Insider: Colts defensive collapse at hands of Lamar Jackson felt all too familiar
BALTIMORE — The Colts defense has been here too many times before.
Maybe not exactly like this. Maybe not with a defensive backfield quite as riddled with injury as the Indianapolis secondary ended up being at times in the fourth quarter against the Ravens.
But this is far from the first time this version of the Indianapolis defense, built by general manager Chris Ballard and coordinated by Matt Eberflus, has been victimized the way it was in a shocking 31-25 defeat at the hands of Ravens superstar Lamar Jackson.
Colts linebacker Darius Leonard: The worst loss of my career
“When the game was on the line, the defense didn’t step up,” an emotional All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said after the game. “That was really heartbreaking. We believe in this defense, and when you don’t step up, and you don’t win a game for the Colts organization as a defender, it sucks. That was definitely the worst one.”
The worst loss of Leonard’s career.
A loss that simultaneously showcased the strengths and weaknesses of this iteration of the Colts defense, the same strengths and weaknesses it has always had since Eberflus took over as coordinator in 2018.
For most of the first half, it looked like the Indianapolis defense was going to turn in one of its best performances, a showing that could be put up there with the shutout win over the Cowboys in 2018, the “Sunday Night Football” upset of the Chiefs in 2019 and the way the Colts started the 2020 season among this defense’s greatest hits.
The Colts held the Ravens to three points in the first half by taking away the running game that has been Baltimore’s calling card since Jackson took over at quarterback in 2018. Indianapolis crushed the Ravens running game — the Colts broke the Ravens’ NFL-record-tying streak of 43 games with 100 rushing yards or more by holding Baltimore to just 86 yards on the ground — limiting Baltimore’s rushing yards to Jackson’s death-defying scrambles out of the pocket.
But that’s where this Colts defense has always been strongest, built around effort, hustle, disciplined defensive linemen up front and Leonard ranging sideline-to-sideline to make plays.
Chris Ballard hasn't delivered a pass rush
The cracks began to show the moment the Ravens let Jackson start attacking the Colts’ weakness in earnest.
For years now, Indianapolis has been vulnerable to the game’s best passing quarterbacks, victimized by their arms for two key reasons: an inconsistent, sometimes nonexistent pass rush and a lack of playmaking in the secondary.
Ballard has invested heavily in the pass rush. That’s where he’s spent most of his money in free agency, where he has invested six first- or second-day picks over five drafts.
Far too often, the Colts pass rush has come up short, and even though the Colts got two sacks and four quarterback hits combined from Tyquan Lewis and Al-Quadin Muhammad, the longer Monday night’s game progressed, the less pressure Indianapolis put on Jackson.
Part of the pass rush problems can be attributed to Jackson’s electric ability in the pocket. No quarterback is better at making a pass rush pay for aggressively abandoning its rush lanes, and the Colts tried to “crush rush” Jackson, sacrificing the attack in order to keep him hemmed into an area.
But that can’t be an excuse for the lack of pass rush in the second half, and neither can the up-tempo style the Ravens played as they tried to come back. Under Eberflus, Indianapolis typically plays coverages designed to force the quarterback to throw short, and the rest of the NFL has moved in that direction over the last couple of years.
Without a pass rush speeding up the quarterback’s decision-making process, though, that style leaves the defense as sitting ducks.
Chris Ballard hasn't delivered playmakers in the secondary
And that brings the Colts to the other problem. Even when Indianapolis is getting a pass rush, the Colts secondary has been sitting ducks far too often the last four years, incapable of making plays on the football, even though Ballard has invested a pair of second-round picks at the position.
Indianapolis has never been deep enough at cornerback. The Colts have one key playmaker, Kenny Moore, who has proven that his knack for big plays will generally outweigh any issues he’s had in coverage.
The cast of cornerbacks around him has always been a question mark.
A lack of depth at the position killed Indianapolis on Monday night. Third-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was forced to sit for a second consecutive week with an ankle injury, and veteran T.J. Carrie is on injured reserve.
What that meant was that when starters Xavier Rhodes and Isaiah Rodgers went down in the second half, the Colts had to put in BoPete Keyes and Anthony Chesley, a pair of players who have been on the roster mostly for special teams purposes. Finding cornerbacks is difficult, to be sure, but the Colts have failed to build good depth at the position.
Armed with the knowledge that the Colts could do nothing to slow Jackson down, the Ravens attacked with impunity. Frustrated by four consecutive punts to begin the game, Jackson started hitting explosive plays at the end of the first half.
The more he threw, the more he found them.
Jackson completed 29 of 32 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns in the second half, catching up and blowing past the Colts with ease. Down the stretch, Indianapolis let receiver after receiver catch the ball wide open, allowing Jackson to move the chains at will, saving clock the whole way.
This has been a problem for far too long.
To win consistently in the NFL, a defense has to be able to slow down the game’s best quarterbacks, and time and time again, the Colts have seen great quarterbacks do what Jackson did to them on Monday night.