It’s entirely understandable to come away from the Colts embarrassing loss in LA and feel like there is little or nothing positive to say about the football team. Any good attributes or performances were so over-shadowed by the very bad parts that it is hard to take positive analysis seriously.
Despite this, I’m going to give you a chance to see something good from the game. I’m going to show you a partially hidden defensive characteristic that could bode quite well for this younger, overhauled version of the Colts defense — one that entered the game with 11 new starters from the 2016 opener.
If early returns are a sign of things to come — the days of watching the defense in Indianapolis get gashed on the ground might be coming to an end.
The statistics are already there for you to see. You already know that the Colts held the Rams to 1.9 yards rushing on the ground. You already know that the group held Todd Gurley to 2.1 yards rushing. You may not know that after one week the Colts rank ninth in the NFL in terms of rushing yards allowed and first in the NFL in terms yards allowed per rushing attempt.
Before you think I’m getting ahead of myself, I understand that this was just one game. I understand that the Rams aren’t known for having a stellar offensive line. I also understand that Todd Gurley has been a massive disappointment to this point in his young career.
It’s for these reasons that looking at the film is so important. The film will help you vet out whether the performance was an anomaly or something that can be repeated. Let’s get to it:
On the first play from scrimmage, the Rams handed the ball to Todd Gurley on a dive, testing the middle of the Colts defensive line. The group responded by presenting Gurley with a wall of bodies.
The player credited with the tackle on this play was Henry Anderson, who drove the offensive lineman inside to close the B and A gaps.
Note that not only did the defensive line clog the inside running lanes, both John Simon and Jabaal Sheard held the edges on the outside. If Gurley hoped to bounce the play outside, he would have had to run backwards to try to get around the edge.
On the Rams second possession, Gurley against tries the interior of the Colts defense. The result is similar to the first attempt with Al Woods tossing around a Rams offensive lineman to make the tackle for a three-yard gain.
Note that Johnathan Hankins was also there to close the running lane and that he was held by the offensive lineman who was entirely incapable of sustaining the block one-on-one.
On the very next play, Gurley attacks the middle of the line and is met by Johnathan Hankins who spins off of his block and holds the run to four yards.
The good news is that all three of the Rams first running plays were stopped at or just after Gurley got to the line and none of them went for greater than four yards. Also, all three starting defensive linemen impacted the plays.
You should again note that Jabaal Sheard sets the edge very effectively on this play. He blows back the tight end, knocking him on his heels and closes the door on any exit to Gurley’s right. This forces him into the trees.
Things didn’t get a lot better for Los Angeles from here. Later on the same drive, Gurley gets a hand-off on another dive play and is stopped for no gain. This tackle goes to inside linebacker Jon Bostic.
On the left side of the play you will see Johnathan Hankins maul the offensive lineman and steer him back into Gurley’s face. This forces Gurley into a mass of bodies in front of him. Al Woods has locked out the lineman in front of him and Henry Anderson moves the linemen on the right side into the middle, clearing a spot for Bostic to come in and make the play.
On the Rams third possession, they attempt to get Gurley going on an outside route. He finds that the edge is sealed by John Simon and that he has nowhere to go. Al Woods runs the play down from behind and forces a 3-yard loss.
What I want to point out is the flow of the defense. The pursuit down the line is excellent. Simon sets the edge on the front side of the play and if Woods wasn’t already trailing, Sheard had the backside and would have been in a good position to make the tackle when Gurley re-directed.
On the fifth possession of the game the Rams try to get Gurley moving laterally and find nowhere to run. John Simon holds the edge and Rashaan Melvin comes down to help. With no cutback lane and the window closing, Johnathan Hankins runs down the play from behind for a one-yard gain.
If you feel like there is a theme that involves setting the edge, that is for good reason. The outside linebackers did a nice job in this game of containing runs to the outside — no one more than John Simon.
On the Rams sixth possession they attempt to get the ball to Gurley for another lateral run outside of the tackles. Simon reads this play from the very beginning and goes inside of the tight end to make the tackle for a six-yard loss.
You should note that even if Simon did not make the play, and even if the tight end did not blow his block, Al Woods owned the center on this play and would have likely tackled Gurley for a loss himself.
On the Rams seventh possession they try to attack the edge again with Gurley, possibly trying to exploit rookie Tarrell Basham. Basham is able to keep the edge and force Gurley back inside where he is met by Margus Hunt for no gain.
You will again see the defensive line flowing with the play, keeping the ball in front of them. Darius Butler reads the flow of the play well and pounces to get in on the tackle when he finds the ball.
On the Rams eighth possession, they go back to the inside with Gurley. Antonio Morrison keeps his eyes on the ball carrier and denies the cutback lane. He makes the stop for a one-yard gain.
Once again, Sheard, Ridgeway, and Bostic all force the flow of the play to the inside. All Morrison, Farley, and Woods have to do is let the play come back to them.
In the fourth quarter, Malcolm Brown tries his luck running inside and finds Antonio Morrison waiting for him in the hole. This was another stop for a one-yard gain.
It should be noted that Margus Hunt came down the line to help and that Johnathan Hankins took the guard one-on-one and refused to get pushed out of the hole. This left Brown only a small crease to run through and Morrison with a small crease to close.
On LA’s last possession, rookie Justin Davis gets the carry and is met by safety Matthias Farley for only one yard. Bostic and Anderson also played a role by getting in Davis’ face and forcing him to sidestep.
While not every play went this well for the run defense against the Rams, there are very positive signs. The front-seven played a tight football game throughout much of the contest, despite all the reason in the world to mail it in. The outside linebackers were adept as edge setters, the defensive line was skilled at clogging rushing lanes in the middle, and the inside linebackers came up to fill what small lanes were left.
Jon Bostic, Jabaal Sheard, and John Simon were particularly good at getting push and redirecting the designed flow of the play. While these players did not always get credited with tackles, their efforts should be recognized.
Whether this is all a mirage due to what could be a very bad Rams offensive line, or running game in genera, is yet to be seen. Maybe this same group would get manhandled against the Cowboys in the same way they did in the preseason. Maybe that doesn’t matter because almost every defensive line in the NFL will get manhandled by that group.
No matter the longer-term answer, right now it looks an awful lot like General Manager Chris Ballad has done more to stiffen up the the Colts defense against the run in one off-season than his predecessor was able to put together in five. Keys to this new look include NT Al Woods, DT John Hankins, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB John Simon, and ILB Jon Bostic.
Stay tuned for part II of this series for more runs to the outside and where the Rams gained most of their yards on the ground.