Matt Eberflus Talks Defensive Evaluations, Darius Leonard, Rookie Performances

Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus this week is a guest on the Colts Official Podcast, where he discusses how the staff will evaluate the play of the unit from 2019, the evolution of Darius Leonard, the many rookie contributions and much more.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus this week is a guest on the Colts Official Podcast, where he discusses how the staff will evaluate the play of the unit from 2019, the evolution of Darius Leonard, the many rookie contributions and much more.

You can listen to that entire conversation above, but what were some of the top takeaways?

1. The coaching staff has an in-depth process in place to evaluate the play of the 2019 defense: The Colts' defense in 2019 finished right around the middle of the pack — 17th — in terms of total defense (346.8 yards allowed per game); it was 23rd against the pass (248.9 yards allowed per game) and seventh against the run (97.9 yards allowed per game). Indy started off a little slow, picked up the pace from around Week 5 through Week 11, and then ended the season with some up and down performances. In all, the defensive performance gives Eberflus and his staff no shortage of items to cross off their list this offseason — plenty of good, of course, but also some clear areas to improve upon when the players return for offseason workouts in April.

"We look at it with a critical eye, and we want to make sure that we're doing the things that put our players in position to be successful, and that's the No. 1 job of a coach is, No. 1, to be a teacher, and then No. 2 is to develop, and then No. 3 is to put your guys in position to be successful," Eberflus said.

"It's important that we have a plan of action of how we're going to improve going into OTAs, going into the minicamp and then going into the summer," he continued. "Because everybody's got the same timetable, so we wanna be able to make sure that are taking full advantage of having a plan of action with that player — it's coach-player, player and coach — of working forward to improve fundamental technique during this time of year, so when we get into training camp we are rolling and he understands exactly where he needs to be and what he needs to do."

2. Darius Leonard could see his role expand even more in 2020: After earning First-Team All-Pro honors in his first NFL season in 2018 — also being named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year — there was no sophomore slump for linebacker Darius Leonard in 2019. While he did miss three games early in the season with a concussion, Leonard was just as impactful this past season as he was in 2018, finishing with 121 total tackles (seven for a loss) with 5.0 sacks, five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles, earning Second-Team All-Pro honors.

Leonard said he benefitted greatly from having the opportunity to look at his best and his worst plays with Eberflus last offseason, and that will be the plan once again for Leonard when the players return for the offseason workout program in April.

And when Leonard does get back to Indy, Eberflus said he wants to work with him on expanding his role even more as a pass rusher on third down.

"He really excels in that area," Eberflus said of Leonard. "And we're looking forward to doing some other stuff with him in there, as well. You know, he's had (12) sacks the first two years, and that's a lot for an inside backer, and we're just trying to get him to get more than that and to get our sack number up higher than that. So he's expanding that way."

3. Eberflus is excited about the play of the Colts' defensive rookies in 2019: Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, safety Khari Willis and linebacker Bobby Okereke, particularly, played a ton of snaps as rookies for the Colts' defense this past season; Ya-Sin and Okereke would be named to Pro Football Focus' 2019 All-Rookie Team, while Willis surely wasn't close behind.

Defensive end Ben Banogu (16 games played; 2.5 sacks), cornerback Marvell Tell III (13 games played, one start) and linebacker E.J. Speed (12 games played) also were able to get plenty of opportunities to show what they could do as rookies.

Eberflus said this week that the plan all along was for those guys to play major roles for the defense, and, like any rookies, it took some time for them to catch on and start playing consistently. But once they did, it offered a promising glimpse into the future.

"You have (to have) some growth there and you have to have some patience, and that's kind of what we went through the first four games, and I think once we started catching stride there I think we started to see some better football in the middle there," Eberflus said. "And now our objective is just to keep that going all the way through the season, and we've gotta do a better job of that."

Okereke, particularly, shined at various parts of the season. He initially got an opportunity to play a major role when Leonard went down with his concussion with three games, but even when Leonard returned, Okereke was able to play plenty of snaps as the team's primary SAM linebacker. He finished with 58 tackles (two for a loss) with 1.0 sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and he also took an interception to the house on an attempted two-point conversion.

"We saw the functional intelligence, so to speak, on the field of him being able to execute at a high level and play and it's not too big for him as a rookie," Eberflus said of Okereke. "And so when Darius came back we decided to put (Okereke) at the SAM spot to get him more reps, because we wanted to put all three of those players on the field at one time and not have him sitting on the sidelines. So that was our plan and we knew he could handle it, and he did an excellent job."

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Here's a full breakdown of this week's Colts Official Podcast:

00:00 - 03:17 – Colts News with Matt Taylor

03:17 - 21:52 – Writer's Block – Colts.com writer Andrew Walker joins Matt Taylor on the free agent profiles of Joe Haeg and Clayton Geathers. Also, which name is popping up most frequent for the Colts on mock drafts.

22:18 - 45:43 – Colts defensive coordinator Matt Ebeflus recaps the 2019 season and highlights where the Colts need to improve this offseason.

45:44 - 1:03 – Colts Conversation Hearts with Jeffrey Gorman, Larra Overton and Casey Vallier. Handing out Valentine's sayings to members of the Colts.

1:03 - 1:30 — Segment with Sorgi – Former Colts quarterback and radio analyst Jim Sorgi joins Matt Taylor to make sense of all the free agent quarterbacks that could be on the market next month.

1:31 - 1:41 — Former Colts quarterback Phillip Walker, now starter for the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL, discusses his current opportunity and his time in Indianapolis.

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