The Indianapolis Colts defense has been fairly up and down to say the least this season. They have forced a turnover in every game which is a huge plus, but have also been gashed by opposing offenses. The biggest bright spot is rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who leads the NFL in tackles and has shown a knack for making clutch plays.
While Leonard has received a lot of attention, it seems less clear how well Anthony Walker has performed.
Walker is in his second season after being selected in the 5th round in the 2017 NFL Draft. At Northwestern, Walker was a tackling machine racking up 276 tackles— 36 for a loss— in his three years with the program. He didn’t play much in his rookie season, notching playing time 10 games and gathering 19 tackles.
This year, Walker has enjoyed a breakout season lining up with the rookie Leonard. Fans and analysts have praised Walker for strong play but I have remained skeptical. His tackle numbers are impressive, and he has improved greatly, but I still saw some drawbacks. Let’s jump into the film and I’ll show you what I mean.
Without a doubt, Walker has shined the most defending the run. He possesses great speed and athleticism, helping him defend from sideline to sideline. He is excellent in his run fits as he will often times take on blockers in the hole, making run lanes harder for backs to squeeze through. His ability to sift through traffic and make plays is valuable.
This clip is a good example of how well Walker fills his role in run defense. He diagnoses the run immediately and comes downhill. He sets up on the edge to take away the cutback lane. With Leonard and Matthew Adams both crashing inside, these are good instincts. Walker is able to break down and make a solid open field tackle.
In our next clip, Walker sits back to read the play. He stays on his toes and keeps moving so he doesn’t lose sight of the runner in traffic. When he breaks downhill, he fights through the block from right tackle Morgan Moses and sifts through traffic to find Adrian Peterson. He is able to make a good tight quarters tackle on a running back who is very hard to bring down one-on-one.
The next plays shows Walker getting downfield quickly to fill the running lane. He gets a good jump off the snap and strafes downfield to mirror the outside run. He sheds the block from guard Zach Fulton and lines himself up perfectly in the running lane. If the defense is unable to collapse down on the back— in this case they are able to— then Walker is in the right position to make a play and limit extra yardage.
The next clip shows one of Walker’s best snaps of the season. He reads the play at the snap and quickly diagnoses run to the left. He explodes out of his stance and gets into the backfield in a hurry. He tracks down running back Isaiah Crowell to make an impressive open field tackle.
Our final clip to highlight his ability to defense the run sees Walker diagnose the sweep at the snap and chase all the way across the field to make the play. He uses his speed and athleticism, and a nice angle, to track down running back Sony Michel in the open field. This sideline to sideline range is really valuable in linebackers and Walker uses it to his advantage when defending the run.
Walker is a bit undersized—6’1” 242 pounds— but he makes up it with speed. He is able to get sideline to sideline in a hurry and limits a lot of plays from opposing offenses.
This clip shows why speed is so important. NFL offenses are more prone to stretch the field laterally than at any time in league history so you need linebackers who can cover a lot of ground. Here, the Jaguars throw a quick screen to the speedy Dede Westbrook. Walker is able to diagnose the play and close ground before Westbrook can get upfield. The result is negative yardage for the offense.
Again, the Jaguars try to test the Colts defense but have little success due to Walker’s athleticism. They try to use motion in the backfield to disguise a quick throw to running back Leonard Fournette. Walker sees the play and is able to get a good jump out of his stance. He takes a really good angle on Fournette to bring him down before he can get upfield.
The next clips show Walker getting downfield against the run, limiting what could have been a pretty decent gain for the Texans. The Texans attempt to have their guard chop Walker in the middle of the play but he is able to shed the block and get to the sideline quickly. He takes a very good angle limits the gain to just a few yards.
Our next play shows Walker coming out of his zone and to pickup a sack in the backfield. When Walker is on the field for a passing a play, he is typically in a mid-zone that also spies the quarterback. Now I know this is a horrible sack taken by Deshaun Watson— why didn’t he just throw the ball away??— but the ground Walker covers here is quite impressive.
This is the main reason I haven’t been as high on Walker’s play this season. He needs to drastically improve his discipline to be a three down player in this league. Walker too often gets confused by backfield motion or over commits to where he thinks the play is going. This can lead to getting caught out of position and leads to success for the opposing offense.
This clip is an excellent example of Walker getting confused by backfield motion. The Jaguars use a lot of deception on this place, including a pulling fullback, faking the end around, and faking the running back dive in order to set up the screen to Fournette. Walker is completely lost as he bites on almost every bit of the deception. He is entirely out of position when Fournette catches the ball and the result is a big play for the Jaguars.
The next play was designed to take advantage of Walker’s over-aggressiveness. Walker is responsible for the mid-zone next to Malik Hooker on this goal line play. The Texans use a play-action quick slant combo to get Walker to commit to the run, then throw behind him into the empty zone for a touchdown. Walker completes falls for the play action, leaving the middle of the field open for the score.
The next play is another example of an offense taking advantage of Walker’s susceptibility to play fakes. The Patriots set up this play with run after run and were able to get Walker to attack the line of scrimmage. Walker has to start trusting his eyes and sitting back before attacking to mitigate these types of mistakes.
The final clip may seem like nitpicking, but I believe it shows a bigger issue. This play is a quick play-action throw to the screen away from Walker. He is not going to make this play even with his speed. My issue is the false step towards the play-action. He bites way too hard on play fakes and it regularly opens up the middle of the field.
Anthony Walker has had a very strong year for the Colts and has formed a nice duo with rookie Darius Leonard. He is a stout run defender. His athleticism is a huge asset and allows him to limit a ton of potentially big plays.
There are areas for Walker to improve. My primary concern is with his discipline and susceptibility to play fakes and motion. Good play callers such as Doug Peterson, Bill O’Brien, and Josh McDaniels have noticed these weaknesses and have used them to exploit the Colts defense. Walker must correct these issues if he wants to be a three down linebacker in Indianapolis. If he can’t, I think his ceiling is as a two down, run stuffing linebacker.
Overall, I really like Walker’s aggression and demeanor. It has been an overwhelmingly positive season in his second year. His ability to develop more against the pass will be key to the steps Chris Ballard will have to take in the coming off-season.