Colts' under-the-radar defense overshadowed by woeful offense

INDIANAPOLIS – So much in professional football today is geared toward providing advantages to offenses.

From the way pass interference is adjudicated to the rules governing how defenders can handle quarterbacks, the offense has some clear built-in advantages.

And that is why it likely has been frustrating to play defense for the Indianapolis Colts this season. The Colts, for the umpteenth time this season, showed in Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles just how difficult it is to win with an overreliance on defense in today’s NFL.

The Eagles’ 17-16 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium followed a familiar pattern: The Indianapolis defense fought valiantly throughout, but given the lack of scoring punch from the offense, it wasn’t enough.

It’s a blueprint that should seem familiar. This game represented a near-carbon copy of the Colts’ Oct. 30 loss to the Washington Commanders -- even down to the final score (Washington won 17-16).

On Sunday, it was a different day, different quarterback, different coach but the same outcome.

In this game, the Colts limited the Eagles to their lowest point total of the season. But juxtapose that against an offense that scored touchdowns on just one of its three trips inside the red zone, an offensive line that is improved but still not nearly good enough, and an alarming number of negative plays, and you’ll get an identical result.

“We had everything in front of us,” Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday said. “We didn't execute enough to get the win. Disappointing loss, obviously. Just too many mistakes, too many penalties, too many negative plays, missing kicks. You just can't play a team that good and give them that many opportunities. We just left them in the game. And ultimately [they] made one more play than we did.”

And that’s the thing: The Colts’ offense just doesn’t make nearly enough plays.

The offense started hot, teasing a packed house with the promise of more highlights to come. Indianapolis took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in 10 plays, with running back Jonathan Taylor rushing seven times for 49 yards. But after that possession, the Colts’ offensive performance would be mostly remembered for inconsistency, shortcomings and sloppiness.

“A lot of should’ve, would’ve, could’ve,” said center Ryan Kelly, part of an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 40 sacks.

Saturday has done what he can to inject some life into the Colts, like when he moved practices outdoors this week despite the cold temperatures and the Colts playing home games indoors. But it will take more than a few coaching tweaks to repair all that ails this offense. From struggling rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann, to the propensity for careless penalties, no amount of quick fixes from Saturday can rectify this.

And the impact that’s had on the defense has never been clearer. Since Week 5, the Colts’ defense has performed like an elite unit even though it has almost nothing to show for it.

Entering Sunday, Indianapolis was fifth in the league in defensive expected points added in that span. Additionally, the Colts have allowed more than 20 points just three times in 11 games. That latter statistic might actually mean something if the Colts weren’t also averaging 15.7 points entering the game -- third fewest in the NFL. But give them credit for consistency: Their 16 points was utterly predictable given their previous pace.

The lack of production on offense constantly raises the stakes for the Colts' defense. That happened again on Sunday when the Eagles inevitably got their offense going. The Colts held Philadelphia to three points entering the fourth quarter, but the Eagles put together two clutch scoring drives to pull out a bounceback win one week after their first loss.

On the final touchdown, Philadelphia faced a third-and-goal from the 7-yard line, with quarterback Jalen Hurts scoring the game-winner on a draw play. The Indianapolis defense, with no margin for error, got fooled.

“Usually,” linebacker Zaire Franklin said, “they run the quarterback draw out of the empty [set].”

The Colts have a defense that even some more impressive teams wish they had. They are getting Pro Bowl-level performances from a number of players, like DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart and Stephon Gilmore. And they are doing this without the contributions of All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard, who is expected to miss the rest of the season after a second back surgery.

But when the offense fails to make plays, none of it tends to matter.

“It's boring,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, “but we have to execute better than we have. The devil's in the details. It's over and over and over and over.”