INDIANAPOLIS — It was the first Sunday of October, and Jim Irsay was in a celebratory mood.
The Indianapolis Colts owner had just watched his team shut down the Kansas City Chiefs for a 19-13 prime-time victory at Arrowhead Stadium, and as team cameras rolled in the postgame locker room, Irsay termed it one of the best regular-season wins in franchise history.
Irsay is a man prone to hyperbole, but this statement was fairly close to the mark.
The Colts, still reeling from their franchise quarterback’s sudden retirement, had been throttled a week earlier by Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders. And the game against the Chiefs, who were 4-0 coming in, was widely expected to be a lopsided loss.
Instead, Indianapolis turned in a stunning performance that could serve as a blueprint for the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Rick Venturi served as a defensive coach in the NFL for 27 seasons — including a stint as Indianapolis’ interim head coach in 1991 — and now shares his insight as a Colts analyst on radio, television and the internet.
He sees the Oct. 6 victory in Kansas City as a unique accomplishment.
“In the last two seasons in this regime, that is the one signature game,” Venturi said Thursday from his winter home near Tampa, Fla. “We went a period of 44 minutes that they did not score a touchdown.”
There were several remarkable aspects to the victory.
In his 34 other career starts, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has never failed to lead his offense to fewer than 23 points. And no team has beaten Kansas City during that stretch with less than 29 points on the scoreboard.
So how did a Colts team that finished 7-9 and saw its defense collapse over the final month of the regular season pull off this upset?
The reasons are multifold.
Mahomes’ mobility was limited throughout much of the second half after he re-aggravated a lingering ankle injury, and Kansas City played without stud wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins.
Indianapolis also reinvented itself for the night, staying away from its trademark soft zone coverages and getting physical with the Chiefs’ playmakers.
“We got up and pressed the hell out of them, took away the quick releases, the easy throws, made them work for it,” Venturi said. “And then when we did play our zones, particularly our Cover 2, we played it much more aggressively. We got up on the line. We really jammed people. We didn’t play a soft, pre-release zone, that we’re kind of known for.”
Venturi also praised Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus for mixing up his pass rushes. The Colts varied the number of blitzers they sent on each snap, and cornerback Kenny Moore II had an early sack that helped set the tone.
Indianapolis sacked Mahomes a season-high four times overall, and a dominant 49ers defensive line is certain to chase the quarterback around the pocket Sunday.
But Venturi said sacks are a somewhat overrated aspect of defending Mahomes.
“Sacks are not critical against him,” Venturi said. “You’ll get them if they come to you. What’s really more important is to keep him in the tunnel.”
Setting the edge is one of Venturi’s four keys to slowing down the Chiefs. The Colts accomplished it with a mix of veteran defensive ends Justin Houston and Jabaal Sheard and a breakout game from second-year rush specialist Kemoko Turay – before a fractured ankle ended his season late in the fourth quarter.
Mahomes can do plenty of damage from the pocket, but Venturi believes the plays that fuel Kansas City’s trademark hot streaks come when the quarterback is forced to improvise.
Indeed, the Chiefs’ lone touchdown against Indianapolis came on a 27-yard pass from Mahomes to wide receiver Byron Pringle after the quarterback escaped the pass rush and threw the ball across his body into the end zone.
“The ‘wow’ plays come when he is on the playground,” Venturi said. “That’s the best playground player in the history of the game. I think you have to keep him collapsed and force him to win in that pocket.”
Venturi’s first key against Kansas City is to “ban the bomb,” his colorful way of saying take away the big play. The Colts did that by playing man coverage on 75 percent of their defensive snaps and “running with” the Chiefs skill players in the seams.
As much as Mahomes is willing to take shots to the outside of the field, he picks teams apart with gains over the middle.
The second key is to protect the edges from sweeps, screens and reverses – many of which involve the speedy and versatile Hill. Once that’s accomplished on first and second down, the third key is finding a way to double-team tight end Travis Kelce in situational football.
On third down and in the red zone, Mahomes will look for the natural mismatches with his big, athletic tight end. Indianapolis limited the effectiveness of that ploy by playing a “one-hole” defense, which involves playing man coverage and sneaking a safety into the coverage as an extra defender.
Even if Sab Francisco is successful with each of these keys, there’s also a mental element.
Venturi’s final piece of advice? Don’t get discouraged.
The team the 49ers see Sunday will be more dangerous than the one Indianapolis beat in October.
“They’re really back to full strength, and the quarterback is totally healthy again,” Venturi said. “So you’re now playing the real Chiefs. But I think the important thing is you have to think, dominate (the play clock on) offense, minimize (big plays) on defense, knowing on defense that they are going to make some plays and they’re going to have some hot moments and you just stay into the next play.”