianapolis - and indeed it was.
Entering Sunday's game, the Ravens were averaging 394.25 yards per game, converting 50% of their third down attempts (27 of 54), averaging 259.75 passing yards per game and 134.5 rushing yards per game, had turned the ball over just three times in four games and allowed just three sacks in four games.
On Sunday, the Colts allowed only 287 yards to the Ravens, the first time this year Baltimore has been held under 300 total yards and 107.25 yards less than their season average. The Colts allowed Baltimore to convert just 9% of their third downs (1 of 11) - 41% less than their season average. The Colts ave up only 197 yards passing, 62.75 yards less than the Ravens' previous season average, and only 90 rushing yards - the lowest total of the year for Baltimore and 44.5 yards less than the season average. The Colts forced three turnovers - the same amount the Ravens committed in the first four games combined. The Colts notched four sacks after the Ravens had allowed just three combined in the first four games. And the Ravens came into the game averaging 25.75 points per game - the Colts held them to 13.
In short, it was a great defensive performance, and let's look at a few of the reasons why that was.
This one stands on the top of the list because of how surprising it was - the Colts pass rush was fantastic on Sunday, and I was wondering whether I'd be able to write that after any game this year, much less a game against the Ravens. But the pass rush did a tremendous job at getting to Joe Flacco and disrupting him. Cory Redding was great once again, and let's take just a moment to note what an incredible season he has been having so far. Despite being 33 years old, Redding has been as good as anyone on that defense and you could argue he has been the defensive MVP so far. I say he's second (more on that in a minute), but regardless he has been having a terrific year and that continued to show on Sunday. Then Bjoern Werner had his best game as a Colt, notching two sacks and generating other pressure as well. He put it all together on Sunday, and hopefully he'll continue to. Rookie Jonathan Newsome didn't play a lot but still managed to get solid pressure on Flacco, and then even safety Sergio Brown got into the action on a safety blitz. The emergence of a pass rush helped the Colts put together their best defensive performance of the season on Sunday.
One last note on the pass rush - I give Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky a lot of credit here. Ryan Grigson has put a lot of money into the defense, but not particularly the pass rush - and the only real star pass rusher is on the sidelines recovering from a torn Achilles. The only other pass rusher Grigson invested in was Bjoern Werner as a first round pick, and until Sunday he hadn't been good. Give Werner a ton of credit for his performance on Sunday and hopefully that gets him going, but I think that Pagano and Manusky have been making the best with what they have been given in the area of pass rush - and it's not much.
If there has been a constant on the defense all year, it's easily the secondary. I don't think you'll find a better trio of corners on any team in the league through the first five weeks of the season than Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler. So far, Davis has been elite. There's no doubt about it, Davis has been earning his contract, and I think it's very encouraging that even though he got paid this offseason he still improved - that's not always true of many players. Davis has been as good as any corner in the league and has been consistently playing at an elite level. On Sunday, Steve Smith caught five passes for just 34 yards and lost a fumble. Entering the game, Smith was averaging 107.25 yards receiving per game. Give Vontae Davis a ton of credit, and get this - per Pro Football Focus, when opposing quarterbacks throw at Davis this year they have a passer rating of 12.3. That's insanely good (and best in the league). I think Davis has been the most valuable player to the defense through the first five weeks, not only because of his play but because of how it has opened up Greg Manusky to get creative with blitzes and schemes. Greg Toler has been a guy who hasn't been given a lot of credit by fans (largely due to penalties), but consider that Toler is a guy who enters every game knowing that, with Davis on the other side, he will get thrown to a lot as quarterbacks stay away from Davis. I think Greg Toler has had a good season so far. The penalties are just the way he plays, and I can deal with them. They're not ideal, but I can deal with them. The secondary is much better when he is in there and he won't be a top guy or anything like that, but he's a good number two who has been playing well this year and has been a very important help to the secondary. Then Darius Butler as the nickel corner has been fantastic this season as well and has once again showed that he's one of the best nickel corners in the game. The play of the cornerbacks opens things up for Pagano and Manusky with their defense, and the way they have been coaching is to leave the corners in coverage and shake things up with the blitz packages. With no star pass rusher, the Colts are having to get creative with some blitzes, and the only way they can do that is because of the play of the corners. They've been fantastic, and we saw that again on Sunday - only this time with legitimate, consistent pass rush too.
And the safeties played well on Sunday too - the best game the safety position has had for the Colts yet this season. Mike Adams has put together a couple of impressive games in a row, and then Sergio Brown was great on Sunday as he stepped in for the suspended LaRon Landry. I'm going to hold off on saying he should start even when Landry comes back because we want to see it consistently, but he was better on Sunday than we've seen Landry in a long time. The play of the safeties, and in particular Sergio Brown making his first start since 2011, is not to be overlooked.
The Return of Jerrell Freeman
I don't include this one because I think that Freeman starred on Sunday or anything like that but because I think the return of the inside linebacker opened up things for the defense. The linebackers played better as a unit on Sunday and a big part of that was the return of Freeman - not just his play individually (which was certainly an upgrade over Josh McNary too) but I think the return of Freeman also helped out guys like D'Qwell Jackson and some of the other defenders. There are some players who's return means a lot just because of what it does for the rest of the unit, and I think that was true of Freeman's return on Sunday.
Overall, the defense was fantastic on Sunday, and hopefully they can continue it. Their success against the Ravens can indeed be replicated against other teams (and in some cases it already has been), it's just a matter of players doing the jobs that we know they're capable of doing. This defense still isn't close to being the most talented group, but I think we saw on Sunday how they played well as a unit. If they can do that going forward, then that'd be huge for the Colts. Absolutely huge. I think the performance on Sunday was the best the defense has played since the win over the 49ers early last season. The unit deserves a lot of credit for the way they played against the Ravens this past week.
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