AFC South Notebook: Indianapolis’ defense picking up the slack

Trent Cole and the Indianapolis defense sacked Jameis Winston a season-high five times in Sunday's win over the Buccaneers.

Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

While the play of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has more than kept the Colts afloat with starter Andrew Luck out with a lacerated kidney suffered in the Nov. 8 win over the Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis defense has raised its game as well.

In the second half of Sunday’s 25-12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Colts sacked quarterback Jameis Winston four times. In all, Indianapolis got to Winston five times, the most the top overall pick in the 2015 draft has been sacked in his young career.

The second half also saw the Indianapolis defense hold the Buccaneers to just 1-of-6 on third-down conversions and 38 yards rushing.

The solid performance comes on the heels of another strong effort in last week’s win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Indianapolis defense picked off Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan three times, including a pick-six by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The Colts forced another turnover off a fumble in the 24-21 win as well.

"We are gelling," linebacker Robert Mathis said, per the team’s official website.

"You want to get hot at the right time. Each and every week we are cutting out the mental mistakes."

And the timing couldn’t be better for the Colts. Indianapolis enters Week 13 tied for first in the division with the Houston Texans at 6-5, and faces another talented offensive team this week in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are 10th in the NFL in points per game (22.4) and fourth in yards (398.8).

Houston excelling at getting off the field

The Texans’ defense, which has sparked the team’s four-game winning streak, turned in another dominant performance in Sunday’s 24-6 win over the New Orleans Saints, holding quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense without a touchdown. Houston ended Novemeber having given up just two touchdowns on defense all month.

One of the keys to Houston’s success during the current four-game stretch has been the team’s ability to get off the field on third down. The Texans held the Saints to just 3-of-12 on third downs Sunday and Houston leads the NFL in holding opponents to just a 26 percent success rate on third downs this season.

The Texans’ resurgent defense has keyed the team’s rise to the top of the AFC South and will be tested even more over the next three weeks. After Sunday’s game on the road against the Buffalo Bills, Houston returns home to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, before what promises to be a pivotal matchup with the Colts on Dec. 20. 

Nowhere to run

One theme prevalent across the AFC South this season has been the inability to generate a consistent rushing attack. Week 12 provided more evidence of that with the Colts, Jaguars and Titans struggling to establish the run.

Indianapolis managed just 27 yards on 26 carries in the win over Tampa Bay, while Jacksonville’s top two backs, T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson, combined for 59 yards on 12 carries in the 31-25 loss to San Diego. In Tennessee, the Titans had just 44 yards on the ground in the 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

"Obviously we didn’t rush the ball as many times as we anticipated in the first half, with seven rushes," Ttitans interim coach Mike Mularkey said, per the team’s official website. "We have to do a better job of that as coaches to try and establish the run. I don’t care if it’s seven yards on seven carries. We have been in situations like that where we had 20 yards after 13 carries and came back and gained 80."

Surprisingly, in the AFC South, only the Texans, who have struggled in the running game all season, had success in Week 12. Led by Alfred Blue’s 77 yards, the Texans ran for 167 yards in the win over New Orleans.