Linebackers, generally, can have one of three assignments on a play: Stop the run, stop the pass, rush the passer.
In the final three snaps of the Colts' 25-20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Bobby Okereke checked each of those boxes. First he defended the run. Then he defended the pass. Last he rushed the passer.
The impact he made on all three plays was vital for the Colts to hang on and win Jeff Saturday's interim head coaching debut in Week 10. And zooming out, that trio of plays are a fitting representation for the kind of impact Okereke has made on the Colts' defense in 2022.
"I know the type of player I am," Okereke said. "I'm fast, I'm physical, I'm smart, I play with instincts and I'm a playmaker. So I just try to let that show every Sunday."
The Run Stop
On second and 10 with 1:35 left and the ball on the Colts' 19-yard line, the Raiders lined up in I-formation and handed off to running back Josh Jacobs. Based on a few things pre-snap, Okereke identified a zone running play, and his assignment was to keep his eyes on Jacobs while feeling for a tackle climbing to the second level to block him.
6-foot-8, 325 pound Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller indeed climbed to the second level to engage Okereke. The Raiders designed the play to be blocked to leave Jacobs one-on-one with cornerback Stephon Gilmore – an RB vs. CB matchup most offensive coordinators try to create, regardless of personnel.
Okereke used his long arms to get his hands on Miller first, before the behemoth left tackle could engage with him, instantly gaining leverage while keeping his eyes on Jacobs. When he saw Jacobs bounce outside, Okereke disengaged with Miller and sprung to his right, hitting Jacobs before he could get to Gilmore, who combined for the tackle.
The result was a three-yard gain, setting up a third-and-seven with under a minute left.
"That just comes with film study and him knowing where he needs to be," safety Julian Blackmon said, "especially in a crucial time like that."
Okereke, by the way, has 34 1/2 inch-arms – which is in the 97th percentile of all linebackers drafted since 1999, per MockDraftable.com.
"His length is really showing out," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "In our system you like linebackers that can run and have length. ... He does a good job getting off blocks, disengaging and making plays. We have a lot of trust in Bobby, the way he's playing right now."
The Pass Break-Up
On third-and-7, the Raiders were in shotgun with Jacobs to quarterback Derek Carr's right and tight end Foster Moreau lined up to the right of the formation. Okereke and linebacker Zaire Franklin communicated before the play to work in and out to cover those two players – Frankin would take Jacobs, while Okereke would take Moreau.
Moreau darted up the seam and Okereke picked him up, running step-for-step with him toward the end zone. Carr threw an on-the-money pass that Moreau got his hands on – but Okereke didn't panic and engaged in some hand-to-hand combat, quickly jabbing his hand in between the tight end's to swat the ball away for an incompletion.
"I told him that was elite," Gilmore said. "That was an elite play."
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said the same thing, telling Okereke after the game: "Dude, that was a big-time play."
"If that play doesn't happen," Buckner said, "Gilly's play doesn't happen."
Okereke, though, played it cool.
"A lot of people came up to me saying, like, I don't know if you realize the magnitude of that play," Okereke said. "But for me it was just another play, a one-on-one, I got my assignment and I gotta do my job for me and my teammates."
So it's fourth-and-7 thanks to these two plays by Okereke. The Colts, like everyone else in Allegiant Stadium, figured the last play of the game was going to all-world receiver Davante Adams. Bradley called for a zero blitz, with Okereke and Franklin rushing Carr, leaving single man-to-man coverage across the board – with Gilmore on Adams.
Okereke came screaming off the left edge into the peripheral vision of Carr, who was looking toward Adams. Carr drifted back just a little bit as Okereke leapt in the air. His pass was still accurate, but Gilmore made an outstanding play to force a game-clinching incompletion.
It was only the 12th time Okereke blitzed all season.
"We don't do it (blitz) much in those situations," Bradley said. "So, that was another one we thought maybe a curveball. We just wanted to speed it up. I think there were times before the Washington game at the end where we just felt like the quarterback was back there and had a little bit of time. We just felt like in this situation, we wanted to speed up the whole process. Although Derek Carr made a great throw. It was still right on the money. He threw it perfect, right where it had to be. Gilly just got his hands in there and made a play."
The Big Picture
Entering Week 11, Okereke has:
- 85 tackles (7th in NFL)
- 4 pass break-ups (one shy of the league lead among linebackers)
- 78.5 PFF defensive grade (8th among LBs)
- 85.1 run defense grade (3rd among LBs)
- 34 "stops" (plays that constitute a loss for the offense – 6th among LBs)
And he's done it while playing the WILL linebacker in Bradley's 4-3 scheme, a new-ish position for him (Okereke played the MIKE under former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, but did play WILL a bit in college at Stanford). Bradley said the Colts put a lot on Okereke's plate as the WILL in terms of coverage assignments and run fits. But his high level of intelligence, work ethic, instincts and traits have blossomed into Okereke being one of the most productive linebackers in the NFL.
What Okereke's done, too, has been incredibly important for a team that's been without All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard for most of the season. And even when Leonard was playing and Okereke's snap count dipped in those games against the Titans, Commanders and Jaguars, he stayed locked in and engaged, willing to play whatever role he was asked.
"He'll do anything for this football team," linebackers coach Richard Smith said. "He's an extremely unselfish football player."
Okereke is on his way to having over 100 tackles for the second season in a row while setting career highs in pass break-ups and tackles for a loss. Teammates feed off his attention to detail and preparation during the week – ask anybody, and they'll tell you the plays we all see on Sunday, they've seen in practice on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday for months. And on gamedays, teammates feed off his playmaking energy, whether it's against the run or the pass.
"He's been doing a great job of being a complete linebacker," Gilmore said.
"He's been playing like a man on fire," Buckner added.
For three plays on Sunday – and hundreds others this season – that's who Okereke's been: A complete linebacker, playing like he's on fire.