INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich prides himself on being an aggressive play-caller.
He also knows there’s a time to play it smart.
So with his dominant defense suffocating Chicago’s offense Sunday, Reich dialed back the temptation to get risky and instead asked his defense to take care of the job.
The result: a 19-11 victory, Indy’s first win at Soldier Field since 2004 and its first road win in a year.
“We had the fourth-and-1 early on, normally I am going to go for that nine times out of 10,” Reich said. “But that’s an example where, I’m not just putting it on autopilot on every one of those decisions when it’s fourth and really short. I just felt the way our defense was playing at that point, early in the game and we had the lead, I didn’t want to create a momentum shift if for some reason we didn’t make it.”
Colts fans and opponents might need to get used to it.
For much of the Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck eras, many believed Indy (3-1) needed to scores dozens of points to win games. Not any more.
Reich, clearly, has the best defense of his three-year tenure and probably the best defense since the Colts went to the Super Bowl following the 2009 season.
After Sunday’s games, the Colts still are No. 1 in total yards per game (236.3), yards passing (159.3) and fewest points (14.0). They also lead the league in interceptions (seven), are fourth in yards rushing (77.0), tied for eighth in sacks (10) and have scored 18 points.
They’ve done it despite losing starting safety Malik Hooker with a season-ending torn Achilles tendon, starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin for two games with a stomach ailment and Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard for the entire second half at Chicago because of a groin injury.
“Obviously you miss (Leonard’s) loud voice next to you,” middle linebacker Anthony Walker said, laughing. “But again, we understand this is the game we play, it’s a physical game again, we’re going to have injuries and stuff like that. So to have all 11 guys step up and play as one unit, we still have to keep doing our job.”
So far, they’ve been successful against Jacksonville, Minnesota, the New York Jets and the Bears.
But Indy also knows the bigger challenges will come against quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger, Deshaun Watson and Ryan Tannehill.
And Reich strongly believes his suddenly dominant defense can ace those tests, too.
“I felt good about our defense from day one,” he said. “I felt like it was going to be really good. It’s four games into it, and the defense is playing really, really good football right now, but we’ve got to keep the pressure on. Obviously, we play an explosive offense next week, so that will be a good test for us.”
The secondary. After picking off 15 passes last season, cornerbacks or safeties have accounted for all seven interceptions this season. They’ve had chances at a few more, too, and the aggressive play is a reflection of their confidence.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Third-down conversions and red-zone productivity. The Colts converted 8 of 19 third downs against the Bears, but their conversion rate of 34.6% is among the league’s lowest. Indy also has scored seven times on 15 trips inside the red zone. Both need to improve.
DeForest Buckner. He came to the Colts with a hefty price tag — a first-round draft pick and an $84 million contract extension — but he’s been worth every penny. It’s not so much Buckner’s nine tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and the first safety of his career as it is his presence. A year ago, the Colts gave up 4.1 yards per carry. Today, it’s 3.6.
Running game. Indy used its 38 runs against the Bears to effectively play keep-away. But the 103 yards rushing, gave them an average of 2.7 yards per carry.
Reich said Leonard, the league’s 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be evaluated later this week. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo (ribs), linebackers Bobby Okereke (thumb) and E.J. Speed (elbow) also were hurt against Chicago. Okereke was scheduled to have surgery Monday while Speed was undergoing a scan. All except Speed are starters, and Reich has not yet ruled anybody out for the Browns game.
Zero. The key to this season is Philip Rivers’ turnover total. He’s thrown 69 consecutive passes without an interception, a span of more than 2 1/2 games.
With a six-game road losing streak over, the Colts’ defense faces its biggest challenge Sunday at Cleveland. Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry have been humming over the first four weeks. Indy hasn’t won back-to-back road games since early last season when the Colts won at Tennessee and at Kansas City.
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