“Defense wins championships.”
A cliche for most football fans, your dad probably muttered this phrase to himself watching the ’85 Bears terrorize Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX. The dominance displayed by Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, and the “46 defense” was once thought to be enough to bring a Lombardi home to a city; however, the dawn of advanced analytics has begun turning the one-time consensus thought into an endless debate carried out by guys with enough acronym stats to make the federal government jealous.
Analytics aside, the buck will not stop in Indianapolis when it comes to answering the former question, as the Colts don’t have a defense capable of making a deep postseason run. They certainly have the cornerstones for a unit that could soon become special, but the surrounding structure has proven unstable.
The most obvious example of this is the pass rush, which ranked 24th in pass rush win rate according to ESPN. The run stop rate was considerably better as the Colts came in at 12, still in the middle of the pack but above average. If you’d like an example of fantastic trench play on both sides of the ball, though, look no further than the NFC Championship and the Los Angeles Rams. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Rams ranked first in pass rush win rate, run stop win rate, and pass block win rate.
LA is one win away from the Super Bowl LVI.
So how do the Colts get there? If Matt Eberflus is hired by another organization to call the shots, who will replace him?
Buddy Ryan himself is just as likely to rise from the ground and be named defensive coordinator as some of the names being thrown around right now (ahem, Brian Flores).
Lucky for you, the defensive coordinator speculation has already been done by my colleagues here at The Blue Stable.
Assuming a major scheme change isn’t in play this offseason, there are three main goals that Chris Ballard should hone in on over the coming months to improve his defenses’ performance in 2022.
1. Improve the Pass Rush
Anyone who can spell “sack” that also watched the Colts this season could clearly see they were not consistently making the quarterback uncomfortable. Simply put, the part of the defense that is supposed to apply pressure rarely did so.
Chris Ballard has preached that the trenches on both sides of the ball are focal points for any championship football team, and he has made the investments in the draft to back up this philosophy.
Luckily Ballard isn’t playing baseball, as he would have struck out long ago if the goal was to hit on an effective edge rusher. Terrell Basham, Gerri Green, Ben Banogu, and Kemoko Turay have all underwhelmed, while the jury is still out on his most recent picks at the position.
In free agency, Ballard signed Denico Autry in 2018, where he promptly had a career year in sacks and was utilized as a swiss army knife across the line over the next three years. Autry could play inside and out, a disruptive, undersized three tech sometimes, or a pocket collapsing five tech in other situations. Ballard let him walk in free agency, where he signed with Tennessee and produced nine sacks.
DeForest Bucker led the Colts with seven.
There are decisions that have to be made with in-house free agents. Whether or not Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Al Quadin-Muhammad, Taylor Stallworth, and Isaac Rochell are brought back will say a lot about how Chris Ballard is going to attack this position. My colleague Sebastian Bench recently laid out his ideal offseason for the Colts defensive line, identifying eight players that he believes will raise the level of pressure applied next year. Eight, the same number on the ball that helps us make life’s most important decisions, is the magic number that Ballard recently stated in his end-of-year presser.
I agree with Seb that the Colts should target Emmanuel Ogbah, who has experienced a career renaissance with the Miami Dolphins, and I actually expect them to do so. After Ballard’s comments at his press conference, I would also expect Tyquan Lewis to be retained as he has proven to be dangerous when healthy. Taylor Stallworth could also be brought back as quality depth.
Where my thought process differs is at the last spot, where I think the Colts should bring in a player like Efe Odaba from the Bills, who racked up four sacks, according to PFF, on considerably fewer pass-rushing attempts than Al Quadin-Muhammad. The octet would then be DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Taylor Stallworth, Emmanuel Ogbah, Dayo Odeyingbo, Efe Odaba, Kwity Paye, and Tyquan Lewis.
The first person to trademark “The Killer O’s” for this group would have my eternal respect.
2. Secondary Depth
The maturation of Rock Ya-Sin into a borderline CB 1 was one of the most astonishing developments this season, along with the stellar play of second-year corner Isaiah Rodgers. Kenny Moore was also rock-solid apart from the year’s final two games when nobody played well. After those three though options are limited. Xavier Rhodes regressed noticeably and is only getting older. I don’t see any situation in which Rhodes is retained as a starter or really brought back at all. TJ Carrie didn’t see the field much this year and didn’t make much of an impact when he did.
With two spots left, I expect Chris Ballard to bring in competition for Isaiah Rodgers through the draft, as well as make a depth signing. I’ve projected the Colts to draft Alontae Taylor before, and with the possibility of having multiple third-round picks due to the comp formula, my conviction is even stronger. I’ll link his TDN scouting report to his name for those who didn’t read my first article.
Adding Sidney Jones as a depth corner would be a cost-friendly way to add a 5th corner that has the potential to step up and be effective. Jones is a former second-round pick who was traded to the Seahawks this year and played quite well considering how abysmal their secondary has been since the legion of boom collapsed.
Former 5th round pick and current practice squad dweller Marvell Tell made the initial 53 man roster before being deactivated early this year due to injuries at safety. We’ve seen quality football from Tell before, and I believe he could provide that again if injuries thrust him onto the field. The former USC product would compete with Jones for CB 5 and would be the 6th DB if the Colts decided to roll with that many on the 53.
Now onto safety.
Will George Odum finally get his payday?
Disrespected and disappointed!!
— George Odum (@GeorgeOdum) March 16, 2021
I’m referring to Odum’s comments on Twitter last year after the Colts assigned him a late-round tender following his All-Pro special teams’ performance during the 2020 season.
Odum did more than just play special teams this year, as he filled in adequately for Julian Blackmon. Odum recorded 65 total tackles, along with an interception and forced fumble to boot. The former Central Arkansas star has proven time and time again he can be depended on to be the Colts’ third safety going forward, and a multi-year extension should be awarded for his efforts.
The Colts have an above-average safety tandem coming back with Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis, but as we saw this year when both were hurt, a fourth safety is needed. Special teams’ flexibility is a priority, and a late-round draft pick, something else the Colts will have a handful of due to comp picks, should be used on a safety.
There is one late-round safety prospect who Chris Ballard should target purely because he has an all-time name.
I’m kidding, of course, about Ballard drafting Monday due to his name, although selfishly, as a writer, that would give me a ton of creative content.
Jokes aside, Monday has the size (6’3 200 lbs) and straight-line speed to be a core special teamer. The Auburn safety also has an affinity for laying out (smoking) opposing receivers which has led to multiple targeting calls, including two in what turned out to be his final college game.
I can already hear Matt Taylor’s voice excitedly relaying that Monday “smoked” the ball carrier on a kick return, an analogy you too could use in the office when Monday is proving to be a bit more difficult than expected.
3. Linebacker Depth
Linebacker may be where the Colts are most comfortable going into the offseason, but good general managers are rarely complacent.
Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke have established themselves as one of the best linebacker duos in the league and have become the backbone of this defense.
The Colts spend a majority of their time in nickel, keeping Kenny Moore on the field, and therefore only have two linebackers. But against heavy twelve or even thirteen personnel, it is sometimes beneficial to have three linebackers on the field. Zaire Franklin has been a plus fill-in for the Colts in these situations or when called upon to fill either Leonard or Okereke’s shoes.
Franklin was also a team captain for the Colts in each of the past two years. Knowing how much Chris Ballard values the locker room, Franklin is obviously among the strongest positive characters in a locker room filled with them. Ballard will do everything in his power to make sure Franklin remains a Colt as his impact stretches beyond the field.
EJ Speed and Jordan Glasgow will be back again, setting the linebacker room at five.
The Colts had six going into 2021 with Matthew Adams being the sixth. Adams is a free agent who could be brought back as a core special teamer. The former 7th round pick will be best remembered for blocking the punt in the Patriots game that led to an EJ Speed touchdown. Adams was named a first-team All-Pro by PFF for his special teams play, which will not go unnoticed by the front office.
If Adams isn’t retained, I could see another late-round pick being used on a core special team linebacker like Adams was during his tenure as a Colt. An option in this department is three-year starter Jeremiah Gemmel of North Carolina. Reminiscent of Jordan Glasgow, Gemmel is an all-effort player who has an endless motor and is great at diagnosing run schemes.
The defense must improve next year if the Colts are going to make the type of noise Jim Irsay is promising fans.
It will start with the defensive line and whether or not they can step up to create pressure on quarterbacks who for years have been able to feast on that deficiency.
Another key will be whether or not Matt Eberflus remains the defensive coordinator and how the team reacts if he goes elsewhere. If Eberflus is hired away, I would expect an in-house candidate to be promoted for continuities sake, and therefore no dramatic scheme changes being made. Ballard has always been a proponent of a base 4-3 defense, and I don’t see that changing in the near future.
If all else fails, look forward to having the NFL’s most feared special team combo in EJ Speed and my proposed draft pick Smoke Monday. Returners getting tag teamed by Smoke and Speed would wish they’d stayed in the end zone. The defensive version of the often-monikered thunder and lightning running back pair could soon be coming to a stadium near you.