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Film Room: Why did the Colts defense give up big runs against the Chargers?

Indianapolis Colts v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Colts were gashed in the run game in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, and it came as quite a surprise considering the way this defense fared against the run last season. Given their relative proficiency in run defense last year, and especially in terms of limiting big gains on the ground, the manner of the runs they gave up was confusing, so I wanted to take a closer look.

In the defensive scheme the Colts run, they rely on their smaller defensive linemen to get penetration. They create disruption in the backfield and the primary goal is to get after the quarterback. This naturally lends itself to a weakness in the run game and necessitates that the linebackers be sound tacklers, take great angles, and maintain their gap discipline.

That didn’t happen in this game. The result is what we saw: a lot of big runs given up. Let’s dig in on some of them and get a better look at what happened.

Here, we see Chargers RB Justin Jackson get the call and burst up the field for 23 yards on 2nd and short.

Margus Hunt and Denico Autry get sealed out of this play immediately, opening up a sizeable crease right up the middle.

Darius Leonard, who we’ve grown accustomed to seeing produce highlight reels, takes a bad angle to avoid a cut block and doesn’t close on his gap fast enough to be in position to make a play. Anthony Walker, meanwhile, misreads the run and is moving toward the wrong gap when Jackson comes by, leaving him completely out of the play.

Additionally, Al-Quadin Muhammad almost certainly gets a “loaf” on this play from Eberflus, because if he is at full go, he has an opportunity to make a play at the line of scrimmage. Instead, he doesn’t get a hand on the back at all. Basically a bad look all around, and a solid open field tackle from Hooker is all that saves a touchdown here.

A few plays later we get this run from Austin Ekeler. Ekeler takes the ball around the left tackle who gets Kemoko Turay completely turned around. This lets tight end Hunter Henry get free to block Anthony Walker, who is completely unable to get off the block.

Darius Leonard is again out of position and locked up by a blocker as well. A hold from the offensive linemen on him keeps him from getting back in position to make a play, and Ekeler takes it for 13 yards, uncontacted for the first 7.

This is not a great rep for rookie Ben Banogu. Banogu lets the tackle get his hands on the inside and is immediately leveraged to the outside and removed from the play. A double team on Jihad Ward pushes him inside and also out of the play. This is where having undersized, speedy linemen on the field really hurts.

Because both these guys lose their battles, it leaves TE Hunter Henry and FB Derek Watt charging downfield as lead blockers for Jackson. Henry gets a great block on Walker and Watt manages to slow down Leonard who is coming from the other side of the field and trying to navigate over. The problem here is instead of engaging Henry and freeing up Walker to make a play, Matthew Adams is just on the outside, leaving a huge gap between Henry and Watt for Jackson to rumble through. The result? A 24-yard gain with a touchdown once again saved by Malik Hooker.

In overtime, the Colts really needed a stop, and instead they gave up this 19-yard run on 2nd and 7 to Ekeler around the right end.

The play starts with a player in motion to the left, and Kenny Moore moves inside, putting him several steps out of place and keeps him getting quickly around the edge to get contain. The Chargers’ offensive line seals the right edge well, giving a ton of room to run.

Rock Ya-Sin is drawn off in coverage, leaving no one out in front of Ekeler once he gets to the edge. Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard get into the backfield, but are pursuing from behind and can’t get off their blocks fast enough to make an impact.

Kenny Moore gets sucked inside, so when he finally gets to the edge, he meets a lineman and gets cut blocked which put him just out of position enough to allow Ekeler through the gap.

Meanwhile, Malik Hooker diagnoses the play well and closes quickly on the ball. He is in a great position to hold the edge and make the play. Unfortunately, when he gets to Ekeler, he can’t wrap him up.

This play was a pretty great summary of the kind of defensive day that the Colts had. They suffered from mental errors from several players who we’ve seen play far better. They also got beaten pretty handily on the defensive line, which necessitated better play from their back seven. Unfortunately, they just didn’t get it on this day.

My main takeaways here are that the Colts are seriously missing the run defense capabilities of Jabaal Sheard. His ability to keep contain and win his matchups likely have this game looking far different. The good news is that it doesn’t seem like the Colts expect Sheard to be gone so long that IR was a consideration. That’s good, because they need to get him back.

Additionally, the Colts have to find ways for their linebackers to get off their blocks better. If they can’t, this issue is likely to keep coming up.