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Colts defensive captains create dream play, reach career-highs in season opener

Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts
Julian Blackmon (32), DeForest Buckner (99) and Zaire Franklin (44) of the Indianapolis Colts celebrate during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Indianapolis.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Despite surrendering two passing and two rushing touchdowns in the 31-21 Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Indianapolis Colts defense assembled to make several plays to guide through the storm of Anthony Richardson’s NFL debut.

Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley went back to the film room to rewind the tape of his interior tandem DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart burst off the line of scrimmage to create havoc in the backfield. The seven tackles for loss were the most in a Colts season opener since 2015.

The defense forced three fumbles, including the most bizarre play of the game late in the third quarter. Buckner strip-sacked Trevor Lawrence, then recovered a separate fumble caused by Zaire Franklin – as other players stared lost in the atmosphere inside Lucas Oil Stadium – returning the recovery 26 yards for a scoop-&-score to give the Colts a 21-17 lead. Buckner ended another Jaguars’ possession with a momentum-shifting tackle for loss on 3rd down to highlight his seven tackles in the defeat.

“I just remember rushing the guard, beating him with a swim move and I felt like I got the ball out, didn’t hear the whistle blow,” Buckner said to reporters following Sunday’s loss. “I got up and was trying to figure out what was going on and then I just saw Zaire (Franklin) or somebody punching the ball out and in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘I didn’t hear a whistle.’ Everyone is like, ‘Pick it up!’ So I scoop it up and I’m running and all of a sudden I see (No.) 77, he took a great angle and in my mind I’m like, ‘Should I cut back or just give him the stiff arm?’ I give him the stuff arm, reach over the pylon and got the score.”

Cornerback Tony Brown retrieved his first career interception after a pass deflected off the hands of rookie running back Tank Bigsby and returned the pick to the Jaguars’ 25-year line. Linebacker E.J. Speed displayed the NFL’s best performance in Week 1 with a 94.8 defensive grade, according to Pro Football Focus. Speed recovered a fumble by Jaguars receiver Calvin Ridley near the sideline, which gave the Colts’ offense tremendous field position at midfield.

“There were a lot of good plays that we made,” Bradley said during Tuesday’s coordinator zoom meeting. “I thought we wanted to play hard, play fast and play physical. I thought we took a step in the right direction in those avenues. We have to finish through the whole game and play that style.”

Zaire Franklin set a career-high with 18 tackles, which was the second-most tackles of any NFL player during Week 1 and was also the fourth-most in a single game in Colts history. Bradley watched Franklin make an enormous leap at middle linebacker after signing a three-year, $12 million contract extension with the Colts in 2022. Franklin went from strictly running the play-calling in Shaquille Leonard’s absence to taking full ownership of the defense. The hustle Franklin displayed throughout training camp came to fruition when the Colts needed a jolt for a lead-changing touchdown.

Communication will be key for the defense to thrive on the road in Houston. The Texans were one of just four teams who could not reach the end zone in the season opener after scoring nine points against the Baltimore Ravens, which was the fourth-fewest points scored in the NFL. Unless the rivals experience déjà vu with a tie for the second straight season, one rookie quarterback will earn his first career win in Sunday’s divisional matchup.