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 2018 season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
• The Colts' defense saw a significant improvement against the run in 2017. In 2016, Indianapolis allowed 4.7 yards per carry, which ranked 30th in the NFL. Last season, opponents averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, and the Colts ranked ninth in the league in that category. The team had three games in particular in which it was stellar against the run: the Colts allowed 66 rushing yards Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers (that counts overtime), 63 yards Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams (they were a Top-8 rushing team in 2017) and just 58 rushing yards Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
• In just seven games played before suffering a season-ending knee injury, Malik Hooker proved exactly why he was such a coveted pick for the Colts at 15th-overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Hooker recorded three interceptions, tying for the team lead for the entire season with cornerback Rashaan Melvin. Hooker's three picks also came in consecutive games (Weeks 2-4), as he became the second Colts rookie to record an interception in three straight games and the first since 1984 when Eugene Daniel accomplished the feat from Weeks 13-15.
ITEMS TO BUILD UPON:
• While the Colts' defense was much improved against the run in 2017, the team's pass defense struggled. The team allowed 3,946 passing yards, ranking 28th in the league, while the team's 7.3 net yards gained per pass attempt ranked last. Working under a new defensive coordinator, Matt Ebelrflus, as well as switching to the 4-3 defense, the Colts hope to see those numbers improve in 2018, however. By playing more of a Tampa 2 coverage scheme in the back end, the Colts will depend upon the pass rush up front to generate lots of pressure, and, with less man-to-man, tight coverage in the back end, the defensive backs can have their eyes on the quarterback much more frequently to make plays on the ball when it does come their way.
• About that defensive pressure: the Colts registered just 25 sacks as a team in 2017, ranking 31st in the league. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with 22, had fewer. Again, though, the switch to the 4-3 is expected to help remedy this issue from a year ago. By allowing defensive linemen — the ends especially — to only focus on getting to the passer, instead of having several other responsibilities and checks like they would in a 3-4, and by utilizing speed, quickness and hustle, the Indy defenders should see an uptick in those sack numbers in 2018. Also, Eberflus and others have stressed the importance of a defensive line coming at the quarterback in waves, so while the Colts will, of course, have a first-team defensive unit, the plan is to have two or three other fresh sets of linemen ready to go at all times to maintain the relentless pressure.