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 2019 season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
» The switch to a 4-3 base defense in the first year under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus clearly paid off for the Colts in 2018, in a number of areas. Perhaps the most notable improvement was the number of explosive plays allowed by the secondary. While small gains in the pass game are mostly going to be there for the taking against this scheme, the Indy defense was solid in hustling to the ballcarrier and immediately taking him down, preventing the likelihood of a seven-yard completion breaking out into a 70-yard touchdown. And you want to throw a bomb against this defense? Forget about it; the Colts allowed just four pass plays of 40 yards or more in 2018, the second fewest such plays in the NFL. To compare, the Colts allowed 11 passing plays of 40 yards or more in 2017, the eighth most in the league.
» The Colts were also stout against the run in 2018. They allowed the eighth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL (1,626), while their 3.9 yards-per-carry-allowed figure ranked sixth in the league. Perhaps most impressively, the Colts were one of only three teams in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher the entire season — this despite playing five of the top-10 rushers in the league. The Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher in 2018, was held to 87 yards against Indy; New York Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley, the second-leading rusher in the NFL, was held to 43 yards; Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, the fourth-leading rusher, was held to 95 yards; Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, the seventh-leading rusher, was held to 46 and 93 yards, respectively, in two games; and Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson, the eighth-leading rusher in the NFL, was held to just 20 yards.
ITEMS TO BUILD UPON:
» One of the biggest needs the Colts wanted to address this offseason was their pass rush, particularly off the edge. While the Indy defense certainly didn't struggle in this area in 2018 — their 38.0 sacks as a group ranked tied for 19th in the NFL — there were times throughout the season in which a lack of pass rush, or even a hint of constant pressure, was lacking, allowing opposing quarterbacks to buy more time and make plays down the field. According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts' average pass rush pressure rate throughout 2018 was about six percent, which was the eighth-worst figure in the league. To help in this area, the Colts this offseason added some major firepower by signing free agent pass rusher Justin Houston, who brings his 78.5 career sacks with him to Indy. The team also selected TCU's Ben Banogu in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft; Banogu could make an immediate impact as a pass rusher as well as at linebacker.
» The Colts' defense, particularly up front, was among the more penalized units in the NFL in 2018. The team was called for 12 offsides penalties, the third most in the league, as well as seven neutral zone infraction penalties, the eighth most. These flags in some cases can very much affect the outcome of a game, which could've certainly been the case Week 3 on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles, when Colts defenders were called for eight penalties in all, and five in the fourth quarter alone. The Eagles would go on to escape with a 20-16 victory. "I think Andrew (Luck) said it best: we had to learn how not to lose," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said after the season. "More games are lost than won in this league. Just watch every week. Turnovers, penalties — little things get you beat in this league and we had to learn to get better at that and not do it."