BALTIMORE – Early in the third quarter of the Colts' Week 3 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, Lamar Jackson dropped back to pass and finally had a rushing lane.
The dynamic quarterback took off, needing 12 yards to pick up a first down and jump-start a Ravens offense that sputtered to just seven points through two quarters. But linebacker Zaire Franklin took a good angle and physically tackled Jackson one yard short of the sticks, bringing up a third-and-one.
Baltimore subbed in a sixth offensive linemen, looking to physically overpower the Colts' front seven and grind out that one yard for a first down. But on the back side of the play, a gap opened up for linebacker EJ Speed. He bolted through it and dropped running back Gus Edwards for a loss of two.
Even a tackle for no gain might've opened the door for the Ravens to go for it on fourth down – giving one of the NFL's best rushing offenses over the last few years two opportunities to gain one yard. But because Speed aggressively hit his assignment, the Ravens had to punt.
Welcome to the 2023 Colts defense, where, as Franklin put it: "Everybody eats."
Franklin had 15 tackles, upping his season total to 45 through three games (that's not a typo), and he also added a key punt-forcing sack of Jackson late in the fourth quarter. Safety Julian Blackmon added 12 tackles, using his physicality to keep a lid on things whenever that potent Ravens run game reached the second level. Defensive ends Samson Ebukam and Kwity Paye each recorded sacks, while Ebukam and defensive tackle Taven Bryan forced fumbles; Ebukam also had two tackles for a loss. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart was a menace in the run game again, a weekly sentence that's become repetitive to write – but one we shouldn't take for granted – over the last few years.
Rookie cornerback JuJu Brents had a forced fumble and a big-time pass break-up of a third down throw to tight end Mark Andrews in his NFL regular season debut. Veteran Kenny Moore II shut down the slot. The Colts' secondary, collectively, held Jackson to just two passes that traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage – both of which were incomplete.
"We trust each other," Blackmon said. "And I think the biggest thing is we have so many game breakers, a lot of playmakers on the defense. And it showed today. We never folded. When we needed to make plays, we made them."
The kind of collective effort, from the defensive line to the linebackers to the secondary, is what the Colts hoped Year 2 in Gus Bradley's scheme would look like. It's not just the defensive line playing four-as-one – it's the entire defense being on the same page, adjusting to things on the fly and picking up for each other with a tenacity that held the Ravens under 20 points on 72 offensive plays.
"I feel like we're definitely just light years ahead," Franklin said. "Obviously with Gus, he's more comfortable with us, knowing what we're capable of doing. We're comfortable with his play-calling. And I think you could definitely see it. We were in a chess match today. We came out on top."
The Colts' defense has now forced five turnovers through three games and is knocking the ball out in bunches: Prior to Sunday night's Pittsburgh Steelers-Las Vegas Raiders game, the Colts have a league-leading seven forced fumbles (the Steelers are second with six).
Sunday's matchup against a former MVP and the new-look, passing-oriented Ravens offense was a significant challenge for the Colts' defense. And coming out with a road win, in which several players from that group each made critical plays, was quite a statement.
"Our defense, they continue to prove it week in and week out, our defensive line, our linebackers, and our DBs as a whole," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Gus does a heck of a job with those guys, getting them prepared along with the defensive staff. Just the way they are playing, they are playing together. They're playing physical. They're on the same page. Obviously, you've got things to clean up. It's never perfect. But it was just a great, great team win."