INDIANAPOLIS — With the Indianapolis Colts set to report to training camp in a few weeks, let's take a quick look at some building points for the team's defense heading into the 2020 season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
» The Colts had one of the better linebacker corps in the NFL in 2019. In fact, Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker last season became the second pair of linebackers in NFL history to each have at least 120 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one interception (the Buffalo Bills' London Fletcher and Angelo Cowell were the first duo to accomplish this feat in 2005). Despite missing three games with a concussion from Weeks 3-5, Leonard finished the 2019 season with 121 total tackles (seven for a loss) to go along with 5.0 sacks, six quarterback hits, five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles. It was just the ninth time since at least 1982 that a player has accumulated at least five sacks and five interceptions in a single season; Leonard was named Second-Team All-Pro, and to his first-career Pro Bowl, for his efforts. And let's not forget about Bobby Okereke, who was Pro Football Focus' top-graded rookie linebacker in the NFL — he was, accordingly, named to PFF's All-Rookie Team — after collecting 58 tackles (two for loss), 1.0 sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, two pass breakups, one quarterback hit, and he intercepted and returned a two-point conversion attempt for points. Leonard, Walker and Okereke all return to the Colts' defense in 2020.
» For a second year in a row, the Indy defense was stingy against the run. The Colts allowed just 97.9 rushing yards per game in 2019, the seventh-fewest in the league, and they were even tougher the closer they got to the end zone, as Colts opponents scored just eight rushing touchdowns on the year — the third fewest allowed in the NFL. Over the past two seasons, the Colts rank seventh in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (99.8), have allowed just 20 rushing touchdowns, tied for the second-fewest in the league, and their 4.0 yards-per-carry average allowed ranks sixth. While the guys up front — particularly Justin Houston and Grover Stewart — did a solid job containing the run last year, it was truly a group effort, as seven of the top 10-graded run defenders for the Colts in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, were either linebackers (Darius Leonard), cornerbacks (Kenny Moore II, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III) or safeties (Clayton Geathers, Malik Hooker).
ITEMS TO BUILD UPON:
» While the Colts certainly didn't struggle to get to the quarterback — their 41 sacks as a team ranked tied for 15th in the NFL — the defense wasn't able to get much consistent pressure up front from its interior. The five players who primarily played defensive tackle last year — Denico Autry, Grover Stewart, Margus Hunt, Tyquan Lewis and Trevon Coley — combined for just 6.5 sacks last season, all of which came from Autry (3.5) and Stewart (3.0); that group also combined for just 17 total quarterback hits (Autry 11, Stewart 5, Lewis 1) and 10 tackles for loss (Stewart 5, Autry 4, Lewis 1). In 2018, the defensive tackles were a major strength for the Colts; they combined for 17 sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 33 tackles for loss. To get back to that level, and then some, the Colts this offseason went out and acquired one of the best interior playmakers in the game in DeForest Buckner, sending their 2020 first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers to order to get him. Just 26, Buckner, a Pro Bowler in 2018 and Second-Team All-Pro selection in 2019, has 263 tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in his first four NFL seasons, and should be a key dominating presence up front from the three-tech spot.
» The Colts were one of the league's best at limiting big plays in the passing game in 2018; just 15.07 percent of all 544 pass attempts against Indy that year went for 15 or more yards, the sixth-lowest rate in the league; the Colts also allowed just nine touchdown passes of 15 or more yards in 2018, tied for the seventh fewest. But Indy would see a drop in these figures in 2019; they ranked 19th on the year allowing 17.11 percent of 561 total pass attempts go for 15 or more yards, 16 of which went for touchdowns — tied for the fourth most in the league. The defense particularly struggled in this area from Weeks 12-17, ranking 23rd in explosive plays allowed (17.29 percent), including a league-high nine touchdowns allowed on passing plays of 15 yards or more. It's worth noting that Kenny Moore II, a starter at outside cornerback who is one of the league's top nickel corners when the Colts are in that defensive package, suffered an ankle injury Week 13 against the Tennessee Titans and was unable to return for the rest of the season, and perhaps his presence down the stretch would've helped limit many of these big plays from happening. But with Moore II now back in the fold, and with pretty much every other key member of the secondary returning other than cornerback Pierre Desir (released) and safety Clayton Geathers (free agent), one can bet defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and his staff will be really harping on better communication in the back end in 2020.