Entering Week 11 of the 2020 NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts stand at 6-3 atop of the AFC South. The main reason for their success has been their NFL-leading total defense. However, it has been difficult to gauge how good the Colts truly are. They have been one of the most confusing teams in the NFL because of their strength of schedule. This begs the question, “How Good is the Indianapolis Colts Defense?” By digging deeper, we can see if the Colts defense is truly elite or if they are just playing well because of their opponents.
How Good Is the Indianapolis Colts Defense?
The Colts deploy a Cover 2 scheme that relies on bringing pressure with the front four. Most of the time, the back seven sit in their zone coverage and watch the quarterback make his read. This allows the Colts to use their speed and rangy players to use their instincts to make a play on the ball. This style has proven to be effective as the Colts rank second in passing yards allowed per game.
The Colts defense feeds off of speed and flying to the football. It sounds very cliche, but when teams are running the ball against the Colts, the speed is very noticeable with linebackers that fly to the ball and others helping to finish the play. Even though the Colts have gone against players such as Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Kareem Hunt, and Joe Mixon, they rank fourth in rushing yards allowed per game.
The Colts defense is filled with current and former Pro Bowlers, misfits, veterans, and young players. Players like Darius Leonard, Justin Houston, Anthony Walker, and Kenny Moore have helped this defense stay afloat throughout the years. Two of the biggest additions on the team from 2019 are former Minnesota Vikings cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, and former San Fransisco 49er, DeForest Buckner. Another player for the Colts that has surprised fans is rookie free safety Julian Blackmon who was drafted in the third round in 2020 from the University of Utah. In addition, Grover Stewart, Denico Autry, Bobby Okereke, and Khari Willis have all taken their game to the next level to help continue the growth of the defense.
Everyone knows Darius Leonard aka The Maniac. Leonard has a knack for making plays in every facet imaginable. Leonard is a complete player as an off-ball outside linebacker. His speed, leadership, and tenacity motivates his team to continue to get better. Leonard missed Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns. His absence was evident as the Colts gave up 261 passing yards and 124 rushing yards to Baker Mayfield and company. This was the third most (passing) and most (rushing) the defense had given up in one game all season. There is no other way to put it. Darius Leonard is the heart and soul of this defense.
A name that goes unnoticed many times on the Colts defense is Anthony Walker. Coming off back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles, Walker is the “man in the middle” and leader on the defense. In years past, Walker had been an every-down linebacker. However, the Colts are so deep this season, Walker typically comes off the field on third downs for Bobby Okereke. Despite that, Walker is a run-stuffing middle linebacker who coordinates the defense. He is not the most athletic player on the field, but his high IQ gets him in the right places to make the play.
Kenny Moore has been the best defensive back on the Colts for the past three seasons. Moore plays on the outside in base defense but slides in the slot position in nickel packages. His length helps him get his hands on balls when he is out of position. The most underrated part of Moore’s skill set is his ability to stop the run. Many times, we hear experts call cornerbacks “willing tacklers.” Moore is not a willing tackler. He is a textbook tackler.
For the past two seasons, Rhodes has been plagued by injuries that have hindered his performance. However, with the Colts, he has revitalized his career. In the past, Rhodes was part of complex schemes under Mike Zimmer which involved disguising coverages playing in both man and zone. However, in the Colts’ Cover 2 scheme, Rhodes is tasked with playing in a zone while watching the quarterback’s eyes and jumping routes. Because Rhodes always has help over the top, he is able to play more aggressive and force turnovers. Rhodes is fourth in the NFL among cornerbacks with a 78.3 PFF grade.
Questions surrounded DeForest Buckner while he was in San Fransisco. While his 72 quarterback hits, 38 tackls for loss, and 28.5 sacks in four years earned him an All-Pro season, many questioned if he produced only because of surrounding talent. After seeing the Colts’ transformation in 2020, it is obvious that Buckner is a superstar. Buckner plays the three-technique in the Colts scheme. His responsibility is to penetrate the gaps to generate pressure. While his sack totals do not pop out the stat sheet in 2020, Buckner’s presence is evident. Multiple players on the Colts defensive line are having standout seasons with Buckner commanding double teams.
During the off-season, the Colts declined to pick up Malik Hooker‘s fifth-year option. They drafted Julian Blackmon as a potential replacement for Hooker. After Hooker went on the injured reserve, Blackmon stepped in and never looked back. One play that stands out was against the Titans in Week 10. The play happened in the first quarter. The Titans ran a toss to the short side of the field to Henry. Julian Blackmon, who started six yards off the line of scrimmage, met Henry four yards into the backfield for a loss. Blackmon boasts a league-high amongst rookie defensive backs with a 72.2 PFF grade.
The Colts boast several young players on this defense that have elevated their play. One of those players is former Stanford linebacker, Bobby Okereke. Okereke is the faster, quicker, bigger, and longer version of Darius Leonard. That is not to say he is a better player. However, their styles of play are almost identical. Okereke is a player who relies on his instincts to make plays in the backfield and in the passing game. With his speed and motor in covering the field sideline to sideline, he and Leonard are going to wreak havoc for offenses on Sundays for many years. He has earned his way onto the field as a starter on base and nickel defenses. Chris Ballard and Colts management are extremely high on Okereke calling him”one of the building blocks of this defense.”
Grover Stewart is on his way to collecting a big payday in the upcoming free agency period. While this article has highlighted the Colts defense predicated on speed, Stewart is the anchor in the middle of the defense as the starting nose tackle. Standing at 6’4″ and 320 pounds, Stewart is a behemoth for centers and guards to try and block one-on-one. He has gotten better progressively each year of his career. However, in 2020, Stewart has been “special” as head coach Frank Reich has called him. He is one of those players that does all the dirty work in the trenches and receives zero credit. Although he is third in run stops amongst interior defenders according to PFF, his impact on the team is not shown in the box score. Stewart has been a pleasant surprise on defense as one of the best NTs in the NFL
Last Word on the Indianapolis Colts Defense
Here have been the quarterbacks the Colts have played this season:
- Gardner Minshew
- Kirk Cousins
- Sam Darnold
- Nick Foles
- Baker Mayfield
- Joe Burrow
- Matthew Stafford
- Lamar Jackson
- Ryan Tannehill
While none of these players are in the upper echelon of the quarterback position (the jury is still out on Lamar Jackson, and Joe Burrow is too young), the Colts have still absolutely dominated their opposition. Second in interceptions and fourth in points per game given up are not stats to overlook. With a tough schedule coming up against quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson twice, and Ben Roethlisberger, only time will tell about this Colts defense. However, these young guys paired with some veterans proving they have been overlooked by some teams is not a defense I want to play down the stretch in the regular season. After many years of high-powered offenses lead by Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, it is the defense that will now try to lead the Colts through the playoffs. The Colts host the Green Bay Packers in Week 11 as a primetime afternoon game. Consequently, this will be the perfect chance for the Colts to test themselves among the elites.