INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and his players had a tall task ahead of them on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys: control an explosive offense featuring Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper that was riding an NFL-best five-game win streak.
The Colts' defense stood their ground in front of a packed Lucas Oil Stadium crowd, holding the Cowboys scoreless for the first time since 2003 in their 23-0 victory.
"Against that team with the guys they have on the other side of the ball – that's a really talented offensive team (and) some of the best skill guys in the NFL. To pitch a shutout, it is - it's playmaking," Colts head coach Frank Reich said after the game. "I thought Flus (Eberflus) called a great game. Then on top of that just the execution, the effort and it just seemed like whenever we needed to make a play – every time we come down and make any plays to stop a drive, we made it."
For the third time this season, the Colts held an opponent to fewer than 300 net yards of offense (292 on Sunday). Even though all seven of Dallas' drives reached Colts territory, the home team made the stops it needed to.
On the Cowboys' opening drive, they got the ball down to the Colts' 30-yard line and lined up for a field goal. Denico Autry — who recorded his sixth sack in three games on Sunday — reached up and blocked the kick, which was recovered by the Colts at Dallas' 44-yard line, giving the Indy offense great field position. The Colts would capitalize, scoring a touchdown eight plays later.
On the Cowboys' next drive, they marched the ball down the field again, this time knocking on the door of the end zone. After getting two shots inside the Colts' 5-yard line, the defense held up, stuffing running back Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield on 4th and 1 from the 3, and forcing — and recovering — an Elliott fumble.
"It was incredible," Reich said. "Every time we needed a third down stop – we gave up a few yards here and there but we made the plays when we needed to make them. We got pressure, we got sacks. Flus dialed up pressure at the right time. When we played coverage it seemed right. Darius (Leonard) makes a pass-break and Pierre (Desir) has that break-up on that one third down. It just seemed like every time we were at the right spot on defense, every time. That's just a credit to how hard we are playing on defense."
The numbers certainly showed a dominant defensive performance for the Colts on Sunday. They held the Cowboys to 4-of-12 on third down for a conversion rate of 33 percent, tied for the second-lowest percentage by an opponent this season. On fourth down, the Cowboys converted just 1-of-5 attempts; the last time the Colts held an opponent to one-of-five or worse on fourth down was Dec. 4, 2005, versus Tennessee.
"We just took care of what we had to take care of," rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said. "We knew what we had to do going in – stop the run – so we tried to take that out early, tried to make Dak (Prescott) beat us with his arm. Our defensive line got after him pretty well so we kind of went from there."
Sunday marked a momentous day for Leonard, who became the Colts’ single-season leader in tackles for a rookie, surpassing Jerrell Freeman's old mark of 145 set in 2012.
Leonard had a bit of a spotlight on him coming into the contest, as he and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch are two of the NFL's leading candidates for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. After compiling 11 tackles (one for loss) and two pass breakups — one of which was on a Cowboys fourth down at the beginning of the fourth quarter — Leonard may have formed a stronghold against the competition.
Leonard and the Colts were able to harass the Cowboys' talented backfield, sacking quarterback Dak Prescott three times and holding Elliott to 128 yards of offense after he'd been averaging 171 and scored five touchdowns in the five games prior. Cooper, meanwhile, had been the hottest wide receiver in football since being traded to Dallas midway through the season, but was held to just four catches for 32 yards.
This was the type of game that counted as a measuring stick for the Colts' defense, and their offensive comrades can see clear development.
"I have been playing against them since camp. I knew they were good, they were just young," tight end Eric Ebron said after the game. "Going up against them, teaching them a lot. Going up against Darius early in his career, teaching him a lot. It's finally just starting to pay off. They're taking the coaching. Flus – whatever he is doing, he's amazing. Just keep on doing it."
Rookie defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, who registered two of the team's three sacks — the first two of his career — summed up the feeling in the locker room following the team's dominant performance.
"I don't know if you guys heard all the music and all the screaming. Everybody is pretty excited right now," Lewis said. "Morale is up. Everybody is hype right now."