INDIANAPOLIS — When the Indianapolis Colts changed their defensive scheme, it called for for a more violent defensive line that would wreak havoc on opposing offenses with controlled chaos. The personnel this new defensive front required was much different from the previous scheme, leading many to believe it would take a little while to really get things going.
But after making the right moves to pick up several productive new players during the offseason, the Colts already saw some nice results from their new defensive front in 2018.
The defense tied the NFL record for team tackles for loss within the first four games of a season (31); also holstering a league-leading five players with at least 10 tackles for loss, three of which were linemen. The Colts' defense also finished as one of just three teams (Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints) to not allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season despite facing five of the league’s top 10 rushing leaders.
- Started 16-of-16 games (2-of-2 in playoffs), 50 tackles (14 for loss), 5.5 sacks, one fumble recovered, four pass breakups, 13 quarterback hits
The leader of the Colts' defensive line was a consistent presence for the team throughout the season, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and setting the edge in the run game. Sheard even set a new personal single-season career high in tackles for loss (14).
“Yeah, Jabaal for us on defense has been just solid. He’s been a solid pro the entire time," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters about Sheard in December. "I mean, he has been in there every practice, every day working and grinding. That’s exactly what we ask our guys to do and he has done everything we’ve asked and he has done a really good job of that. You can’t say enough about him in terms of being a pro, just coming to work every day and then really leading that defensive line group.
"We are excited (with) where he is and he has made a lot of good plays for us. You see a lot of his athleticism on those perimeter plays – the reverses over the course of the year, the screen passes that are on the perimeter of the defense, him coming out of the stack and then his ability to rush the passer. He has done a good job of being consistent that way," Eberflus continued. "So yeah, he has done a good job for us.”
- Started 11-of-12 games (2-of-2 in playoffs), 37 tackles (13 for loss), 9.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, one pass breakup, 11 quarterback hits, two blocked kicks
Autry started the season banged up, but the Colts' first free-agent signing of the 2018 new league year panned out in a huge way for them. Autry had a career year, setting new single-season career highs in tackles (37), tackles for loss (13), sacks (9.0), forced fumbles (two), QB hits (11) and Pro Football Focus grade (69.9). He earned a Pro Bowl alternate nod for his efforts.
Autry had a dominant stretch late in the season that earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for Week 14. In Week 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, had seven tackles (three for loss), 3.0 sacks and two forced fumbles, becoming just the seventh player in the NFL since 1994 to have at least three tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and two forced fumble in one game. The following week, he had another pair of sacks and two tackles for loss.
- Started 15-of-15 games (2-of-2 in playoffs), 30 tackles (13 for loss), 5.0 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovered, two pass breakups, six quarterback hits
Hunt was yet another player to have a standout season under Eberflus and defensive line coach Mike Phair. He set new personal bests in tackles (30), tackles for loss (13), sacks (5.0), forced fumbles (one) and fumbles recovered (one).
The ability of "The Estonian Mountain" to move around the line and make plays proved invaluable. His midseason switch to nose tackle also freed up players like Autry and Tyquan Lewis to play wherever needed and impact the backfield. Hunt credited his breakout season to the Colts' new defensive system and his continued development in the game of football (he's only been playing since 2009).
Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay
- Lewis: Started 6-of-8 games, 13 tackles (three for loss), 2.0 sacks, one pass breakup, eight quarterback hits
- Turay: Started 3-of-14 games (regular season), 15 tackles (one for loss), 4.0 sacks, one forced fumble, 13 quarterback hits
The Colts selected both Lewis and Turay in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and they got positive returns on both. Lewis' season got off to a rocky start as a toe injury in training camp landed him on Injured Reserve for the first half of the season. However, as soon as he was activated he earned a starting spot at defensive end, although the long term plan may be to get him inside at tackle. He got his first two career sacks against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15, earning a nomination for NFL Rookie of the Week for his efforts.
Turay's season had some ups and downs, but he finished third in the NFL among all rookies in quarterback pressures (38) according to PFF. The rookie out of Rutgers had several flash plays, including five takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, plus a few other plays negated by penalties.
Lewis and Turay will be a hot pair to keep an eye on in 2019.
After rarely playing as a member of the New Orleans Saints in 2017, Muhammad saw extensive action in 2018 with the Colts. He set new single-season career highs in tackles (28), tackles for loss (five), fumbles recovered (one), pass breakups (one), quarterback hits (two) and PFF grade (64.4).
One of the Colts' defensive leaders, Woods' season ended prematurely as he was placed on season-ending IR with a foot injury in Week 16. He took on a rotational role in 2018, helping clog up running lanes for opposing tailbacks with 24 tackles.
In his second season, Stewart became more of a factor late in the year when the Colts lost Woods. Stewart was able to post two tackles for loss, which is one more than he did as a rookie.
Ward's season was cut to just six games after a lower leg injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the year in Week 7. Despite the short window, Ward had a career high in sacks (3.0), tackles for loss (four) and PFF grade (75.7).
Ridgeway put up a tremendous and dominant preseason with 12 tackles, 4.0 sacks and 10 defensive stops, a metric which PFF considers a "loss" for the offense. Ridgeway got into the mix more late in the regular season, playing 58 defensive snaps over the last four games, including the playoffs. He made an impact in the postseason by getting one half-sack and a tackle for loss.
Like Muhammad, Phillips saw the most extensive action of his career in Year 2 and had his first five career tackles.
Geneo Grissom, Anthony Winbush and DeShawn Williams
Grissom was signed by the Colts in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs but did not see any action. Williams was signed to the practice squad in Week 15, and Winbush bounced back and forth on and off the Colts' practice squad throughout the season. Both Williams and Winbush were signed to reserve/future deals following the season.