INDIANAPOLIS — In today's NFL, if you don't have a pass rush then you don't have much of a defense at all. The Indianapolis Colts recognize this importance and have taken steps to set themselves up in that department for years to come.
In each of the last two drafts, the Colts have selected a defensive end with tremendous upside — Kemoko Turay in 2018 and Ben Banogu this April.
At the time they were picked, both players were considered highly athletic prospects who were just scratching the surface of what they could become as pass rushers in the NFL.
On Saturday against the Cleveland Browns, the Colts got both of them on the field together for the first time.
Turay showed obvious flashes of being a potential game-wrecker throughout his rookie season, and he showed much of the same throughout training camp.
Against the Browns, his continued development manifested in the form of three tackles and one ferocious sack that cost Cleveland's offense 10 yards.
"It felt good," Turay told Colts.com after Saturday's game. "I just took everything in from last week, just kept watching film, and I'm just trying to improve each day in practice and just see what I did wrong and try to improve that."
Colts head coach Frank Reich said Turay's play on Saturday was just the latest example of a positive trend he's noticed in the Rutgers product.
"Consistency, and good durability," Reich said of Turay's last couple weeks, which includes two preseason games and some standout performances in training camp. "Just getting in better and better shape. Playing the run, he made a few plays in the run game tonight, and you always feel his presence in the pass game, I think with Turay, it's just make small incremental improvements, show the consistency, stay healthy, and we really feel like he can have a big year for us."
Banogu's debut was delayed slightly, as he wasn't able to play in the Colts' preseason opener last week against the Buffalo Bills due to tightness in his hamstring that caused him to miss six practices. However, he returned to the practice field last week and was able to make his NFL debut against Cleveland on Saturday.
"It felt pretty good just being out there, being able to work on all the things I've been getting coached on in practice. Just being able to show them what I can do," Banogu said. "I think it was a good start. Obviously there's things to improve on. With time you'll start making more plays, you'll start flying around more, and the game will start slowing down. So I'm excited about that."
When he was drafted, the thought was that Banogu may initially get some occasional looks at linebacker to showcase his range and athleticism, but he has settled in so well at defensive end that playing linebacker seems to have become an afterthought for now. Now that he is back at practice, Banogu is excited to show off what he can do to his coaches.
"When you miss practices, you never feel like you're caught up because those are days that you won't get back," he said. "The biggest thing was I just had to make sure that I was all good with everything within the training room, off the field, make sure I was ready to go mentally and physically. Just wanted to build off of where I was before I missed a couple practices.
"Preseason games like these are good and then we have practices coming up these next couple weeks and we have a couple more games left," Banogu continued. "So hopefully I can get to a point where I feel comfortable with myself and the coaches feel comfortable with me and I can help the team any way I can Week 1."
If the last week of practice, including Saturday's matchup against the Browns, is any indicator then the Colts have a high-quality pair of pass rushers for the long run.
The two have the benefit of learning from current Colts defensive ends Justin Houston and Jabaal Sheard and their 125.5 combined career sacks, as well as the Colts' all-time leading sacker, Robert Mathis, who now runs his own training service and works with both Turay and Banogu. However, Turay already has so much experience and knowledge that he has also been able to share with his rookie teammate.
"We have guys that are young but have exponential growth, like Turay — he pulls me off to the side and sees if I'm doing something that maybe he saw in his rookie year — we have a great defensive line room," Banogu said. "Guys from top to bottom are always willing to help and willing to teach and willing to be coached, so that's one of the cool things about being with this group of guys. You can just see that everyone wants you to reach your potential and be the best player that you can be."
Two things are certain when it comes to Banogu and Turay: both players have immense talent and the potential to become stars on this Colts defense, and they both have the passion and desire to reach their potential.