INDIANAPOLIS – A position already lacking veteran presences and proven experience has taken a significant hit.
It would be erroneous to insist the Indianapolis Colts are in scramble mode in the aftermath of Dallis Flowers suffering a season-ended Achilles injury in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
But losing a starting cornerback, even one with Flowers’ limited resume, shouldn’t be casually dismissed.
“We’ve always felt pretty good about the youth at that spot,’’ Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley said Tuesday.
Now, that youth must step up.
As the Colts prepare for Sunday’s AFC South meeting with the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium, they’re looking at Darrell Baker Jr. or rookie Jaylon Jones to step in and assume Flowers’ role.
Jones is a seventh-round pick – the 221st player selected in April – whose initial NFL exposure has been on special teams. In four games, he’s been on the field for just seven defensive snaps – six against the Rams – while handling 77 on special teams.
Baker? It’s been a hit-and-miss opening month for the second-year corner.
He made his first career appearance on defense in the opener against Jacksonville as the starter opposite Flowers. But after struggling a second consecutive week at Houston, he was replaced by JuJu Brents in week 3 at Baltimore and has been a healthy scratch the past two games.
“He’s very mature and he knows, just like everybody who’s a backup, that with injuries that place during the season, you could be up in no time,’’ Bradley said. “You’ve just got to always be ready. He’s in a great mindset.’’
In truth, there aren’t many other viable options on the roster.
Kenny Moore II is one of the league’s top nickel corners, but has seen extensive work outside until moving into the slot in obvious passing situations.
Brents is settling into the second outside starter after missing the first two games while completing his rehab from a hamstring injury that lingered during the preseason.
“Bright, athletic,’’ Bradley said of the Warren Central H.S. product, adding Brents has been quick to pick up assignments and whatever has been thrown at him.
The other cornerback active roster is Tony Brown, who’s been on the field for one defensive snap and 99 special teams plays in four games.
Chris Lammons missed the first three games while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He was released following the three games, then re-signed to the practice squad. He’s appeared in 42 games in four seasons, mostly on special teams: 858 special teams plays, 177 on defense, but just 32 in the past three seasons.
The Colts made a decision during the offseason to rely on a young cornerbacks room. That was evident during the draft when they selected Brents (round 2), Darius Rush (round 5) and Jones (round 7). Rush failed to make the cut when rosters were trimmed to 53, and currently is on the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad.
That approach didn’t change when expected starter Isaiah Rodgers Sr. was suspended indefinitely in June for violating the league’s gambling policy.
“We kind of made that decision after the season,’’ Chris Ballard said as training camp opened. “We ended up drafting three guys. We got some guys internally we like.’’
Even though Bradley has a comfort level with Moore and Brents, they were involved in a miscommunication that resulted in Matthew Stafford’s game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Puka Nacua in overtime Sunday. Each jumped to cover tight end Brycen Hopkins in the right flats, which left Nacua wide open inside the 10.
Bradley took partial blame for his decision to bring pressure to disrupt Stafford’s timing while the clock was winding down.
“I’m not saying that was just due to youth,’’ he said, “but we haven’t put him in that situation yet with the moving clock.’’
Bradley and defensive backs coach Ron Milus have admitted throughout the offseason, preseason and early portion of the regular season there would be growing pains with their inexperienced secondary.
The first month of the season has reinforced their concerns.
Three receivers already have piled up at least 100 yards against the Colts’ pass defense: Nacua (163 yards on nine receptions), Houston’s Nico Collins (146 on seven) and Jacksonville’s Calvin Ridley (101 on eight).
The Colts are allowing quarterbacks to complete 68.7% of their passes (9th-best in the league) and average 7 yards per dropback (No. 7). The pass defense ranks No. 28 (263.8).
All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard has seen his playing time slightly decline as the season has unfolded: 85.7% in week 1, 71.4% in week 2, 69.4% in week 3 and 45.1% against the Rams.
Bradley insisted a lesser workload for the team’s defensive catalyst has been the plan with him returning from a second surgery on his back. Leonard appeared in just three games last season.
“Obviously, he wants to play every play all the time,’’ Bradley said. “I think when we sat down and looked at it, we just felt like we’re going to have a plan in mind and kind of follow that plan. There may be more, there may be less reps, but it’s based on how we’re going to bring him back. Really, the ideal thing in my mind is to get him back sometime in November to where we really have a good feel for where he’s at.’’
The Colts also want to get more reps for E.J. Speed.
In four games, Leonard ranks third on the team with 21 tackles. Zaire Franklin has 57 and safety Julian Blackmon has 36.
Speed ranks fifth with 19 tackles, including 15 solos, to go along with one sack and four tackles for loss.
In the overtime against the Rams, Bradley went with Franklin and Speed.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.