INDIANAPOLIS — This was the type of Sunday defensive performance that the Indianapolis Colts envisioned for this season in a 28-11 smothering of the Minnesota Vikings at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts (1-1) were coming off a Week 1 where some things went well statistically for the defense, but they could not keep the Jacksonville Jaguars from moving the chains and picking up modest gains in the passing game in a 27-20 road loss.
On Sunday, however, in front of their temporary maximum-capacity crowd of 2,500, the Colts made necessary corrections and overwhelmed the Vikings from start to finish.
“Defensively, I don’t know if you can play much better than we played defensively,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “That was an explosive offense. We were good for 60 minutes. You could feel it the whole game. Our defense kept the pressure on them. We stopped the run. We had turnovers. We made the statement we wanted to make defensively.”
The Vikings received the opening kickoff and strung together a 13-play drive that resulted in a field goal, but it would be their last score until just 5 minutes were left in the game. In between scores, they punted four times, surrendered a safety, and had three consecutive drives between late in the first half and in the early second half that were punctuated with an interception.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had a little rhythm going early, but beginning in the second quarter, the Colts’ pressure seemed to force him into gunslinger mode. Cousins began misfiring passes all over the place, not hitting his pass-catchers in stride and, most importantly for the Colts, turning the ball over.
The Colts entered the game No. 2 overall in the NFL in defense, but were desperately looking for a complete-game performance of this caliber with the work they’ve done on that side of the ball, adding All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner this offseason and counting on development from several young players.
In Week 1, although they limited Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II to 173 passing yards, he completed all but one of his 20 attempts. That came after the Colts allowed some gaudy statistical games to opposing quarterbacks late last season as well.
The rebound against Cousins and Minnesota was big, as Cousins went 11-of-26 passing (42.3%) for 113 yards with three interceptions. The Colts were able to get a hand on nine passes and forced a passer rating of 15.9. You have to go back 15 years to find a game where the Colts forced a quarterback into a worse rating, all the way back to when Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith was a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers in 2005.
There were times where the Vikings run game and their outside zone scheme was productive, but overall the Colts held it in check as well, especially since the Vikings were far enough behind where they couldn’t afford to keep running. Minnesota would accumulate 80 yards on 18 carries (4.4 avg.) and one Dalvin Cook touchdown.
The Colts yielded just 175 yards of offense to the Vikings, the fewest allowed by the Colts since they held the Cincinnati Bengals to 135 yards in Week 7 of 2014. The Colts swarmed to the ball, totaling four tackles for loss.
The Colts also took the ball away three times — interceptions by Khari Willis, T.J. Carrie and Kenny Moore II — and limited the Vikings to 2-of-9 on third down (22.2%), 1-of-2 in the red zone (50.0%) and sacked Cousins three times (with seven total quarterback hits) — 1.5 sacks for Buckner, 1 for defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis and 0.5 for defensive end Justin Houston.
The Colts narrowly missed another pair of interceptions by linebacker Darius Leonard and rookie cornerback Isaiah Rodgers by mere inches.
While the Colts pounded the ball on the ground offensively, the defense had their back and dominated time of possession, 38:25 to 21:25.
The defensive line is the engine that runs that side of the ball, and the Colts got a big effort out of its heart in Buckner at the three-technique tackle position.
On Buckner’s first sack of the day, the Vikings were backed up deep in their own territory. While Cousins was able to shake off defensive lineman Denico Autry, Buckner was right there to engulf him for the safety. It’s the third straight regular season game that the Vikings surrendered a safety.
“Like I said before, I have high expectations for myself and I hold myself to a high standard,” Buckner said. “Last week wasn’t good enough for me and I started to catch a little fire throughout this game towards the second half and that’s what this team needs from me every week. I just need to continue to build off of that and continue to rush with my teammates. As a unit on defense, rush and coverage work together. We got (three) interceptions. Guys on the d-line were getting pressure, working together to try to keep Cousins in the pocket, and get him down a couple times.”
The line also saw positive contributions from nose tackle Grover Stewart, who provided occasional pressure on the backfield, as well as end Al-Quadin Muhammad, Lewis — who notched his first sack since 2018 — and Autry, who had 2.0 sacks in Week 1 and seemed to play more defensive tackle this week after starting the opener at left/power end.
The line’s elder statesman, Houston, showed a high motor as well as he made some nice plays near the line of scrimmage and met Buckner in the backfield for a shared sack.
Colts linebackers were a great match for Minnesota’s fast style of offense. Leonard roamed sideline to sideline and made a handful of big plays.
Leonard finished the day with a team-high six tackles, passing Quentin Coryatt (297) for the fifth-most tackles in a player’s first three seasons in Colts franchise history. Leonard’s 299 career tackles are also the most in the NFL within a player’s first 30 games since at least 1987 before tackles became an official stat.
The Colts were dealt a pair of unfortunate ailments of differing severities in the secondary. Starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin fell ill with a stomach bug in the morning and was forced to miss the game. Starting free safety Malik Hooker suffered what was confirmed on Monday as a torn Achilles, which will end the fourth-year pro’s season.
In the base defense, the Colts used Moore and Xavier Rhodes on the outside at corner, with Moore kicking inside and Carrie taking his spot on the outside in sub-packages. Later on, Rhodes would miss some time with cramps, and was then relieved by Rodgers.
Replacing Hooker when he left the game was another rookie in Julian Blackmon, who saw his first-career action since tearing an ACL in the Pac-12 Championship game in December. He may now be thrust into a starting role in Hooker’s absence.
Blackmon filled in superbly, playing freely due to his confidence, awareness, and instincts, which is perhaps something they could use more of in the secondary.
Late in the first half, Blackmon broke up a downfield pass intended for tight end Irv Smith Jr. — who has two inches and 55 pounds on Blackmon — by popping him right after the ball arrived. Two plays later, Cousins uncorked a deep downfield pass and Blackmon high-pointed it, tipping it into the arms of Willis, who returned the interception 43 yards.
“He was all around the ball, all around the ball,” Reich said of Blackmon. “Just from my eye watching the game, he played great. He made the one play on the Cover-2 down the middle – that looked like it’s going to be a big play for their offense, and he breaks it up, gets his head and hat on the ball. Those are the instincts that we saw on film.
“He just deserves so much credit. Number one, physically, what he had to come back from. Number two, just mentally staying ready. He couldn’t practice for so long, and he wasn’t even able to participate in walk-thrus because of how we had him designated. A credit to him staying in it mentally. Then you could just tell the competitor in him showed up (Sunday) on game day.”
One of the big concerns facing the Colts secondary was Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, fresh off a 110-yard, two-TD performance in Week 1. After the Pro Bowler racked up three catches for 31 yards on the opening drive, the Colts held him to zilch the rest of the game.
Rhodes looked good in his first game against his former team. He showed tight coverage, and he along with Moore had some nice, aggressive pass breakups while Minnesota was buried deep in its own territory.
There is reason for the Colts to be mightily proud of what they accomplished. However, that game is now in the rear-view mirror and another sits in front of them. They now turn their attention to the New York Jets (0-2) and a 32nd-ranked offense that visits Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.
If the Colts defense is for real, they’ll be counted on to take care of business at home once again against what should be perceived as “easy” prey.
(Jake Arthur has covered the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for nearly a decade and is a contributor for the team's official website, Colts.com. He’s on Twitter and Facebook @JakeArthurNFL, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)