Improved defense could be key in getting Colts back to postseason

Colts cornerback T.J. Carrie (38), an offseason free-agent addition, returned an interception for a touchdown in Sunday's win over the Jets.
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INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts invested heavily in beefing up their defense during the offseason.

They traded a first-round pick to San Francisco for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and subsequently signed him to a four-year contract extension. They added free-agent cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie. They even used a third-round draft pick on All-American safety Julian Blackmon, knowing he had a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Now they’re seeing the payoff.

Heading into Monday night’s Week 3 finale, the Colts had the NFL’s top overall defense, top pass defense, No. 4 run defense and the No. 3 scoring defense. They’re tied for third in takeaways and sixth in sacks and have scored 18 points in the past two weeks, thanks largely to Buckner, Rhodes and Carrie.

It’s a promising start for a franchise better known for scoring points over the past two decades. The question, of course, is whether the Colts (2-1) really are as good as the numbers.

“Obviously, I’m fired up about our defense, I think we’ll play great the whole year,” coach Frank Reich said Monday after a 36-7 rout of the New York Jets. “But it’s a small sample size, we still have a lot to prove. We shouldn’t be getting too giddy about how many yards in front of other teams we are. But, really, just happy with the way they’re playing so far.”

So far, Indy has played three opponents with a combined record of 1-8, three quarterbacks ranked outside the top 10 and three offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league.

While tougher tests certainly will be coming, the Colts’ defense may have a few more weeks to build momentum.

Next up is a date at Chicago amid a quarterback change. Then Indy heads to Cleveland against turnover-prone Baker Mayfield. On Oct. 18, the Colts welcome rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and Cincinnati to town and, following a bye, they host Detroit.

If the defense continues to be this productive, Indy could be in playoff mix before hosting Baltimore on Nov. 8. But it looked as if that could be the case last September, too, and Indy wound up losing seven of its last nine, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

But this time, general manager Chris Ballard spent millions to upgrade the talent and depth of Indy’s defense.

“I think we have an excellent defense. I’ve felt this way from the start,” Reich said. “I’d like them to keep this up. Obviously, the standards are high, and the expectations are high. But it’s about playing good football, playing winning football whatever that takes.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The short passing game. Philip Rivers leads the league in completion rate (78.3%) and with a passer rating of 99.9, he’s on pace for his second highest since 2013. The reason: 39 of his 72 completions are to running backs or tight ends.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Stretching the field. Indy’s top downfield threat, four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton, has been targeted 17 times in three games but has only 10 catches for 133 yards and no touchdowns. Indy has 11 pass plays of 20 or more yards.

STOCK UP

Mo Alie-Cox. For the second straight week, the backup tight end demonstrated his explosiveness by taking a medium-range pass for a 45-yard gain. Alie-Cox has eight catches for 161 yards and one TD in the last two games and 10 catches for 181 yards this season, both career highs. He is becoming one of Rivers’ favorites targets.

STOCK DOWN

Rodrigo Blankenship. The rookie kicker made an extra point before missing his second field goal in 10 tries, just before halftime. While the miss didn’t affect Sunday’s outcome, the Colts know it certainly could later this season.

INJURED

For the third straight week, the Colts suffered a long-term injury. Rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr. injured his lower right leg late in the first half, returned later, then started having trouble with the same leg overnight. He was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, a muscle injury in which decreased blood flow can cause nerve damage. Pittman had surgery to alleviate the pressure in the leg and will be out indefinitely.

KEY NUMBER

Six. After forcing only one incompletion in the season opener, Indianapolis has picked off six passes in last two weeks. That’s the highest total in the NFL heading into Monday night’s game.

NEXT STEPS

Indy has back-to-back wins for the first time since last October, when it won three in a row. But both came at home. Now the Colts must demonstrate that the ball-control offense and improved defense can help them win on the road, too.