Darius Leonard couldn't help but feel a rush of déjà vu early in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's Week 7 road matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
After all, less than two weeks prior, Leonard and the Colts had built a 25-9 fourth-quarter lead over the Baltimore Ravens — also in a road primetime matchup — only to see the Ravens, led by Lamar Jackson, come storming back to eventually win the game, 31-25, in overtime.
On Sunday at a rain-soaked Levi's Stadium, the Colts, once again, had jumped out to a fourth-quarter lead — this time at 20-12 over the host 49ers.
But, seemingly, before Leonard and the Colts' defense knew what had hit them, San Francisco and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had marched right down the field, going 70 yards in just three plays and reaching the end zone with a 14-yard passing play to Debo Samuel.
All of a sudden, in a game that was at times an offensive struggle to that point due to the slippery conditions, the 49ers were just one successful two-point conversion away from tying the game and stealing the momentum in front of their home fans.
But whatever nightmare flashbacks Leonard was experiencing at that critical juncture were obviously brief. In fact, on that ensuing two-point conversion attempt, it was the Colts' All-Pro linebacker who was able to knock down Garoppolo's pass attempt to the grass, helping Indy maintain its lead.
In fact, the Colts' defense would continue to show its lessons learned from that gut-wrenching Ravens defeat the rest of the way, utilizing several big plays to help Indy fly home with a 30-18 victory — the Colts' (3-4) second straight win, and third in their last four ballgames.
"Man, I ain't gonna lie — when they came out in the fourth quarter, and they scored in three plays, the first thing that went through my mind was, 'Oh hell, here we go again,'" Leonard said. "But then we stepped up, stopped them on the two-point conversion, stopped them on the next few drives, so that was great.
"We came into a hostile environment, game on the line, and the defense got a stop," Leonard said. "That's definitely what we needed, and especially after Monday night. We came out on Sunday night and finished the ballgame."
The 49ers (2-4) actually started out the game hot on offense, going 78 yards in eight plays on their opening drive, which ended with a 14-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Elijah Mitchell. San Francisco would then get field goals on its next two drives to take a 12-7 lead with 2:27 left in the first quarter.
But that's when the Colts' big-play defense, led by Leonard, took over.
Forced to punt on their first three drives of the second quarter, the 49ers faced 3rd and 12 from their own 18-yard line when Garoppolo found Samuel for a 10-yard gain up the middle. With safety George Odum keeping the receiver at bay short of the first-down marker, Leonard came flying in and punched the ball out of Samuel's hands, which was recovered by cornerback Anthony Chesley at the 49ers' 28-yard line.
Five plays later, on 3rd and Goal from the 1-yard line, Colts quarterback Carson Wentz ran it into the end zone himself, giving Indy its first lead of the ballgame, 13-12, with 1:05 left in the second quarter.
The Indy defense was just getting started, however.
San Francisco faced 3rd and 5 from its own 41-yard line on its first possession of the second half when defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad earned a well-timed sack and forced fumble on Garoppolo; this time, rookie defensive end Kwity Paye fell on the football at the 49ers' 33 yard line.
The offense, once again, followed through on its end. After wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. was able to draw a defensive pass interference call inside the San Francisco 5-yard line, running back Jonathan Taylor did the rest from there, reaching the end zone untouched to extend the Colts' lead to 20-12 with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
Then, clinging to a 23-18 lead with time running out in the fourth quarter, the Colts earned another well-timed takeaway — this time through the air. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who head coach Frank Reich said almost didn't play on Sunday as he continues to battle through a nagging injury, was able to step in front of Samuel to pick off Garoppolo's pass attempt at the San Francisco 43-yard line.
Six plays later, Wentz found Pittman Jr. with a jump ball near the goal line, and the second-year wide receiver was able to go up and get the ball at its highest point, absorb contact and still get into the end zone, putting the cherry on top to a 30-18 win.
The Colts, in all, had four takeaways on the night, as safety Khari Willis also had an interception near the end of the second quarter. Entering Monday night's game, the Colts are now tied with the Buffalo Bills for the most total takeaways in the NFL, with 16. At this rate, the Indy defense would finish the season with 39 takeaways — just one shy of its 2021 goal.
"Obviously early on, they ran the ball really well and we had to make some adjustments," said defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who had a satisfying sack on the final play of the day against his former team. "With the rain conditions and every thing, we just had to keep getting at it, hammering at the rock. And we knew that the ball was going to come out quick when Jimmy's out there, and he did get the ball out quick, but guys were doing well getting pressure in his face, forcing some throws, and guys came up big with some picks.
"And also Darius, obviously, punching the ball out and getting the forced fumble, and Muhammad getting the sack-fumble — I mean, we did a great job of getting the ball back to our offense and giving them opportunities."