INDIANAPOLIS — For a second consecutive game, the Indianapolis Colts' defense was met with a tough challenge against one of the top offenses in the league.
And for a second straight week, the Colts were up for that challenge.
After holding the Kansas City Chiefs to an unheard of 13 points in a Week 5 win, the Colts' defense stayed disciplined and made important stops when it mattered most against the Houston Texans on Sunday in their 30-23 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Texans' offense wasn't completely overwhelmed — they did accumulate 391 total yards on the day — but thanks to Indy's stingy defense on third down and in the red zone, the Texans could only get in the end zone twice, settling for three field goals instead in the first half.
"We just played great, sound defense," Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard told reporters after the game. "We went out, we had a great gameplan — the coaches put us in the right positions to go out and make plays — and we executed the gameplan pretty well. We kinda kept him (Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson) in the pocket so he couldn't get out and beat us with his feet. So, we had a great gameplan against him."
Leonard, the NFL's reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, made his return to the field Sunday after a concussion caused him to miss the Colts' previous three games. He was responsible for one of two takeaways by the Colts' defense on Sunday, as his heads-up interception of Watson with 26 seconds remaining iced the game for the Colts (4-2).
"It was amazing, you know? Just being back there once again. To be able to end the game with an interception was definitely big," Leonard said of his return. "It just shows what kind of team we've got here. Everybody plays great football — offensively, defensively and special teams. So, we always said if we can go out and play great team ball we're gonna be hard to beat."
The Texans (4-3) entered the game first in the NFL in red zone scoring at 71.4 percent, but the Colts held them to just 40 percent on Sunday, with touchdowns on only two of their five trips inside the Colts' 20-yard line.
"They did a good job," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said of the Colts' defensive efforts against Houston in the red zone. "Defensively, we had some good playing down there. They did a nice job. We weren't able to crack the code. They did a nice job."
Houston also entered Sunday's game first in the NFL in third-down efficiency at 51 percent, but they were bottled up to just a 33.3 percent conversion rate against the Colts. The Texans also converted just 1-of-3 fourth-down attempts.
The Colts were also able to provide pressure on Watson the entire game. The third-year Clemson product had been kept upright the past two weeks as the Texans didn't allow any sacks, but the Colts broke through that barrier and brought him down three times on the day — all three coming from their veteran defensive ends, Justin Houston (2.0) and Jabaal Sheard (1.0) — while others, including defensive tackle Denico Autry, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, Leonard and linebacker Anthony Walker — forced some ill-advised pass attempts.
Adding to the defensive performance Sunday was the Colts' ability to make plays in clutch situations. Leonard, of course, iced the game with his interception late, but cornerback Pierre Desir also added a huge fourth-quarter interception.
Down 28-16 and attempting to mount a comeback while in Colts territory, Watson scanned the field and was quickly pressured by Houston. Watson then threw the ball wide out to the left side, but Desir had eyes on him the whole way, leaving his assignment on Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins to fly up and intercept the ball that was intended for Texans running back Duke Johnson.
The play for Desir was even more impressive considering the veteran cornerback had missed all three practices this week as he dealt with a hamstring injury. And, much like wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who continues to dominate the Texans, Desir's strong play against Houston, which was highlighted down the stretch against DeAndre Hopkins in two Colts' victories last season, continues.
"It's not really me," Desir said. "I know we do a lot of film together as a team, especially the defense and the secondary. We know what they can do. (They're a) high-powered offense, Watson's over there scrambling. So, we practice against that throughout the week, and we just have to get our keys and technique. But at the end of the day, it's 11 versus one, whether it's the ball carrier or receiver, he has to go and he has to beat us. And so that's what we made them do, they had to beat us, but we came out with the victory."
After an up-and-down start, the Colts' defense seems to be settling in around the midway point of the season. Whether it's limiting Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium or flustering Watson play after play and forcing two key takeaways — while also forcing a turnover on downs and a safety — this is certainly the brand of football the Colts — now in sole possession of first place in the AFC South Division — want to be playing.
"If we play great ball in all three phases then we're gonna be a very hard team to beat," Leonard said. "But we can't go out and just think we're good, we've got to go out and prove it each and every week."