As if an exciting, new offense and sensible play calling weren’t enough of an indication that Frank Reich has smarts, the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year head coach is mindful of perception, too.
When the Colts led 14-3 at halftime of Sunday’s game at Washington, the deja vu was undeniable. These guys in blue have blown eight of 10 leads at intermission since the start of last season.
“I think there’s probably a moment in there, some people are saying, ‘Here we go again,’ when the third quarter starts,” Reich admitted after the Colts’ stunningly stout 21-9 triumph over the Redskins at FedExField in Landover, Md.
“That thought probably went through everybody’s mind. That’s fair, until we prove otherwise. Today was step one to proving otherwise that we are going to finish.”
Nobody could blame fans and media for wondering when humbling reality was going to set in, especially after the Colts blew a 13-point, third-quarter lead in a 34-23 opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
But a young Colts defense led by rookie linebacker Darius Leonard delivered a stunning performance. Not since 2014 had the Colts limited an opponent to single digits. Not since 2016 had a Colts opponent failed to score a touchdown.
“They did an amazing job,” quarterback Andrew Luck said of the defense, “especially in that third quarter there, where we went someone told me four or five drives in a row for like 18 total yards or something.
“Man, what a great job they did of sort of, yeah, keeping us in the driver’s seat it felt like.”
A week after the second-round pick debuted with a team-high nine tackles, Leonard doubled that, 15 of them solos. His 18 tackles are the most for a Colts player since linebacker Kavell Conner hit that number in 2011. It’s also the most tackles for a Colts rookie since at least 1994. Leonard also had one sack, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
The rookie actually chided himself for a missed play early on.
“I made a mistake on the screen in the first half,” he said in the locker room. “I knew what the play was.
“I knew I let the team down on that one play and I never want to do it again, so I kind of kept it going. I’m just working hard, taking each play play-by-play and trying to help my team win.”
He’s quickly earned the respect of his team.
“Unbelievable,” Reich said of Leonard.
“He’s been doing that all camp,” defensive tackle Al Woods said, as reported by Associated Press. “It was a matter of time before he brought it out. Kudos to him: he brought it out at the right time and we love him for that."
Reich’s offense, which is designed to let Luck just play by executing quick-hit, short-range passes, seized control from the outset. The Colts drove 65 yards in 11 plays, the last a Luck 7-yard TD pass to tight end Eric Ebron.
It’s the second consecutive week Ebron has caught a touchdown pass for his new team. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton would help put this game away with his second score in as many games on a crossing route that crossed up the Redskins defense and saw the Pro Bowl receiver wide open for a 3-yard TD catch with 7:32 remaining.
In between, it was mostly stingy Colts defense aside from rookie running back Nyheim Hines making two guys miss to score his first NFL touchdown on a determined 8-yard rush up the middle in the second quarter.
Yeah, you didn’t expect that from the defense, huh? But that’s the NFL for you. Whatever you’re feeling — outside of Cleveland and maybe Buffalo these days — is “not for long.”
Just when it seems obvious that the Colts are bound to struggle early on this season, considering the schedule after that opener had them on the road for five of seven games, they rebound to inspire and give fans hope.
By the end, a guy many had never heard of even made a play. Defensive tackle Jihad Ward provided the team’s third sack — and another by Margus Hunt was negated by penalty. Jihad who? Ward was signed to the practice squad two days after he was among final cuts in Dallas, then promoted to the active roster three days ago.
It was that kind of day. Leonard celebrated his first NFL sack. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard also got one, too, and was a constant pocket presence. Safety Clayton Geathers had 11 tackles.
“It’s a fun unit to watch,” Luck said, still gushing about the “D.” “They’re only going to get better. They’re young, they’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re tough.”
No, the Colts wouldn’t blow this lead. As Reich suggested, they instead altered the perception that this team had just too many holes to avoid starting 0-2 for a fifth consecutive year.
Consider that the Redskins, who had a league-best 182 yards rushing in an opening win at Arizona, finished with just 65 yards on 22 carries. Quarterback Alex Smith completed 33-of-46 passes for 292 yards, but the Colts hounded him throughout and forced a lot of short underneath throws. Not stretching the field consistently allowed swarming Colts tacklers to make stops.
The Colts’ offense outrushed their hosts with 104 yards on 28 carries. Rookie running back Jordan Wilkins had a team-best 61 yards on 10 carries.
Not having offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo for a second consecutive week due to a hamstring injury was also a non-issue. Third-year pro Le’Raven Clark made his first start at left tackle and Joe Haeg handled right tackle and neither allowed a sack. Luck was sacked only once.
The Colts quarterback, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, was steady for the most part aside from two interceptions, the latter a bad decision and the first an unlucky deflection.
He completed 21-of-31 passes for 179 yards with the two TDs. A week after Luck connected with nine different receivers, he spread it around to eight guys this time. Reich’s offense had some hiccups, including a stretch of four consecutive three-and-out possessions, but it clicked enough. In two games, the Colts have converted 20-of-33 third downs (60.6 percent).
Again, that’s most encouraging.
The road ahead is still challenging. The Colts visit Reich’s old team, the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, next Sunday. There’s also a Thursday night game on Oct. 4 at longtime-nemesis New England.
“I think this team has come a long way,” Luck said, “but we have to continue to improve. We have to keep that attitude.”
If nothing else, this rebuilding team inspired optimism this day. And with it, there’s modest assurance that these young Colts are on the right path to being a solid team, one that can finish what it starts.