INDIANAPOLIS — "Our defensive line didn't play – I mean they played good last year. It wasn't bad, but I am always going to be obsessed with the front."
That was Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard discussing the play of his defensive line in 2019 earlier this offseason. And since he shared those thoughts, Ballard's "obsession" up front has taken on a whole new meaning.
The Colts this offseason went out and made several moves to address the defensive line, particular in the interior, an approach that has some believing the team could have one of the better overall units in the league heading into the 2020 season.
In fact, Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus recently released a list of the five NFL teams that he believes improved their defensive pass rush the most this offseason, and Ballard's Colts come in at No. 5. Linsey writes:
5. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Key Additions: DI DeForest Buckner, DI Robert Windsor, DI Sheldon Day
Key Losses: EDGE Jabaal Sheard, DI Margus Hunt
Indianapolis made one of the bigger splashes of the offseason when it traded the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Buckner, one of the better young interior defenders in the NFL. The Colts already added one high-level pass rusher in Justin Houston (81.9 pass-rushing grade in 2019) last season, and now they have two along the defensive line.
Buckner has recorded 50 or more quarterback pressures while picking up pass-rushing grades of 73.0 or higher in each of the past three seasons. His 81 combined sacks and hits since entering the league in 2016 are tied for second at the position behind only Aaron Donald. He's going to give them an interior pass rush that they simply didn't have in 2019, and that should help open things up for the other players along the defensive line.
The Windsor selection could result in some additional interior pressure if nothing else. He's slight for the interior, which might mean he'll struggle on early downs against the run, but there's a real chance that he could turn into a rotational pass rusher on the inside given his pass-rushing tools. Windsor is coming off an 80.5 pass-rushing grade with Penn State last season.
The Colts still don't have an option they know they can rely on at the edge spot across from Houston — with the door open to a potential veteran signing like Jadeveon Clowney or Everson Griffen — but they've improved considerably as they look to compete in an open AFC South in 2020.
The Colts produced 41 sacks in 2019, which is a respectable number, but it only ranked around the middle of the pack — 15th, to be exact — in the league. The real issue, though, was the consistency (or lack thereof) of their pass rush.
In five of Indy's nine losses last season, the Colts had one or fewer sacks. At times, not getting to and disrupting the quarterback — or even making him think twice about the pass rush — could certainly be added to the list of reasons why the Colts didn't come out victorious in the end.
The Colts wanted to do better in 2020.
If we're talking about an improved pass-rush unit, you've got to start with the Colts' trade for DeForest Buckner back in March.
The former San Francisco 49ers All-Pro is widely considered among the best interior defenders in the NFL, and he's everything the Colts wanted for their three-technique defensive tackle spot, which they consider to be the most important position in their defense.
Since his second year in the league in 2017, Buckner has posted a pass-rush grade of at least 73.0, according to PFF, and he's had at least 50 quarterback pressures each season in that time.
He likes what he sees in Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' defense, and is confident he can carry what he did in San Francisco over to Indianapolis.
"I mean he (Eberflus) just tries to keep everything simple so guys can play fast, especially for the guys up front. He just wants us to – he says he wants us to shatter glass, you know what I mean?" Buckner told reporters this week about Eberflus' view on the defensive line. "He wants us to get up-field, go as fast as possible and wreak havoc. So, that is what I love about him so far. Going through the movements and certain things throughout the defense, he just wants everybody to be able to play fast so he tries to keep it as simple as possible."
On one side of Buckner will be defensive end Justin Houston, who had something of a career resurrection in his first season with the Colts last year after posting 11 sacks.
"Justin is one of the best in the game," Buckner said. "I mean he is a talented player against the run and obviously against the pass. I mean he is a quarterback's worst nightmare."
Having two very well-established starters on the defensive line who can get after the quarterback in Buckner and Houston is great for the Colts, but that's not where the pass-rush threat ends.
The Colts hope to see yet another jump in progress from young defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu. Turay was darn-near unblockable at times in 2019, but his season unfortunately came to an end in just the fifth game after suffering an ankle injury. Banogu was a rookie last year and showed some big flashes, and is expected to take that second-year jump that we often see from athletically gifted pass-rushers.
There are also a couple of defensive linemen on the Colts who are capable of providing pressure from either the inside or outside in Denico Autry and Tyquan Lewis. Both have a "home" position of three-technique, but have had some success lining up and rushing from defensive end.
Among this main group, the Colts truly have some productive pass-rushers, and the stats and grades back that up.
In 2019, Turay had a pass-rush grade of 91.0 from PFF before getting injured, which finished as the third-best among edge defenders in the NFL on the year. Houston's 81.9 grade was seventh.
From the inside, Buckner and Autry both graded very well, as Buckner's 73.8 was 15th among interior defensive linemen, and Autry's 68.1 was 17th.
"Grove (Grover Stewart) in the middle, Kemoko on the outside, Ben Banogu, Denico – all of these guys, they are all talented in their own way and can affect the quarterback," Buckner said. "My whole thing is being able to get on the field with all of them, being able to build that chemistry because I know we can do a lot this year."
It's tremendous when you get pass-rush productivity out of the players and positions that you expect it from, but it's a coach's dream when you get that productivity out of those spots that traditionally don't create a ton of heat for opposing quarterbacks.
Linebacker Darius Leonard has had at least five sacks in each of his first two seasons, and was tied for PFF's third-best pass-rushing grade among off-ball linebackers in 2019 with a 78.4.
Fellow linebackers Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke, as well as cornerback Kenny Moore II, had six sacks between them last season as well, and Moore II has become one of the most effective pass-rushers from the slot in the league.
The Colts also have some other contributors on the defensive line who can provide some pressure but also help against the run.
Al-Quadin Muhammad's role could see a jump after former starting left end Jabaal Sheard hit free agency, and Stewart and Sheldon Day are also expected to be heavy contributors from the nose tackle spot.
There is some new, unproven blood in the depth of the Colts' defensive line depth chart as well after the Colts signed defensive end Kendall Coleman as an undrafted free agent and selected defensive tackle Rob Windsor in the sixth round of this year's NFL Draft. Ends Gerri Green and Jegs Jegede will be competing for roles throughout training camp as well, while rookie undrafted free agents Kameron Cline and Chris Williams try and make some noise from the interior.