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Former coach Rick Venturi’s impressions from Colts training camp: Part V - Defense

Indianapolis Colts v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Now that we’re past the halfway point of training camp, we’re starting to get a read on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2018 Indianapolis Colts roster. Some young players have made an impression, free agent additions have started to show how they might contribute to the team, and a bit of personality has started to take shape in the most physical training camp practices that have been reported for many years.

As we approach the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bob Kravitz sat down to interview former Colts head coach Rick Venturi to get his thoughts. Venturi has decades of football coaching experience at every level of competition and shared some insight into some of the highs and lows on the roster and provided some perspective on realistic expectations for Luck, the coaching staff, and the team in 2018.

A Defense Full of Question-Marks

The Indianapolis Colts have failed to figure out how to play consistent defense for a long time. The best Colts defense in recent memory, not counting the short run in the 2006 playoffs, was in 2004 — over a decade ago.

The 2004 team featured a defensive line featuring a young Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis with Montae Reagor and Raheem Brock. This group was particularly disruptive behind the line of scrimmage.

The linebackers included Rob Morris, Cato June, David Thornton and Gary Brackett — easily the best group at this position at any time since. The secondary included Mike Doss, Bob Sanders, Idrees Bashir, Nick Harper, Jason David, and Donald Strickland.

Nearly every position in the secondary was filled with an adequate to strong player.

This season, there are few positions with known quantities. Even positions with players who have shown promise have questions about recovery from injury or development. Venturi said:

The biggest thing is that the defense is a question-mark in general. Really, the only two givens, the only two guys that aren’t really questionable to me are, you know exactly what you’re getting in Al Woods, which is a very solid nose tackle. Not an impact player but a solid guy. And Sheard who is a real solid number two guy who will benefit from being on the left end.

Needless to say, it isn’t overly inspiring to refer to your “known quantities” as solid but “not an impact player” and a real solid “number two guy.” Importantly, there are key spots that are integral to being successful in the Tampa 2 defense and it is hard to accurately predict just what the Colts have at those positions. Venturi added:

Now, the part that’s important is, in this scheme the most significant players in this scheme are the right defensive end -- that’s where Simeon Rice played at Tampa -- and Warren Sapp the three-technique. So we’re looking at Simon, Basham, Turay all of those guys on that right edge. That has got to be a dominating position and then that three-technique which right now is Autry. He is going to be that guy, he has been a tough kid. He hasn’t had that kind of impact but we’ll see.

Again, Venturi refers to Autry as a player who hasn’t made the kind of impact the Colts will need from the position. He refers a collection of three options to fill the role played by Simeon Rice. None of these players are at the level of Rice or Sapp and that creates reason for uncertainty. Across the board, the Colts are trying to get more out of players than they have shown in the past.

Venturi moved to the next level and discussed what could be the biggest question-mark for the defense heading into the new season, the linebackers. He said:

Linebacking is a real question-mark. In today’s world, really for three quarters of the game you’re only playing two linebackers. This is just my opinion at this point, I think Najee Goode is a serviceable starter. He was a swing guy but he has played a lot of football. I think he is a little bit like Bostic...

I think you get Leonard in there from day one. I think Leonard is a good athlete. You invested in him, he is your kind of guy. The other position that is really significant is that Will backer, that is what Derrick Brooks played on those Tampa teams. I am not putting him in that class, don’t get me wrong, but he is that kind of athlete.

You have a bunch of marginal guys there. Don’t make the mistake of playing with a bunch of guys you know can’t play, just get the new ones in there. The third guy right now looks like it is Tyrell Adams or it’s Walker. Somebody will emerge.

If worse came to worse, let’s say Basham comes around, I’m not sure you couldn’t put Simon back out there just depending on how it goes. That’s an area of real viewing here as we go into preseason games, I will be pointing that out when I do that game.

The Colts will rely on a smaller school prospect to make a major transition at one of the most important positions for a Tampa 2 defense. It will also asking a serviceable veteran to carry a heavy load. If one other player can break through in the rotation it will certainly help but coming into the season, none of the linebacker spots are filled with known quantities.

I still stand firmly in the camp that John Simon is being misappropriated at defensive end in this system. He does not project to play the position long-term and the defensive reps need to go to the players who Chris Ballard and the front office see as the future at the position.

Admittedly, reports out of camp suggest that he has been outplaying my expectations but in terms of the talent level of the starting defense overall, Simon has to be on the field. The most logical way to get him on the field is to put him at the Sam position. He can have a similar impact in that role and appears clearly better, and more athletic, than any other option available at this time.

Arguably the strongest position on defense for Indianapolis heading into 2018 is riddled with question-marks of its own. A safety group of Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, and Matthias Farley looks great on paper but will they stay healthy and what can we expect from them in return from injury? Venturi commented:

Then, you know, the secondary. Unfortunately, what would be the strength to me, to me the two best players on the team for their position are Geathers and Hooker and both of those guys started on PUP and so that is a little problematic. I think Farley you can play with, this will be a make or break for Green.

If Geathers and Hooker return at full strength and can make the kind of impact that many expect they can make, it will go a long way to mask some weaknesses elsewhere on defense. Geathers could help mask weakness at linebacker by spending more time in the box. Hooker can help mask some weaknesses on the defensive line and at cornerback by punishing quarterbacks who try to push the ball downfield.

Finally, Venturi briefly discussed the cornerbacks before Kravtiz’s phone died and cut their interview short. He said:

The corner position is a lot of unknown guys. They really battle you, I will say that. I just don’t know if you have the quality guys to hold up consistently.

Not unlike most other positions, there isn’t a question about effort or even potential at corner. The question is, how much known talent do the Colts have at the position? Very little is proven at this point.

Quincy Wilson showed a lot of potential as a rookie but struggled through injury and an odd relationship with the former coaching staff. Pierre Desir hasn’t been able to hold down a starting spot and is coming off of an injury. Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore are entering their second seasons and haven’t had a chance to put together enough tape to feel confident. Beyond that, all of these players are playing in a new system. Gone are the trusted veterans, Vontae Davis and Rashaan Melvin, and in their place is young and unproven.

Come to think of it, that’s life just about everywhere on the Colts defense. The Renaissance is here, but what will it look like?