On first and 10 from the Colts' 44-yard line early in the third quarter of Week 2, the Houston Texans called a shot play for quarterback C.J. Stroud.
It was a heavy play-action concept with a seven-man protection (five offensive linemen, one tight end and a running back blocked). Both wide receivers ran deep vertical stop routes, with fullback Andrew Beck running a wheel to the far sideline. If Stroud hit the back of his drop cleanly, he could've got the ball out on time for a chunk gain as Houston tried to ignite something while trailing 28-10.
The Colts rushed four defensive linemen, from left to right: Tyquan Lewis, Taven Bryan, Eric Johnson II and Samson Ebukam. Ebukam is the only starter of that group.
It didn't matter.
Ebukam came screaming off the edge, using his speed and hands to make contact with Stroud at the back of his drop. Stroud stepped up but was off-balance – and was immediately hit by Lewis, who got past tight end Teagan Quitoriano and reached Stroud before right tackle George Fant could get off double-teaming Bryan to help. Once Fant left the double team on Bryan to try to help on Lewis, Bryan slipped past right guard Shaq Mason and brought Stroud to the ground for a sack.
To recap: Three of the Colts' four defensive linemen got a hand on Stroud on the play. And that's the kind of collective pass rush – no matter who's on the field – the Colts are getting out of their defensive line to begin the 2023 season.
"This year we're just rushing and naturally working off each other," defensive end Kwity Paye said. "That's what the front's meant to be and I feel like being in the second year in this defense, we're really honing in on that."
All nine active Colts defensive linemen had at least one pressure against the Texans; Paye, Ebukam, Bryan, DeForest Buckner and Jake Martin registered sacks. Bryan, Ebukam, Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo each had a team-high four pressures. Regardless of who defensive line coach Nate Ollie rotated on to the field, the Colts collapsed pockets and generated pressure.
"Our vision of the front being disruptive, you're starting to be able to show clips on tape where you're saying, 'That's what it looks like,'" defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "And not showing other teams. You're starting to show us even more and I think that's what we're pleased (with). We just have to keep that trending in the right direction."
Through Bradley's stops as a defensive coordinator or head coach with the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and now the Colts, he's been known for rushing four defensive linemen and having his linebackers and defensive backs cover behind it. The key for those four linemen is having a collective pass rush, playing with aggressiveness but also discipline.
The last word there – discipline – will be key this weekend, with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens on deck at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday.
"It's important that four equals one, and what better week to see that than this week with a quarterback that can scramble and make plays," Bradley said. "We're going to be tested up front with keeping our lanes and things like that and understanding the type of quarterback that we're facing."
Knowing what pass rush techniques to use to play off the guys next to them is something that's allowed the Colts to generate so much collective pressure to begin the 2023 season. Against Jackson, who's averaged 8.2 yards per attempt on scrambles in his career, all four defensive linemen have to rush together. If not?
"He'll make you pay, for sure," Buckner said. "... If one guy misses, the next guy has to be there to make the play."
This collective effort is boosted, too, by the depth the Colts have on their defensive line. Through two games, the Colts have been able to rotate their top defensive linemen more than last year:
|2022||DeForest Buckner||77%||2023||DeForest Buckner||70%|
|2022||Yannick Ngakoue||73%||2023||Samson Ebukam||58%|
|2022||Grover Stewart||68%||2023||Grover Stewart||57%|
|2022||Kwity Paye||66%||2023||Kwity Paye||67%|
That rotation, with Odeyingbo (49 percent), Bryan (31 percent), Lewis (29 percent, Johnson (23 percent) and Martin (18 percent) coming off the sideline, has helped keep those four most-used defensive linemen as fresh as possible into the fourth quarter. And there hasn't been much of a dropoff when those guys have come in for the starters.
Case in point: That play-action sack of Stroud against the Texans.
"My job is to uphold that standard," Lewis said. "I gotta be the best at it. I think all of us apply that mindset to how we play."
Thursday's practice report: