Another bad Colts defense will put more pressure on Andrew Luck

Linebacker Darius Leonard has been a bright spot on a young defense that is adjusting to a 4-3 scheme. Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS -- When it comes to their defense, the last thing the Colts want to do is go back to the way things were early in Andrew Luck's career. You know, when Luck was healthy and carrying the offense while the defense failed to hold up its end of things.

Fast forward to today and there's some writing on the wall that indicates history could repeat itself this season.

Luck is relatively healthy outside of a "minor" foot injury, and the defense has struggled in the preseason. One difference today as compared to earlier in Luck's career is that he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. So, it's going to take time for him to regain his form.

The Colts have struggled so far in their transition to a 4-3 defense under coordinator Matt Eberflus. Part of the problem is the youth movement on that side of the ball. There are no starting defensive players remaining from the 2014 season, when Indianapolis reached the AFC Championship Game.

But the reality is a change was needed defensively. The Colts finished 20th or worse -- 30th last season -- in five of former head coach Chuck Pagano's six seasons. It is anybody's guess how long it will take for this unit to become formidable, but the Colts could be starting five first- or second-year players on defense.

"In just my experiences, it seems like we have been able to get young linebackers on the field, young defensive ends and those types of players and really acquisition players, as well," Eberflus said of installing the 4-3 scheme. "Have them come in, learn the system and have them play right away and play pretty effective. ... It's a simplistic way to teach, and it turns guys loose and it should be fun to watch and fun to play in."

"We aren't there yet, but that is what we are searching for."

The Colts have put a premium on fast, athletic players. The linemen, according to veteran Al Woods, are taught to get up the field and never stop pursuing the ball.

"The job is to not stop running after the ball until we hear the whistle blows," Woods said. "It doesn't matter what side of the field you're on. You keep going."

Rookie second-round pick Darius Leonard is quickly becoming the best linebacker on the team. Najee Goode, who was with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, and Anthony Walker (hamstring), when he's healthy, are expected to be the other two starting linebackers.

What the Colts haven't done so far is get much pass rush from their projected starters up front. Backup Hassan Ridgeway has four sacks, and John Simon, who deserves consideration to start, has 2.5.

"Is the pass rush where we need it to be? No, it's not," Eberflus said. "But there are certain guys who do certain things well, and they are using their skill set to pressure the quarterback, and those things have been positive."

Not having a pass rush puts more pressure on the players defending on the back end, because they can only do their job for so long. The Colts lack a lockdown cornerback, and safeties Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker are coming off injuries that cut their 2017 seasons short.

The Colts had problems stopping the San Francisco 49ers in what was the final preseason game for several key players last weekend. The 49ers dominated Indianapolis with their running game, getting inside Colts territory all four times with their starters in the first half. The Colts allowed only six points on those four possessions, but the 49ers made it inside the red zone three times.

Colts head coach Frank Reich referred to the defensive scheme as being a "little bit of bend-but-don't-break."

They might not always be as fortunate with that mentality during the regular season.

That brings us back to Luck.

Even if the defense only gives up three points on a drive, that will still put more pressure on Luck and the offense to put points on the board -- just like they had to during his first three seasons, when he was healthy and the Colts were winning.