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Positional Takeaways from Colts Spring Program: Defensive Line

Could the Colts defensive line outperform expectations in 2018?

NFL: Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of the 2018 spring training program, there are early indications of progress and setbacks at numerous positions for the Indianapolis Colts. During the summer break period of the off-season, we will take a look at each position on the Colts roster as compared to where it was at this time a year ago and try to project how the roster will look in September.

We switch to the defensive side of the ball but stay in the trenches with the defensive line. Perhaps no position on the Colts roster saw more attention over the course of this off-season than the defensive line.

An Entirely New Look

In some ways there is an irony to the 2018 off-season. The vast majority of Colts fans still have a vivid memory of Peyton Manning’s time in Indianapolis. One of the biggest obstacles he had to overcome year-in and year-out was a defense that was regularly incapable of getting a stop, putting the ball back into his hands. The “bend but don’t break” style of Tampa 2 employed by Tony Dungy and his successors was at times opportunistic (strip sacks and AFC Championship sealing interceptions) but often maddeningly incapable of getting off of the field.

It is for this reason that many in the Colts fan base, including yours truly, was excited about the prospect of Chuck Pagano bringing with him the size and nastiness of the Baltimore Ravens defenses of the early aughts. Imagine Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck with a defense who regularly man-handled opponents and gave the offense more opportunities, not less.

It didn’t take long to realize that putting together Baltimore’s defense was easier said than done. Of course, there was the fatal flaw of the mentality that the focus for the new-look Colts was to run the ball and stop the run. It is quite clear that the modern NFL is heavily predicated on the passing game and stopping the pass. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a difference between allowing record-setting single game rushing totals with a “soft” defense and at least making the other team work for it.

It’s certainly true that the Tampa 2 defense, in its intended form, doesn’t carry along with it the expectation that the defense will get gashed up the middle. However, it is somewhat ironic that a fan base that begged for a bigger and stronger defense, one that wasn’t soft, is now going to have to embrace a defense that will be built to look very similar to the one that came before it.

How will this version of the Tampa 2 be different or will it? The defensive line will have a lot to do with the answer.

Ballard’s Big Moves

Chris Ballard made two statement moves on the defensive line early in the off-season. First, he released veteran nose tackle Johnathan Hankins — his biggest free agent signing from 2017. Second, he released Henry Anderson, a player who showed flashes of potential to start off his career in Indianapolis. Both moves were made due to “schematic changes” and because players no longer “fit” in the direction the defense was heading.

It is entirely fair to say that coming into the off-season these two players were considered starting level talent. Purging them so early, especially with a defense that would have to undergo so many changes at other positions, seemed like a lot to take on all at once. The jury will be out on these decisions until fans get a look at how the new unit comes together.

Maybe Ballard Was Right?

If the primary concern for Colts fans is that the new defensive line will once again suffer on the ground, there should be some level of confidence in the fact that even without Hankins, there is more size with this unit than there was in the “soft” days under Tony Dungy. At that time, 274 lbs defensive end Raheem Brock was asked to play inside at defensive tackle often. Darrell Reid was one of the biggest players on the line at 288 lbs. Montae Reagor was 285 lbs. In fact, the 2005 Colts only had one defensive lineman on the roster tipping the scales at 300 lbs — Larry Tripplett.

This group? Grover Stewart is 333 lbs, Al Woods is 330 lbs, Rakeem Nunez-Roches is 307 lbs, Hassan Ridgeway is 305 lbs. While bigger doesn’t necessarily equate to run stuffing dominance, it should weigh pretty heavily on fan confidence. ZING!

What could be the most surprising part of the new group is how much more athletic it will be from the rotation a season ago. Interior defenders who are better known as penetrators and disruptors with the new group include Nunez-Roches, Denico Autry, and Tyquan Lewis. Outside of them will be a group of pass rushers whose performances may be more encouraging with their hands in the dirt, including Jabaal Sheard, Tarell Basham, and Kemoko Turay.

It isn’t hard to imagine a starting group of Basham, Autry, Woods, and Sheard that could be particularly annoying on early downs. A rotation that includes Nunez-Roches or Lewis for clear passing situations could also create a lot of disruption.

Only Time Will Tell

Surprisingly, it feels less like a lack of talent that could hold back the defensive line and more growing pains associated with an entirely new system. Will Tarell Basham build upon the positive response he received during the spring program? Will Jabaal Sheard play the way he did in the back half of 2017? Will Denico Autry continue getting better, as he has in each of his previous seasons?

There are a lot of ifs involved in this group but it is deep enough at what Matt Eberflus likes to do that there are probably going to be some cuts that people wouldn’t have imagined a season ago.

That process has already started, where will it end?