No longer No. 1, Indianapolis Colts defense hindered by slow starts

INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this season, the Indianapolis Colts defense was dominant. They were ball hawks who would force turnovers, knew what it took to get off the field on third down. Statistically, they were the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL.

The Colts are still a good team defensively, but not dominant. They’ve gone from being the top-ranked unit to fifth.

There are about 26 teams that would like to be ranked fifth in the league defensively. It doesn’t sit well with the Colts, though. That’s because of how they got to their current position.

Slow starts.

The Colts are taking too long to get going defensively in games. The Tennessee Titans gained 346 yards in the first half against the Colts on Sunday. The easy excuse for the problems would be to say because Indianapolis didn’t have defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry and linebacker Bobby Okereke against the Titans.

The Colts obviously missed those three defensive starters, but they couldn’t use the same excuse in the games before that. They’re giving up an average of 193.8 yards and 19.7 points in the first half of games since Week 5 at Cleveland. The Colts have trailed at halftime in each of their past three games.

Last Sunday against Tennessee, the Colts showed their first signs of cracking emotionally on defense when linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Xavier Rhodes had a heated conversation during the first half. It's not that the players don't like each other, it was more of a case of one of the league's best defensive players and a veteran cornerback being frustrated about how the unit was playing.

“It’s a tough question to answer because I think it’s more than one thing,” Colts coach Frank Reich said about their slow starts. “As well as our defense has played overall, when you look at the numbers, when you look at the body of work, I don’t think there’s anyone that would disagree that our defense, overall, is top-notch. Why do we have this one little Achilles' heel or whatever we want to call it, in how we’ve started slow on a few too many occasions, we’ll just keep working to get that right.”

Something has to change for the Colts (7-4) defensively, and it has to change fairly quick because they’re barely holding on to the final playoff spot in the AFC, and they have games against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Las Vegas’ Derek Carr and two games against Houston’s Deshaun Watson in four of their final five games of the season.

"It shouldn’t take us getting punched in the mouth for us to come out and respond," linebacker Anthony Walker said. "We have to throw the first punch and we understand that. This is a boxing match at the end of the day, and if we don’t throw the first punch and we get hit in our mouth, and that continuously happens, then it needs to get corrected.”

Defensive end Justin Houston said the Colts are "too juiced up. We’re overplaying, not thinking. Have to calm down and play ball. We need to settle down and play our ball.”

The pressure is on the defense not only from a unit standpoint, but also from a complete team standpoint. The Colts aren’t built offensively to keep swimming upstream to play catch up. It worked against the Bengals and Packers, but it'll catch up to them at some point. It also doesn’t help the offense could continue to be shorthanded for the foreseeable future. Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo is dealing with a knee injury that currently has him sidelined.

“‘Are we going to lay down or step up?’ That’s the mindset you have to have as a competitor,” Leonard said. “If you lay down, if you’re not still trying to get the crowd into it, you’re still not trying to make plays, then you’re not a competitor. You suck. If you play a ballgame for any team, competitive sport, if you’re losing, as long as there is time on the clock, in your mind you can win this ballgame. People have to understand that.”