The Indianapolis Colts dramatically improved on defense last season under promising first-year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Per FootballOutsiders, the Colts defense went from the 27th rated defense in 2017 to the 10th best rated defense in overall defensive efficiency in 2018.
Often, Colts fans saw the attributes that both general manager Chris Ballard and Eberflus promised: a fast, swarming defense, that could create multiple turnovers in games and have a number of horseshoe helmets always flying around the football.
Lacking an alpha dog pass rusher, Elberflus used creative defensive line stunts and surprise linebacker (or even cornerback Kenny Moore) blitzes to help generate additional pass pressure last season.
However, Colts fans also occasionally saw the limitations of the Colts ‘Cover 2’ scheme last season, when the unit couldn’t consistently generate enough pass pressure—highlighted by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes carving them up in the first half of their Divisional Round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
In today’s game, being predictable on defense can get a unit killed, so it’s important that the Colts and specifically Eberflus add a few wrinkles to next year’s defense—especially when the unit isn’t generating enough pass pressure.
Zone coverage + Lack of Pass Pressure + Opposing Elite Quarterback = Long Defensive Day.
With that being said, here are a few things to look out for next season:
Ben Banogu as the “Jack of All Trades”
Ordinarily, the plan is for Colts 2nd round pick Ben Banogu to serve as a strong-side linebacker or “Sam” in Eberflus’ defensive scheme—maybe even starting right next to Darius Leonard next season:
“Look, Ben is an intriguing athlete,” Ballard said during his post-draft press conference. “We will probably start him out at SAM, but saying that, we also think he has got a lot of rush to him. I hate comparing names, but when Jamie Collins came out of Southern Miss, I saw the same type of athletic talent, and I think when you watch the Senior Bowl—I mean, (Banogu) did some impressive things now.”
However, that may be oversimplifying it.
According to CNHI’s George Bremer, the Colts are looking to deploy 2nd round pick Ben Banogu as a “Leo” linebacker at times—a derivative devolved from the Seattle Seahawks defense, which Colts Assistant GM Ed Dodds is all too familiar with from his prior tenure there.
While as a ‘Sam’, Banogu will be operating as an off-the-ball, standing linebacker in a normal alignment on the outside. As a ‘Leo’, in a looser alignment, he will be playing either with his hand in the dirt or standing up near the line of scrimmage, in space, maybe aligned wide—predominantly looking to get after the quarterback:
“They (the Colts) have been talking about (me) playing everywhere in the front seven from linebacker to rushing on pass downs, just trying to maximize my athleticism,” Banogu said after he was drafted by the Colts.
It’s reminiscent of when former Colts head coach Tony Dungy utilized versatile defensive lineman Raheem Brock as ‘the joker’ or a free standing pass rushing linebacker near the line of scrimmage in his normally vanilla, Cover 2 defensive scheme. Only this time around, it’s a reversal of roles, from serving as a linebacker to occasionally a defensive end for Banogu.
With some freak measurables at 250 pounds, including a 4.64 forty time, 40 inch vertical, and record-setting 134.0 inch broad jump (to go along with 8.5 sacks for TCU last season), Banogu could be a versatile weapon to unleash on the opposition.
He could be a defensive player that the Colts could move around their defense a bit and keep opposing offenses uncomfortable:
“So they (the Colts) were saying wherever they put me they feel like I can excel at and they were looking at me as a guy that is a jack-of-all-trades that can do just about anything,” Banogu said. “That’s the kind of vibe that I got from it.”
More Press-Man Coverage, Please
Listen, the Colts ran zone coverage the highest of any team in the league last season.
However, it’s interesting because their top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft Class, 2nd round pick Rock Ya-Sin, is highly regarded as a standout in press-man coverage.
It also just so happens the Colts’ 2017 2nd round pick, Quincy Wilson, also excels in man press-man coverage—with re-signed starter Pierre Desir having effectively played that coverage too.
Per The Athletic’s Stephen Holder:
“Already, there have been internal discussions about the team playing more man-to-man coverage on the perimeter this season, a move that would allow it to take advantage of its personnel at cornerback,” Holder writes. “Beyond Ya-Sin, the Colts have effective press-man cornerbacks in Pierre Desir and Quincy Wilson.”
When having a struggling pass rush, the Colts were picked apart by elite opposing quarterbacks in zone coverage as members of their secondary were “sitting ducks”.
Playing man coverage could allow the Colts to blitz more when their basic pass rush simply isn’t getting to the quarterback often enough—with cornerbacks that can hold their own in press-man and theoretically ‘buy more time’ until the extra blitzers arrive.
Consequently, it could provide new looks for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks to decipher as part of their play-calling and overall game plan for when the Colts occasionally switch it up from zone—-keeping them on their toes.
Houston, We Have a Problem
It seems odd that a contending team coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance would cut a still highly productive player with no off-the-field issues.
However, that’s just what happened with longtime Kansas City Chief Justin Houston this offseason.
The 30 year old amassed 9.0 sacks, 53 pass pressures, 5 forced fumbles, 37 tackles, and an interception last season for the Chiefs defense in 12 games.
Houston had Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest passing rush grade at +89.1 among edge defenders.
No, I don’t expect Eberflus to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Houston, as he’ll presumably have his hand in the dirt—doing what the veteran does best, rushing the passer on obvious passing downs.
As a result of Houston’s addition, I am interested though to see Tyquan Lewis playing more as a pass rushing defensive tackle inside, and how it also impacts speed rusher Kemoko Turay on the other side of the defense.
With Houston in the fold, the Colts have another productive pass rusher in their arsenal and may be able to mix up pass rushing looks a little more than fans were accustomed to seeing last season—coming off both the edge and interior.