Can a defense truly be good if they can't stop the run?
"No," Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "I don't think so. I don't believe so."
There's something to being a defense that can't stop the run, when opposing offenses have the mentality they can out-muscle you. Football is a physical, tough game; being able to stop the run takes physicality and toughness.
"The name of the game is physicality," linebacker E.J. Speed said. "You're playing football. You gotta be physical."
"If you can't stop the run," Buckner added, "guys are just gonna run it down your throat all day and bleed the clock out."
So here's a piece of good news about the Colts' defense through two weeks: They can stop the run.
Entering Week 3, the Colts are second in the NFL in yards per rush allowed (2.7). They're tied for first in tackles for a loss or no gain (17) and are second in Expected Points Added against the run (-.419), per Pro Football Focus. They've notched a run stop – defined by PFF as a loss for the offense – on 44 of 65 rushes they've faced. They've been gashed once (a 37-yard touchdown run by Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson) but that's the only run they've allowed of 10 or more yards.
And no defense is tackling opponents closer to the line of scrimmage than the Colts – on average, they're bringing down opposing backs 2.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
"We just gotta keep choking them out," defensive tackle Grover Stewart said. "Keep choking them out. That's what everybody's mindset should be. Go choke this team out. Don't let them breathe."
Stewart has been particularly disruptive against the run so far. It's not anything new – his teammates have long viewed him as one of the best, if not the best, at his position in the NFL – but playing in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and D-line coach Nate Ollie's attack-oriented front has taken his game to another level.
He's tops among defensive linemen in run stops (seven) and percentage of plays with a positive PFF grade (39 percent) and is second in tackles for a loss/no gain (three). And Stewart is doing all this right at the line of scrimmage – on average, he's tackling opposing running backs a half-yard beyond the sticks.
"He's just a man amongst boys," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "I think Grove is at that point where he realizes he's bigger, stronger, quicker and better than anybody he's going to go against and he's going to dominate and take over whatever play is coming on. It's a blessing to be behind him and Buck."
Behind Stewart, Buckner and the guys who rotate in the interior – Byron Cowart has made a handful of plays among that group – the Colts' linebacking corps has excelled in cleanup duty. Speed has the highest PFF run defense grade (90.3) of any linebacker through two weeks, while Franklin has three tackles for loss/no gain and Bobby Okereke has seven run stops (second among LBs).
"(The D-line) destroys the whole thing," Franklin said. "They're gonna mess it all up and we just come clean up whatever it is."
"Having somebody like (Stewart) who's strong and can hold the point, you can just meet people head on in the hole and it's power on power," Speed added.
"We got the best nose in the league knocking everything back," defensive end Kwity Paye said, "so it makes it easier on everybody else to just play ball."
And it's not like the Colts have faced two sub-par rushing attacks, too:
|Opponent||Week 1 Yards Per Carry||Week 2 Yards Per Carry|
|Houston Texans||2.8 (vs. Colts)||4.4 (vs. Broncos)|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||6.8 (vs. Commanders)||2.6 (vs. Colts)|
The challenge for the Colts' defense, now, is to build on the foundation of stopping the run. The Texans and Jaguars both had their quarterbacks get the ball out quick (both Davis Mills and Trevor Lawrence had average times to throw of under 2.4 seconds) and were able to generate efficient yardage on first and second down through the air, setting up more makable third down tries. Entering Week 3, opposing offenses need six yards to gain on third down; that's tied for the seventh-lowest average in the NFL.
But the ability to stop the run is fueling confidence from the Colts' defense they can get to where they want to go in 2022.
"We're not going to just throw away and give up everything we believe in," Franklin said. "There's something to build on. Stopping the run and running the ball is, in my opinion, the basis of football. We know we can run the ball, we got the best running back in the league. And if we're stopping the run at an extremely elite rate, things will end up working.
"Now it's just about execution, right, and making those plays and playing better in those critical situations. I think it's all gonna come together. I'm really looking forward to it, super excited to be back in Lucas Oil this weekend."