INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts' defense faces its toughest test of the season this Saturday afternoon in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
In front of the unit is a matchup against an offense full of weapons, and its trigger man is the likely front-runner for NFL MVP. When you extrapolate this year's playoff matchups, there are solid quarterbacks and good offenses all around, but this is different.
On the docket this week for the Colts' defense is Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, who boast the top offense in both yardage (425.6 YPG) and scoring (35.3 PPG), and rank near the top in numerous other categories.
The Colts' defense has been one of the league's best, particularly over the last half of the season — Indy's 15.5 points-allowed-per-game average in its last 11 games ranks second only to the Chicago Bears (15.0 points-allowed average) during that span — but they haven't faced anything like this yet.
"Yeah, I mean just their weapons. They've got several All-Pro players on their squad," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters about the Chiefs offense this week. "They have a lot of good players that didn't get that recognition. There's a lot of skill on that side of the ball for them. The scheme is a little bit unique too in terms of what they do and how they do it. It's going to be a big challenge for our defense."
When looking over the Chiefs' offense, you obviously have to start with Mahomes, the aforementioned front-runner for MVP. He put together a historic regular season, as his 50 touchdown passes are tied for the second most in a single season in NFL history, and his 5,097 passing yards and 113.8 passer rating are both the eighth-highest ever.
"Yeah, the first thing that jumps out to you is arm talent. The great quarterbacks of the game, if you go all the way back to the beginning and watch those guys, the two things they have is timing and accuracy," Eberflus said. "They have varying degrees of arm strength, but man, the timing at which they throw the ball and it gets there on time and the accuracy which they have. This is what this young man has. Then it's been obviously talked about a lot — his athletic ability to escape, him throwing from different arm angles and all those things, he certainly has that. But he has the attributes you want in terms of timing and accuracy."
Tha man pulling the strings for the Chiefs is head coach Andy Reid, who is known as an offensive mastermind and has arguably the most capable quarterback he's ever had at his disposal.
"I just think that they do a great job of being very multiple and very diverse. They keep offenses guessing," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "I think Coach Reid, that's been his M.O. for a long time. He's very good at being creative and using the weapons that he has. They do have great weapons and he knows how to use them and spread the ball around. Then having a quarterback like that who is a playmaker, he's had a tremendous year."
Schematically, Eberflus sees the ways that Kansas City lines up offensively as a challenge; a unique one compared to what you would normally see in an NFL spread offense.
"Well, they really spread the field horizontally and vertically with your defense and make you tackle in space. That's what they do," Eberflus said. "Again, our fundamentals of the cup, our fundamentals of setting up and breaking, tackling and striking – those are going to be the big things for us that we want to make sure that we handle in terms of just our basics of our system."
The main weapons Reid and Mahomes have in their arsenal is tight end Travis Kelce and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins. Hill and Kelce were both named First-Team All-Pro and ranked statistically near the top of their position essentially across the board. And while Watkins has struggled to stay healthy in his career, he was drafted in the top five in 2014 for a reason.
Hill and Watkins and both capable of stretching the field and taking the top off of defenses; Hill's speed and quickness is definitely what makes him most dangerous. Meanwhile, Kelce is arguably the top tight end in the game and can line up and make plays anywhere on the field.
While the Chiefs have a diversity of talent on their offense, the Colts do as well, which has helped the Colts defense prepare for challenges such as this.
"Yeah, I think it's a big issue when you start dealing with different skillsets," Eberflus said. "When teams have a good receiver and a good tight end and they can put them on opposite sides of the ball or on the same side — mostly opposite — that creates problems for the defense. It just does — the matchups. That's why it's great to have — we have a great tight end. We have several great tight ends. We are able to use our tight ends, and man, that makes it hard for defenses. We have two or three good receivers — that makes it hard. So when we face those guys it's a difficult task."
FOCUSING ON THEMSELVES
Do the Colts have a unique challenge in front of them? Yes. But they are also aware that they can only control what they do. No matter what lies ahead, the first focus must be on perfecting your own fundamentals and making sure you have your tasks down.
"Yeah, I think it's us oriented. I really do," Eberflus said when asked what the specific focus of the Chiefs' offense is this week. "I think when you play a squad like this that the focus goes more to you then it ever should. I know that might sound backwards, but it's not to me and our staff. We have to focus on our fundamentals, on what we do and how we do it. That's the most important thing when you play a team of this caliber."
Rookie All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, who has already become a leader for this team and embodies what the coaching staff preaches on a daily basis, emphasized that you can't change what you're doing because of the competition.
"No, you just go in with the same mindset. Everything is gray matter on the opposite side of the ball," Leonard said. "As long as we go in and just play our keys and hustle to the ball, I think we will be fine."
One big tool the Chiefs have is the ability to get the ball downfield or pick up chunk plays at any time. However, that just so happens to be one of the Colts' defenses areas of strength. While Kansas City was third in 40-yard pass plays (15), the Colts allowed the second-fewest (four).
"Yeah, no question. I mean it's out there stat wise. They get first and second down, they don't go to third down very much and all those things. They get a lot of explosives and they are top in the league in that. They are really top in the league in every category," Eberflus said. "You're dealing with an offense that's above everybody else in those stats. So like I said, we've got our hands full. We've got to certainly try to limit the big plays and it's going to be a big challenge."
No matter the challenge ahead, Reich knows that the Colts defense has consistently showed up to play, whether it's completely stifling a team from start to finish or coming up with stops at important times.
"I really trust Matt and the staff and the players to continue to keep building on what we do," Reich said. "This is certainly the best offense obviously statistically in the NFL this year. Certainly, the biggest challenge that we've faced. It's really about what we do and believing in our players and staying true to what we do. Being disciplined and playing together and I trust Matt will have the best game plan for that."