DeForest Buckner had a short, but sweet, message for his fellow members of the Indianapolis Colts defense heading into Saturday night's crucial Week 16 road matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.
Down three defensive starters — All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and safety Khari Willis — due to COVID-19-related issues, Buckner wanted his teammates to know that the likes of Kyler Murray, the Cardinals' MVP-caliber quarterback, and the tens of thousands of fans wearing red in the stands weren't exactly feeling sympathetic about Indy's defensive predicament.
"It was really just telling the guys it doesn't matter, you know what I mean?" Buckner said of his pre-game remarks to his teammates. "I mean, everybody's going through it; everybody's losing guys around the league. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. It's the next man up."
By game's end, the Colts — despite all their missing pieces not only on defense, but on offense and on special teams — found a way to get the job done, earning a 22-16 victory to improve to 9-6 on the season — and, most importantly, continue to strengthen their grip on a potential spot in the postseason.
"I feel like the guys responded really well," Buckner said matter-of-factly after the victory.
The Colts headed into Saturday knowing they'd be without a starting cornerback in Ya-Sin, who was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday, along with key rotational edge rusher Kemoko Turay.
But just hours before kickoff in this Christmas Night, primetime matchup, Indy learned two more defensive starters, Leonard and Willis, were also being placed on the COVID-19 list and would miss the Cardinals matchup, too.
For most NFL defenses, knowing you'll be without three starters — including the league's best takeaway artist in Leonard — is daunting enough. But try factoring those losses against an explosive offense like the Cardinals, who boast a top-10 offense averaging 27 points a game and have one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league in Murray.
But defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, his staff, and his players simply didn't flinch.
With Leonard out, the team relied heavily on linebacker E.J. Speed, who made his first-career start on Saturday night. The converted college quarterback and wide receiver responded with a team-best nine tackles and a pass defensed.
At cornerback, it was second-year speedster Isaiah Rodgers getting significantly increased action with Ya-Sin out. Rodgers responded with five tackles and a pass defensed of his own.
And at safety, with both Willis and Andrew Sendejo (concussion) out against the Cardinals, Indy turned to George Odum and Jahleel Addae, the latter of which a ninth-year veteran making his first-ever start with the Colts — and first start overall since 2019. Odum and Addae responded with a combined 14 tackles and a pass defensed, ensuring no big plays developed behind them.
"I mean, it was really just a next-man-up mentality," said rookie defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo, who had one tackle on the night, but was constantly in Murray's face. "I don't think anyone panicked or even really flinched. It was really just getting the next guy up. I think we all were extremely confident in the guys coming in to replace Darius and some of the other guys missing. It worked out; everyone played a great game, and we came out with the dub."
The Colts' defense, in all, limited the Cardinals to 11 points under their season average and forced a crucial safety, despite the fact they didn't register a single sack (or even a quarterback hit) and did not force a turnover for the first time in 16 games, ending their NFL-best streak. Murray, meanwhile, was limited to a season-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt, while running back Chase Edmonds averaged just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt (despite a season-high 16 carries).
No matter who's on the field, the beat goes on for the Colts' defense, which has held opponents to 17 points or fewer in five of its last six games.
"I think a lot of it's confidence," Odeyingbo said. "I mean, every team in the league has talent obviously. But the confidence that we're playing with right now is, really, I've never been around anything like it. I mean, I don't think we feel like any team in the league can or should beat us. I think that's kind of the mentality we're playing with, so in our head we're just taking it week by week, day by day, and just continuing to stay on our grind and stick to our process. So, yeah, our confidence right now is just through the roof."
Buckner is also feeling that swagger out of his teammates.
"Early on in the season, we knew the type of team that we had and the depth that we had. And we just came up short with some plays late in the fourth quarter early on in the season, and guys are finally making those plays — getting off the field when we need to, offense is scoring when we need to, managing the clock when we need to," he said. "The little things like that, you can see the confidence that our guys are playing with. And we've been preaching since we got back to the bye (week), it's playoff football. And the past two weeks definitely felt that way."
See all the action on the field at State Farm Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts face the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16.