The Indianapolis Colts pulled off their 3rd straight victory— their 8th win in the last 9 games— against the New York Giants 28-27 at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was not the Colts’ best game of the season, but they were able to do enough to edge out a somewhat tough Giants team. Andrew Luck was sensational on offense and the defense did their part to ensure the second half comeback.
The player who sealed the victory and kept the Colts’ playoff hopes alive was 2017 first round pick Malik Hooker. While Hooker has struggled to adjust to Matt Eberflus’ new Tampa 2 stylized defense, I was a firm defender of Hooker’s play early in the season. In recent weeks, though, his run defense has started to look worse. Despite that flaw, he has continued to do his job by preventing the deep ball during the Colts’ hot streak.
Sunday’s performance was far from Hooker’s best of the year, but it was one of the more impactful. Hooker finished with 6 tackles and an interception. While he did allow a couple big plays, I think Hooker flashed some of his untapped potential.
Our first clip demonstrates Hooker’s impact. He is lined up as the deep safety on the bottom of the screen and often impacts the game in ways that go unseen. The Colts are disguising a blitz by their linebackers. In doing so, Matthew Adams is forced to cover a slot receiver coming across the formation. Adams is a step slow— understandably so— and it should be an easy throw for Eli Manning. However, Hooker notices this mismatch and rolls over the top of the route as the receiver as he comes out of his break. This recognition and movement by Hooker— along with an excellent rush from Margus Hunt— causes this play to be an incomplete pass.
The next clip shows what happens when deep coverage breaks down. It led to the Giants’ second touchdown.
I have two theories for what happened. First, the call on defense was cover three and Hooker (deep safety, bottom of the screen) filled his zone over the middle and Mike Mitchell failed to roll over the top. Second — and more likely— is that the call was cover two and Hooker overplayed the post route once he saw Desir’s man break outside. Desir bit hard due to his flat responsibilities and because he expected Hooker’s safety help over the top. Hooker looks too aggressive which led to the big play which is an inexcusable mistake for a deep safety.
Our next clips is a good example of Hooker (deep safety, top of the screen) sitting on the deeper route. The Giants try a deep out- flats route combo on Desir and Hooker’s side of the field. Manning looks off the underneath throw to the flats then shifts to the deep out to see if he opened up the window to throw. Desir does a great job of staying in his zone depth on the play but Hooker also does a great job of sitting on the route here. He knows what is coming and is able to break on the ball while staying square with the receiver as Manning looks that way. As a result, Manning is forced to try and find the check down.
This is another rough clip for Hooker. He is lined up in his natural centerfielder role as the defense is mostly in man coverage. Manning does a great job with eye manipulation as he looks to his right early to get Hooker moving that way. Tight end Evan Engram— one of the most athletic tight ends in football— is able to beat Leonard deep on his route. With Hooker moving away from the route the play results in an easy completion to the one yard line.
This is a tough play for Hooker as veteran quarterbacks have a way of manipulating defenders with their eyes. Hooker needs to anticipate that match-up disadvantage in the future and know that he needs to shade towards Leonard on that play. Definitely a play to learn from for the young safety.
Our next clip is rare, as Hooker comes up into the box to tackle a running back. On the positive side, I like that Hooker was willing to get involved in the box and didn’t shy away from traffic. I also like that he didn’t get lost in the traffic. I wish he was a bit more physical but it’s probably safe to say that will never be a part of his game. If that is the case, I would rather keep him out of the box before he gets injured. Still, this is not a bad rep.
This is another clip where Hooker could have made a bigger difference. The Giants dial up a little trickery, as they run a reverse to Engram. Hooker (deep safety, top of the screen) is late to diagnose the play and takes a fairly poor angle. With his speed, Hooker is still able to knock Engram out of bounds at the 26 yard line.
I think that with a proper angle and quicker diagnosis from Hooker, this play could have been stopped at around the 32 or 33. He still did his job of being the last line of defense but Hooker needs to stop the runner short of the first. Poor angles and late diagnoses are why his run defense has struggled in recent weeks.
Hooker makes another tackle, perhaps his best of the day, on the following play. He does a nice job of coming down and engaging running back Wayne Gallman as he breaks through the line of scrimmage. I like that he aims low and is able to stop the runner’s forward progress. I still don’t like that he drops his head and goes to his knees.
While a runner like Gallman is easy to tackle as he will try to run through defenders rather than making them miss, if this was Saquon Barkley this is likely a missed tackle because Hooker dropped his head. Clearly, Hooker is just not extremely comfortable coming down and making tackles.
Again, this is a good rep and Hooker does his job but I would just like to see improvement in his tackling technique going forward.
Our final clip is Hooker’s game winning interception. Hooker (deep safety, bottom of the screen) is in deep cover two with the underneath defense in zone. Hooker plays this perfectly as he sits in between the two vertical routes until Manning gives away which player he is targeting. Manning stares down the mid post as Leonard gets excellent depth on his zone drop to force a very tough throw. Hooker breaks on the ball as it is thrown and intercepts the overthrown ball. This is a very good read by Hooker and an excellent play to take advantage of the poor throw ball by Manning and seal the victory.
I think Hooker struggled a bit in this game. He wasn’t as disciplined in deep coverage as he has been in recent weeks and that resulted in a few big plays for the Giants. His run angles and overall tackling ability are still a bit questionable to me.
His play isn’t all negative, though. Hooker is a top tier talent in terms of physical and play-making ability. I likely hold him to a higher standard in my evaluations as a result. He did show some very good recognition in deep coverage through a majority of the game and the game winning interception was crucial to keeping the Colts’ playoff hopes alive.
Overall, Hooker is an elite talent who is having a pretty up and down sophomore season. He has had a lot to overcome with a season ending injury last year to learning a new defense this year. It will take time with him going forward. If he can eliminate the mental mistakes, he is certainly a cornerstone for this team at safety going forward.