INDIANAPOLIS — When Chris Ballard looked back on his first season as the Indianapolis Colts’ general manager last offseason, he regretted not doing more to improve the team’s offensive line.
So what did the Colts do? They used two of their top three 2018 draft picks on O-linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith), and utilized free agency to bring in a key veteran up front (Matt Slauson).
The results were instant. One year removed from allowing an NFL-high 56 sacks in 2017, the Colts in 2018 led the NFL with just 18 sacks allowed, a decrease of about 68 percent.
Quite the turnaround.
So this time around, as Ballard reflects on what worked, and what didn’t, throughout the 2018 season, there’s far more in the former category than the latter. The Colts, after all, overcame a 1-5 start to finish at 10-6, get into the playoffs and then defeat the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that need addressed. And entering this offseason, Ballard says the team’s top priority is to ramp up the Colts’ pass rush.
“Having a dominant, dominant edge rusher … they’re not easy to find,” Ballard said last week in an appearance on “The Dan Dakich Show” on 1070 The Fan. “We’ve got to find him; when we’ll find him, maybe the draft this year? Maybe free agency? We’ll keep throwing darts to try to find the right traits in that rusher.”
Just like with the offensive line, however, the Colts did see a major improvement with their overall pass rush in 2018. The year prior, Indianapolis ranked 31st in the league in sacks with just 25.0, but this past season, utilizing a new 4-3 base defensive scheme, the Colts ranked tied for 19th in the league with 38.0 sacks, or an increase of 52 percent year over year.
But the team’s top performers in this area weren’t coming off the edge; in fact, the team leader in sacks, Denico Autry (9.0 regular season sacks), mostly played along the interior of the defensive line, while Darius Leonard, who finished second on the team with 7.0 sacks, is an off-ball linebacker.
The Colts did get solid contributions off the edge from the likes of Jabaal Sheard (5.5 sacks), Margus Hunt (5.0) and rookies Kemoko Turay (4.0) and Tyquan Lewis (2.0). But Ballard wants to upgrade the competition at those spots to make life even more hectic for opposing quarterbacks.
“I think in this league, when you can have a dominant rusher that the other team really has to, on Monday, come in and game plan for — and really more than one; to me, you want two or three along the front that can rush the pressure — that would be the No. 1 priority in my mind going forward,” Ballard said.
But whether it’s the offensive line investments already made, or the ones expected for the defensive front, that approach is certainly not a coincidence.
“The pass rush is always going to be a cornerstone for us,” Ballard told reporters Jan. 14 in his end-of-season press conference. “Our defensive front, I have talked about it, you get into January football and even throughout the season but O-line, D-line — that plays. That travels and that plays. Those will both be areas that we will consistently invest in at every point along the way.
“We want those to be strengths,” Ballard continued. “Like, when you put on the tape and when you play us, I want people to feel our O-line and D-line at all points.”