The Indianapolis Colts' defense on Saturday night set out to do something few teams have been able to accomplish to this point of the 2021 season: make Mac Jones look like a rookie.
Jones, the New England Patriots' young quarterback, has displayed rare poise and playmaking ability in his first NFL season, helping lead his team to the top of the AFC standings heading into Week 15 action.
Backed by a raucous home crowd out for blood against one of its most hated rivals, however, the Indianapolis defense didn't take long at all to answer the call. Executing the gameplan of defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to near perfection at points on Saturday, the Colts would pick off two Jones passes and keep the Patriots' offense off the scoreboard for three whole quarters.
New England eventually found its footing on offense throughout the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late. Jones' last four pass attempts of the night would fall harmlessly to the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, sealing a huge 27-17 victory for a Colts team that continues to build momentum towards the postseason.
"Great team win," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "Going up against who is now the No. 1 seed in the AFC, obviously coached by a legend, they've earned their right and respect that they've gotten. Our guys came ready to play; we played well in all three phases.
"I've felt it for about three or four weeks now — like, our defense is literally … I can't explain it, but we're getting better," Reich continued. "Like, I can tangibly feel it in every area, every player. The way we're gameplanning it, the way we're calling it, the way we're playing it, I can feel it's getting better and better."
Jones had found success to this point of the season by leaning on a mostly run-heavy offensive attack, and also by taking advantage of a receiving corps that had dropped the fewest passes in the NFL this year. With heavy protection also in the mix — the Patriots' 79 plays with six or more offensive linemen in the formation are the second-most in the NFL — Jones and the New England offense was able to keep opposing defenses on their toes by getting passing yards in huge chunks; in fact, the Patriots' 83 passing plays of 15 yards or more rank sixth in the league.
To counter that attack, Eberflus this week installed a defensive gameplan that really threw everything it could at the rookie quarterback to see how he would respond. The Colts usually employ a pretty simple zone defensive approach, but on Saturday they not only played more man-to-man coverage overall, but they also were able to confuse Jones at times by showing man-to-man looks before the snap before quickly dropping back into their zone concepts at the second and third levels.
Indy's defensive speed in the middle of the field did the rest from there, as linebacker Darius Leonard was able to jump in front of a Jones pass for an interception at the Indy 6-yard line late in the second quarter, helping preserve a 17-0 Colts halftime lead. Then, with the Patriots' offense trying to hit the reset button to open up the third quarter, another Indy linebacker, Bobby Okereke, was able to read Jones' eyes and make an impressive diving interception on New England's third play of the second half. Four plays later, kicker Michael Badgley would known in a 41-yard field goal to extend Indy's lead to 20-0 with 11:54 left in the third quarter.
Leonard, in a postgame interview with Colts.com's Larra Overton, wanted to be sure nobody forgot that two other Indy linebackers — Matthew Adams and E.J. Speed — also made huge contributions on Saturday, as Adams was able to block a first-quarter Patriots punt attempt, which was recovered in the end zone by Speed for his second special teams touchdown of the year.
"I would love to say that the linebackers had a great day today," Leonard said with a smile. "It feels good, especially (because) we go to war every day. You know, practices have been hard for the linebackers, and the way we work, this is more than teammates — we're like brothers, we're family. And to see other guys have success, that's what you love, you know what I mean? … Everybody's having fun, so it's good. It's good to see the linebackers stepping up and making plays when it's needed."
Leonard finished with a game-high 10 tackles on Saturday, to go along with one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit, a forced fumble and pass defensed, as well as his aforementioned interception. Safety Khari Willis added nine total tackles, while cornerback Kenny Moore II (six tackles, one for a loss, and two passes defensed) and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (four tackles, one for a loss, a sack and two quarterback hits) also had strong efforts for the Indy defense.
The task from here doesn't get any easier for the Colts, as they travel to take on the NFC's No. 1 seed, the Arizona Cardinals, next Sunday. The Cardinals (10-3), who travel to take on the Detroit Lions (1-11-1) on Sunday, feature dynamic quarterback Kyler Murray and a strong run game led by James Conner.
But after another strong defensive performance against one of the NFL's top offenses on Saturday night, Reich and the Colts remain a confident bunch.
"We're adjusting as the year is going on to what we're doing right, how our players are playing, and they're playing their techniques, they're reading it great, they're playing it great, we're making plays," Reich said. "I'm really, really happy with the direction our defense is going."
Don't miss any of the action from Saturday Night Football as the Indianapolis Colts host the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium.