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Despite opening day loss, Colts defense takes big step forward in 2nd season with Gus Bradley

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard looked like his old self Sunday. He had eight tackles, one for loss in the Indianapolis Colts opener, after missing most of last season with injuries.

Linebacker Zaire Franklin already is on pace to break the franchise's single-season mark for tackles (167) again after getting a career-best 18 in the season opener.

And two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner opened his eighth NFL season with seven tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and a 26-yard fumble return for the second score of his career.

Sure, the Colts fell short again in Week 1, losing 31-21 to defending AFC South champion Jacksonville, but if the defense keeps playing like this, it will be a vast improvement.

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“This was big, just to go back out there and have some contact, playing against some great skilled guys. It was definitely a big moment for me,” Leonard said after missing most of last season with injuries. “We talk about takeaways and scoring on defense, so we finally got it done in the first game of the season and hopefully we can build off of it.”

There was plenty to like on film.

Indy's two biggest defensive questions heading into the season were whether it could create consistent pressure on quarterbacks and how its mostly young secondary would hold up.

By Monday, the Colts at least had some notion about which direction Gus Bradley's second season as defensive coordinator was heading — even if they didn't get all the answers.

While Trevor Lawrence was sacked twice, he was under duress. He finished 24 of 32 with 243 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and lost the ball on the Buckner strip-sack and unusual TD. Indy also found a way to limit Calvin Ridley to only one second-half reception after catching seven passes for 92 yards and one TD in the first half. And the Colts gave up just 3.0 yards per carry.

It's a promising combination of what could be for a team trying to turn the page on a miserable and chaotic 4-12-1 campaign.

“I thought our defense played solid,” new coach Shane Steichen said. "They took the ball away. They played hard. Shoot, they put us in position. We’ve got to be better — I’ve got to be better offensively.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Anthony Richardson. The 21-year-old rookie played with poise and confidence, making only one major mistake — an errant pass the Jags intercepted and converted into the game-sealing TD.

Otherwise, Richardson looked calm, confident and in control during his NFL debut. His passer rating of 79,0 was the best of the three first-round picks who made their starting debuts in Week 1.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Ground game. Without Indy's top two running backs, 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor (ankle) and Zack Moss (broken right arm), it was going to be a struggle. Losing rookie Evan Hull (knee) in the third quarter didn't help. Richardson led the Colts with 10 carries for 40 yards and one TD. Indy's other three rushers had 16 carries for 25 yards. Steichen told reporters Monday that Taylor did not attend Sunday's game.

STOCK UP

WR Josh Downs. Richardson's training camp roommate also played well in his NFL debut. Though he had three receptions for 30 yards, he was targeted seven times, second only to veteran Michael Pittman Jr. Downs also showed the shiftiness and speed that prompted general manager Chris Ballard to draft the smallish receiver in the third round.

STOCK DOWN

RB Deon Jackson. After making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2021, the Colts had been encouraged by his development. But he struggled mightily as the workhorse back Sunday. He carried 13 times for 14 yards and caught five passes for 14 yards. That's 18 touches for 28 yards. Even worse, Jacksonville recovered both of his fumbles.

INJURIES

The biggest postgame concern might have been Richardson's departure in the final minute with a sore left knee. But Richardson brushed it off as a bruise after the game, and Steichen said Monday it was not a concern. Less clear is the timetable for TE Andrew Ogletree (concussion protocol) or Hull. All-Pro LG Quenton Nelson also hurt his toe, an injury that could linger.

KEY NUMBERS

17.6, 10 — Indy was 2 of 12 on third down and 1 of 5 on fourth down, giving them a combined conversion rate of 17.6%, which played a big role in Indy extending its opening day winless streak to 10 (nine losses, one tie).

NEXT STEPS

Next week's matchup between Richardson and rookie QB Bryce Young of Houston could be the first of many between these two. Richardson may have the stronger supporting cast, especially if Moss is cleared after returning to practice last week. His presence could give the offense more balance.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl