The Colts notched their first victory of the season, beating the Tennessee Titans 19-17 in a tough fought game this past Sunday. There were many notable standouts from the big win from Denico Autry (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble) to Jordan Wilkins (5 carries for 82 yards) but the biggest performance was from rookie safety Khari Willis.
A fourth round pick at safety out of Michigan State, Willis has played sparingly as a sub player so far for the Colts in 2019. In week two however, he made the most of those snaps as he totaled 6 tackles, 4 run stops, and 0 missed tackles in 29 snaps. He graded out as the Pro Football Focus second highest safety grade of the week with a score of 86.9.
Willis showcased his excellent tackling ability and explosiveness from the safety position on Sunday. In today’s film room, we will be looking at some of his film from this past weekend and what he did to have such a big game.
Willis made the most of his 29 snaps on Sunday. This play showcases both his physical abilities and how smart he is on the football field. He starts off playing in the box alongside Darius Leonard. He reads the outside run and establishes outside leverage. By doing this, he forces the run back inside and takes out the fullback on the play. On top of that, he does a great job of not getting caught up in that fullback block. By establishing outside leverage and jabbing the fullback, he occupies that block without being taken out of the play. Once he forces the run back inside, he spins off the block of the fullback and makes the tackle. Excellent play forcing the run inside and still making the tackle.
Part of run defense in the NFL is just clogging lanes and establishing position so the running back only sees congestion. Willis comes down from his high safety position to fill the run lane here. He steps into the box and sheds the block from the receiver to his right side. He does a good job of staying upright through the block and extending his arms to keep the block from taking him out of the play. He then stays sturdy in the run lane and assists Grover Stewart on the tackle for a minimal gain.
This next clip showcases the type of athlete he is. The play is originally a run to the opposite side of the field so he intends to pursue from the backside. He probably should have taken the angle through the backside gap rather than off the backside tackle but that lane is Anthony Walker’s responsibility. Walker misses the tackle and Willis is forced to stop his momentum and pursue Derrick Henry from behind. Willis is able to make up ground quickly as he chases down the fast running back and limits the big gain. The initial over pursuit is a bit of a concern but the speed to quickly chase down Henry in the open field is a big positive on this play.
This next play is textbook safety play. He is again down in the box playing as a hybrid third linebacker. The Titans run a read option and Marcus Mariota takes the ball to the outside. Ideally, the wide receivers would have the defensive backs blocked and this play can get close to a first down. Willis however disrupts the play by winning outside leverage against his block, quickly disengaging, and flying downhill to make the tackle. Excellent tackle in the open field as well to send Mariota out of bounds and limit yards after contact. This is excellent run defense to disengage and make the tackle for a small gain.
Another play of perfect safety play from Khari Willis. He diagnoses the sweep to Adam Humphries before the ball is even handed off and flies downhill. The quickness and explosion out of his stance are remarkable as he makes his way down the line with great speed. He takes an excellent angle on the run and meets Humphries as he gets to the sideline. He lines up the play and makes an excellent tackle on the edge to limit the play to a small gain. This is exactly what very good strong safety play looks like in the NFL.
This last play of today’s film room may have been the most important. With the Colts holding a slight two point lead late in the game, the Titans needed to convert this 3rd and long opportunity. Willis understands this and doesn’t get as deep in his drop. He sits near the sticks anticipating the Titans trying something underneath to convert the first down. He was right as wide receiver Tajae Sharp catches the ball a yard shy of the first down. He flies up the all and makes the tackle just before the first down marker, getting the Titans’ offense off the field. Great play to conclude a great overall game for Willis.
The season is still young but Khari Willis is proving himself to be the second best safety on this team each week. He was outsnapped by starting strong safety Clayton Geathers 41 to 29 but he had a much bigger impact on the game than Geathers. He looked great in coverage and was a stout run defender whereas Geathers looked a bit sluggish and had his struggles in coverage (pass interference in the end zone was a poor play).
With how well Willis played on Sunday and this team’s emphasis on speed, I think it is just a matter of time before he takes over as the team’s starting strong safety. He offers so much more in terms of run defense and overall he is just more dependable. If Willis can string together another game or two like this past one, we should see him inserted into the starting lineup very soon. Right now though, he is just playing some very good football for a rookie.