INDIANAPOLIS – Tackles and tempo.
Those are the two areas Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley identified Tuesday as the root of his unit’s issues in a disastrous 29-10 loss at the Atlanta Falcons on Christmas Eve.
“I think we had a couple issues in the game,” Bradley said on his weekly video conference call. “One is that we missed a tremendous amount of tackles, too many tackles, and it was from all position groups, really – d-line, linebackers, defensive backs.”
Pro Football Focus credited the Colts with 23 missed tackles in game that saw Atlanta rush for 177 yards and average 5.9 yards per carry.
That allowed quarterback Taylor Heinicke – making his third start of the season and first since Nov. 12 – to get comfortable in the pocket. He was sacked just once and finished 23-of-33 for 229 yards and a touchdown.
Indianapolis also failed to get a takeaway, ending a streak of 19 consecutive games with at least one.
Bradley didn’t put all of the responsibility on the players. He estimates the defense had more “checks” – its version of an audible – installed for Sunday than any other game this season.
The Falcons successfully pushed the tempo, disrupting the on-field communication and causing the defense to look out of sorts.
“You can put that part on me,” Bradley said. “Sometimes – here it is, a tempo situation, let’s just line up and play. We had a couple check-with-mes in tempo where we didn’t play fast. I think as you look through the whole game, that was our issue. We didn’t play fast, and we didn’t execute as well as we normally do. We didn’t tackle as well as we normally do.
“That’s what we looked at (Tuesday) and (Monday) as a coaching staff was why didn’t we play fast? I think some of that tempo issue and some of the calls that we had in conflicted and kept us from playing fast.”
The remedy for the tempo problems could be as simple as paring down the game plan. The tackling issues could require a bit more work.
Teams rarely – if ever – practice in full pads this late in the season, so physical reps can be hard to come by.
Bradley said that’s not an excuse, however, and noted the team tackled much better a week earlier in a 30-13 home victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, there will be an increased focus on fundamentals and technique in practice this week with slippery Las Vegas Raiders running backs Josh Jacobs and Zamir White potentially on the docket.
“We preach that every rep is a tackling rep, even in walk-through, and we’ve been walking through quite a bit,” Bradley said. “It’s got to be another point of emphasis with the style of backs that we’re going to see, especially this week. We’ve got to take advantage of it, even though it’s a walk-through, to really work our angles, our leverage principles and know where guys are going to be.”
The Colts placed safety Julian Blackmon on injured reserve Tuesday, ending his regular season.
The 25-year-old is in the final year of his rookie contract and leads Indianapolis with four interceptions. He’s also third on the team with 88 tackles, including a career-high five tackles for loss.
Blackmon also set career highs this season with eight pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
He’ll be replaced by second-year safety Nick Cross – who has 26 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups in 15 games – giving the secondary two second-year safeties and two rookie cornerbacks in the regular rotation.
There has been reason for optimism with Cross’ recent play. All of his production except for nine tackles has come in the past four games since he began splitting reps with Rodney Thomas II, whom Cross will now start beside.
“I like his mindset. I don’t know if I could’ve said that last year,” Bradley said. “I don’t know if there was complete trust with him out on the field, but now there is trust, and he’s going to get his chance to show us. He’s going to get a chance to show his teammates. He’s a better communicator at the free safety spot. Now he has to transfer that to the strong safety spot.”
The Colts surrendered five sacks Sunday, contributing to their lowest total yardage output (262) of the season.
Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said Atlanta deserves a lot of credit.
“When they’re healthy and rolling, that is a big, physical, aggressive unit (up front),” he said. “The pocket can get pushed, the pocket can get moved and that’s no fault of really any offensive player. That’s just giving (the Falcons) credit for being who they are. These guys in this league are the best in the world.
“You’re talking about Calais Campbell, who has been doing it for an unknown number of years, right? A huge amount of time this guy has been impacting pockets. They’ve got a good group. I thought our guys fought, battled and hung in there pretty good.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Tackles and tempo.