INDIANAPOLIS — When new Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus arrived in town, he brought with him a scheme built on speed, athleticism and toughness.
What the required linebackers for this scheme may lack in traditional size, they make up for in playmaking and their ability to move sideline to sideline. The Colts got a great return on these traits from starters Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker in 2018.
Leonard and Walker contributed to a group of an NFL-high five players with at least 10 tackles for loss. The Colts ranked 11th in overall defense (339.4 YPG) and 10th in points allowed (21.5 PPG), led in large part by their young linebacker corps.
- Started 15-of-15 games (2-of-2 in playoffs), 163 tackles (12 for loss), 7.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, two interceptions, eight pass breakups, eight quarterback hits, one blocked kick recovery
What a season for the books. Quite literally, Darius Leonard had a rookie season for the record books.
Although he was snubbed from the initial Pro Bowl vote (he was an alternate), Leonard was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Pro by The Associated Press.
Throughout the season, he earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month (September), AFC Defensive Player of the Month (December), AFC Defensive Player of the Week (Weeks 2 and 17) and NFL Rookie of the Week (Weeks 2 and 8).
Leonard led the NFL in tackles, becoming the first rookie to do so since Luke Kuechly in 2012, and he claimed the Colts' franchise record for tackles in a single season.
Leonard's 19 tackles in Week 2 were the most by a Colts rookie since at least 1994, and the second-most in a single game in franchise history. He joined Broderick Thomas as the only players in NFL history to have at least 150 tackles and 7.0 sacks in a single season, and is the only player since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
- Started 14-of-15 games (2-of-2 in playoffs), 105 tackles (10 for loss), 1.0 sacks, one fumble recovered, one interceptions, four pass breakups, two quarterback hits
Walker shined in his second season, his first as a full-time starter at the MIKE position for the Colts.
He set new single-season career highs in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, fumbles recovered, interceptions, pass breakups and quarterback hits. When it came to reading and reacting to offenses and covering the field from boundary to boundary, not many did it better than him. Despite missing about 1 1/2 games due to injury, Walker still finished with more than 100 tackles and 10 for a loss.
“Yeah, Anthony has done a really good job of coming in there and playing the MIKE position. He’s very smart and very intelligent," Eberflus told reporters about Walker during the season. "He makes a lot of the calls out there in terms of setting the defense. He’s done a tremendous job of that. He’s made plays at times and he just keeps improving as the year goes.”
Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin
The Colts got steady contributions from Adams and Franklin, a pair of rookie linebackers they selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Adams started five-of-16 games and played in both playoff games, totaling 33 tackles (five for loss) and a fumble recovery in the regular season. Franklin started two-of-16 games and totaled 29 tackles and a pass breakup. He too appeared in and started both playoff games.
Adams earned a reputation as a hard-hitter from the SAM linebacker spot, making running backs pay. Franklin showed plenty of range and tracking ability on defense and was a solid special teams contributor.
Skai Moore and Najee Goode
Walker dealt with a groin injury for much of the summer, leading the Colts to already entrust Moore with manning the MIKE position in Walker's absence. Just like in his collegiate career at South Carolina, Moore was outstanding in coverage. he had stints on and off the active roster and practice squad during the season, landing on Injured Reserve in Week 16 with a neck injury.
Goode signed with the Colts as a dependable veteran free agent who could be a safe option to start at linebacker in the event the Colts' young players weren't ready. Goode did a great job as a mentor to the Colts' young linebacking corps, grabbing his first career interception in the process against Tom Brady.
Thomas spent the majority of the season on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster in Week 15 and earning a start at MIKE a week later. Walker missed the game against the New York Giants with a shoulder injury, clearing a path for Thomas to get some playing time. He got one tackle in his two active games with the Colts.