Improved defense plays crucial role in Colts’ winning streak

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              Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs out of a tackle by Indianapolis Colts' Jabaal Sheard (93) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts made a firm commitment to Matt Eberflus in January.

They stuck to it after the man who initially hired Eberflus to be Indy’s defensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, reneged on a deal to become the next coach and they lived up to their promise after eventually hiring Frank Reich in February.

It’s worked out well for the Colts.

“He’s a consistent guy, he’s got a consistent message every day and he believes in the system,” middle linebacker Anthony Walker said Tuesday. “That’s what you want as a player, a guy who believes in the system.”

The system looks awfully familiar to longtime Colts’ fans.

Eberflus reinstalled the Tampa 2 defense, the zone concept popularized by Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. General manager Chris Ballard saw it work in Chicago under Lovie Smith, one of Dungy’s former pupils, and Reich worked with it on Dungy’s staff when he first started coaching in 2006. Indy capped that season by winning the Super Bowl.

The low-key personalities and focused approaches also proved a perfect match.

But the real investment came in free agency and the draft.

While Colts fans waited impatiently for Ballard to make a splashy move, he mostly avoided the high-priced free agents and instead went with less-familiar names who could excel in Eberflus’ system.

The results have been remarkable.

Linebacker Darius Leonard, a second-round pick, has a league-high 104 tackles and Walker has 67 tackles, nearly four times as many as he had in 2017.

Defensive end Kemoko Turay has shown flashes of being a disruptive pass rusher and Tyquan Lewis showed promise in his first two games after missing the first eight with an injured toe. Both were second-round draft picks in April.

“We’re getting to the ball, causing turnovers,” Leonard said. “We don’t do a lot, there’s not a lot of thinking so it’s very easy for me to go out and play.”

Not just for the young guys, either.

Jabaal Sheard moved from outside linebacker to defensive end and already has matched his sacks total (5½) from last season. Veteran defensive linemen Margus Hunt has gone from rotation player to starter and has had a career-best season.

Safeties Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker have been rounding into form after missing most of last season and part of this season with injuries, and outsiders have noticed a difference.

“They hustle. They have great team effort. They have very good team speed. They stunt the front and they are all very good hitters,” Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said recently. “They seem to really like each other. They seem to have a really good, I think, overall down to down competitive nature about them.”

The individual numbers only tell part of the story.

After finishing 30th in the league in yards allowed per game in 2016 and 2017 and 26th or worse in four of Chuck Pagano’s six seasons as head coach, Indy has jumped to No. 20 this season. Through 10 games, they have 26 sacks and are on pace for their highest total since 2013.

The Colts have allowed 17.5 points to their past four opponents and only four teams have more takeaways than Indy (19).

Not surprisingly, the Colts (5-5) have won all four, moving back into the playoff picture largely because of a defensive resurgence few expected in Eberflus’ first season.

“I think you have to go through this process. Sometimes you take a couple steps forward and one step back or three or four steps forward and one or two back,” Eberflus said. “But it’s really about the guys buying into it.”

It could be just the start.

The young Colts are still getting acclimated to Eberflus and his scheme, are still learning how to play consistently well and still must demonstrate they can withstand the late-season rigors to make a playoff run.

But for the first time in a long time, the Colts’ defense no longer looks like the weak link. Instead, Eberflus has demonstrated just how promising the future could be.

“I think guys are buying into the style slowly but it’s not consistent yet,” Eberflus said. “Today in the film room we pointed out all the loafs and all the missed assignments, so we can definitely get better week to week and now it’s about being consistent week to week.”

Notes: With the likelihood of starting center Ryan Kelly out with an injured left knee, the Colts signed center Josh Andrews off the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. … Indy also put cornerback D.J. Killings on injured reserve and waived cornerback Arthur Maulet.