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Colts-Browns preview: Cleveland brings defense on historic pace to Lucas Oil Stadium

The Colts on Sunday will face a defense that's not just playing like one of the best defenses in the NFL this season, but a defense that's playing like one of the best in the NFL in recent memory. 


The Cleveland Browns' defense, entering Week 7, has been historically difficult to move the ball against. That's not hyperbole. A few by-the-numbers things to know about the group the Colts will face on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium:

3.8 yards per play allowed. No team since 1977 has finished a season allowing under 3.9 yards per play. Only one team in the last three decades has allowed fewer than four yards per play, that being the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won Super Bowl XLIII.

200.4 yards allowed per game. The Browns are on pace to allow 3,407 yards of total defense in 2023, which would be the lowest total for a full season since the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (the NFL schedule, of course, is now 17 games).

Under 150 yards per game. Through six games, the Browns have held two opponents – the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals – to 73 and 144 yards of total offense, respectively. Only 24 teams since 1999 have held opponents under 150 yards twice in a season; if the Browns do it one more time, they'll be only the sixth team in that span to hit that mark.

49.5 percent first down or touchdown conversion rate.

Four turnovers forced. Here's the last thing about the Browns' defense: They don't take the ball away. Only the New England Patriots have fewer takeaways (three) than the Browns entering Week 7. In a sense, that makes Jim Schwartz's defense even more smothering: They don't even need to take the ball away to stop opposing offenses.

"These guys fly around, they play full speed – high-effort group," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "Really running to the ball, really running to the action. No hesitating has been found on tape. They play real fast, they play real hard. They make it tough on offenses.

"We've got a challenge in front of us this week, but that's what we enjoy about the NFL – having a challenge and trying to rise up to the occasion. You can't find a lot of numbers that you can criticize on this defense so I won't be the one to put it out there. These guys are playing great ball, we're excited to compete against them and this time of the week, trying to put together a good plan. Try to put together a good plan, give us a chance to win this game and see if we can't have a chance to compete."

The Colts' challenge against Cleveland's defense will come after a challenging week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Coming off Week 6's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, defensive tackle Grover Stewart was suspended six games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances and quarterback Anthony Richardson was ruled out for the remainder of the season.

But there were no woe-is-us vibes on 56th Street this week. The message from head coach Shane Steichen on down to the team's leaders was this: We're 3-3 with 11 games to go, and everything we want to accomplish this season remains ahead of us.

"We still got a whole season ahead," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "It's cliche to say but it's true — next man up. The guys, we all have faith in each other and we trust one another to get the job done. And we gotta continue as a team, as a unit to move forward and continue to stack these wins."

This is where the culture Steichen has worked to build within the Colts is important. A difficult loss followed by a difficult week followed by a difficult opponent isn't the easiest thing to navigate, but the focus has been on Week 7 and what lies ahead, not on what happened in the past.

And that makes the Colts well-equipped to handle adverse, hard situations better. The Colts have four games left before their bye: vs. Cleveland and New Orleans at home, then at Carolina and against New England in Germany. Plenty can happen between now and Thanksgiving, starting with Sunday's matchup against one of the best defenses in the NFL at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"I feel like the season is a marathon," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "There are highs and lows throughout this league. You're losing guys to season-ending injuries. Weekly, it's always something new. I think it's the team that handles adversity the best, the team that continues to focus on getting better every week that eventually comes out on top."

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