Leonard's return gives Colts defense an immediate boost
INDIANAPOLIS — The return of All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard provided a big boost for the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
In his first game since mid-September, Leonard had a game-high 10 tackles and intercepted a Deshaun Watson pass with 26 seconds left to seal the Colts' 30-23 victory over Houston.
"I had my highs, I had my lows," said Leonard, who had been sidelined by a concussion. "The fourth quarter I felt it. Being out for a month, I got a little winded in the fourth quarter. It was just good to be back out here and make plays."
Nobody else noticed Leonard tiring. In fact, he delivered the decisive blow in the final minute.
After watching his teammates shut down Kansas City's potent offense heading into the bye week and wondering when the headaches would finally go away, Leonard helped his teammates to another impressive performance against the defending AFC South champs.
The Colts sacked Watson three times. The Texans' top two runners — Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde — combined for only 69 yards on 19 carries.
Indy forced field goals on each of Houston's first three trips inside the red zone. In the fourth quarter, the Colts had a stop on fourth-and-1 and an interception from Pierre Desir before Leonard helped close out the game when he scooped up the ball before it hit the turf.
But it wasn't just Leonard making plays, which was no surprise to coach Frank Reich.
"They're just continuing to get better," he said Monday on a conference call. "They very much believe in each other and I really, truly believe the way they've been practicing for the last month or so, we felt it was coming."
The defense appears to be rounding into form after some early trouble.
Free-agent signee Justin Houston has three sacks in the last two games. Jabaal Sheard is starting to pressure quarterbacks more consistently after missing the entire preseason with a knee injury.
Playmaking safety Malik Hooker could return soon after tearing the meniscus in his knee. While Leonard got back on the field against the Texans, he likely will improve in the coming weeks as he gets back into game shape.
And yet, the Colts (4-2) still lead the division — even with Leonard at less than full strength.
"You could just feel his presence out there and that's big time," Reich said. "I'm happy for him, not only to get him back but then for him to close out the game like that."
Pass protection. Jacoby Brissett was sacked five times in the first two weeks. He has only gone down twice in the last four games — once Sunday despite facing three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. Reich says Brissett's ability to stay poised under pressure has allowed the Colts to get their passing game on track.
WHAT'S NOT WORKING
Delivering early knockout punches. The Colts came up with all the crucial plays late in the victories over Kansas City and Houston. But they also allowed both teams to make it a one-score game late.
Brissett. Indy's new starting quarterback continues to impress. He threw for a career-high 326 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. And six of his 13 incompletions were throwaways.
Marlon Mack. He started the day ranked among the league's top rushers, but the Texans limited Mack to 44 yards on 18 carries. He is ranked outside the league's top five for the first time this season.
Hooker did limited work at practice last week and could return this weekend. Injured receiver Devin Funchess could return to practice as soon as this week. Defensive lineman Carl Davis (hamstring) was the only notable injury against Houston.
Three. Indy held Houston to field goals on its first three red-zone trips.
Indy rebounded from its first home loss of the season with a strong overall performance. With Denver and Miami coming to town over the next three weeks, with a trip to Pittsburgh in between, the Colts have a chance to take charge of the division race.