Colts aim to counter Jags’ ‘D’

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS FRIDAY - By Michael Marot

IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS — The In­di­anapo­lis Colts spent their off­sea­son cram­ming for Sun­day’s test.

They un­der­stood that to as­cend in the AFC South, they needed a big­ger, stronger of­fen­sive line, bet­ter coach­ing and dif­fer­ent study habits. So far, they’ve aced it.

Now they face their big­gest chal­lenge: Jack­sonville’s daunt­ing de­fense.

“We don’t need any in­cen­tive. It’s the NFL, we go out there, it’s our job to pro­tect the quar­ter­back,” long­time left tackle An­thony Cas­tonzo said. “The past is the past, we’re go­ing to try the best we can.”

Just about any­thing would be an up­grade over what’s hap­pened lately against the Jaguars.

When th­ese teams met late last sea­son, the Jaguars fin­ished with four sacks — a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment over the 10 sacks Indy al­lowed six weeks ear­lier last sea­son.

Those 14 sacks ac­counted for more than one-fourth of Indy’s sea­son to­tal, show­ing gen­eral man­ager Chris Bal­lard where the Colts needed to fo­cus their at­ten­tion to get back into the di­vi­sion race.

Bal­lard found two starters in the draft, left guard Quen­ton Nel­son in the first round and right tackle Braden Smith in the sec­ond. He added right guard Matt Slau­son in free agency. Cen­ter Ryan Kelly re­turned to form fol­low­ing an in­jury-filled 2017 sea­son, and even af­ter Slau­son went down with a back in­jury the Colts have man­aged to find solid re­place­ments.

As a re­sult, An­drew Luck has been sacked just 10 times, none in his past 154 at­tempts — the longest stretch of his pro ca­reer.

The im­prove­ment can’t be mea­sured by pass pro­tec­tion alone. USF alum Mar­lon Mack rushed for ca­reer highs each of the past two weeks and has given Indy (3-5) its first back-to-back 100-yard rush­ing games since 2007.

But this Jack­sonville team doesn’t re­sem­ble the one that reached last year’s AFC cham­pi­onship game, ei­ther.

De­spite be­ing ranked No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 in to­tal de­fense, only seven teams have fewer sacks (19) and only three teams have pro­duced fewer turnovers (seven).

It ex­plains why the Jags (3-5) have lost four straight and, like the Colts, are 2½ games be­hind di­vi­sion leader Hous­ton.

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