INDIANAPOLIS – Anthony Walker began smiling before the question was finished.
The Indianapolis Colts linebacker has heard some variation of the same query throughout the offseason. After Andrew Luck retired, the frequency increased.
Is this defense, in its second season under coordinator Matt Eberflus, underrated?
“We can’t speak on that,” Walker said with a shake of his head. “We can’t control what everyone else says or thinks. Just we have to keep getting better each day, and that’s what we try to do.”
Here’s the not-so-well-kept secret in the locker room.
The defense doesn’t care what the outside world thinks.
For more than 20 years, it’s been all about the quarterback in Indianapolis. Jim Harbaugh took this franchise to the AFC Championship Game in 1995 and handed the baton to Peyton Manning.
Manning reshaped the game at every level in Indiana before passing the mantle to Luck in 2012.
Now, it’s Jacoby Brissett’s turn to run the huddle. But the days of the signal caller riding in on a white horse to play the hero are over.
The focus is on the team, and a lot of it begins with slowing the opponent’s ability to score.
“I do believe in defensive football,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “I know you’ve got to score points. I get it. But you’ve got to be able to block people, and you’ve got to be able to stop people. Those are two areas that we’ve really emphasized since we’ve been here.”
Ballard cut his teeth in the NFL as a scout for the Chicago Bears from 2001-12. He helped build a defense led by linebacker Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Tommie Harris that reached the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.
And he installed the same scheme in Indianapolis, where Walker, linebacker Darius Leonard, cornerback Kenny Moore and defensive tackle Denico Autry already are providing reason for optimism.
The Colts took a few steps forward on defense in 2018, but they know there’s still plenty of room to grow.
They don’t have the star power or the skins on the wall of an elite unit yet.
For now, it’s still more about potential than production.
For starters, the pass rush must improve, which is why veteran Justin Houston was signed through free agency and why the team is so excited about the maturation of second-year defensive end Kemoko Turay.
But the focus is more about doing the little things right.
Eberflus is a stickler for the details, and he likes what he’s seeing so far from this group.
“I think the guys are starting to work on their attention to detail of the fundamentals at each position,” he said. “You can see that starting to come into play where guys know, and know they know, what they’re supposed to do. They’re teaching the young guys, and you can see that as we go through this process.”
The process takes a big leap forward Sunday when Indianapolis visits the Los Angeles Chargers to open the regular season.
The football world will be watching as the Colts face off against a projected AFC championship contender. Indianapolis’ own playoff hopes could rest on the ability of a young and talented defense to grow up quickly and take a leadership role.
That could put a chip on the shoulder of defenders, understanding their importance to the team and their relative anonymity outside the locker room.
But that’s not the focus.
“We just want to be better,” defensive lineman Margus Hunt said. “That’s the only chip we have. We want to make the plays that we didn’t make last year, and we just want to really showcase what we can do.”
What could that look like?
This isn’t a shutdown scheme. There will be windows for Chargers starter Philip Rivers to throw into, and he has the veteran savvy to find them.
The key is situational football. Win on third down. Win in the red zone. And take each and every opportunity to force a takeaway.
As Indianapolis adjusts to life without Luck, the defense might just get its day in the sun.
Not that many players would take the time to notice.
“We don’t worry about no outside noise,” Leonard said. “No. We’re always laser-focused, talking about just coming in and getting 1% better day in and day out.”