The Indianapolis Colts made a bit of a surprising pick in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft when they selected Utah Safety Julian Blackmon. It’s not that Blackmon wasn’t a skilled player but he was a bit of a forgotten name in the process after missing the Combine and All-Star games due to a torn ACL he suffered in December, 2019. Since recovering from that injury, he has become a young phenom for this Colts’ defense.
In today’s film room we are going to look back at the play of Blackmon this year and talk about how this Colts’ defense has desperately needed this level of complete safety for years.
To preface this piece a little bit, the Colts have really needed a complete safety on their backend for years. Malik Hooker was mostly great in coverage as he was rarely targeted deep and made some breathtaking plays on the ball. The biggest problem was his tendency to miss tackles in the run game and take poor angles in pursuit. Khari Willis on the other hand is an outstanding run defender and a reliable player but was picked on a bit in coverage as a rookie. In Blackmon, the Colts have gotten the best of these two safeties in one player.
Blackmon astoundingly made his 2020 debut in week two against the Minnesota Vikings, just nine months after tearing his ACL. Even more surprisingly, he looked incredible in his first bit of action despite missing all of training camp. This play below is when at least I knew that the Colts may have a legit player on their hands.
The Colts love their cover two zone on defense but have been beaten a bit over the middle in that sweet spot between the linebackers and safeties in the passing game. Blackmon in his first bit of action is able to drive from his cover two high spot and hit the tight end as he touches the ball, jarring the ball loose for the incompletion. This would end up being a sign of things to come for the rookie.
The moment we all knew that Julian Blackmon was going to be legit pic.twitter.com/tczbDDyHYU— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
He doesn’t just do it from the two high spot either. Blackmon has the athleticism and range to be back in single high situations as well. This versatility that he brings has opened up the Colts defense to varying looks from bringing Khari Willis to a more comfortable spot in the box and even dropping slot CB Kenny Moore II in deep coverage. Here he sits in his single high hole and drives on the deep in route. He makes perfect contact as the ball arrives and knocks the ball loose yet again.
Blackmon's ability to attack downhill from either the two high spot or as a single high adds so much versatility to this defense pic.twitter.com/xbzoRFkasp— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
The beauty of the Colts’ defense is that offenses need to be perfect attacking over the middle in the passing game. The Colts’ rarely allow big plays so opposing quarterbacks have to attack underneath to get down the field. This leads to a lot of passes where the quarterbacks need to be accurate because a slight misfire could lead to an interception. This is where a player like Blackmon is so valuable because he will drive down on passes and force incompletions like in the plays above and also make plays like this and capitalize on offensive mistakes. Just an outstanding playmaker for this defense.
Blackmon is a true ballhawk who takes advantage when quarterbacks make a mistake pic.twitter.com/BXYGwFG30J— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
Blackmon’s game ending interception is what sold me that he could be a truly special talent at safety in the NFL. Rarely do rookies come in with knowledge of route combinations and an understanding of how offenses want to attack the defense. Blackmon showed that ability on this interception. He understands that rookie quarterback Joe Burrow wants to attack the middle of the field. With Xavier Rhodes on his man to the outside, Blackmon doesn’t even worry about the boundary route. His focus then shifts inside and he perfectly breaks as the pass is thrown for the interception.
This INT against the Bengals is so fun to rewatch. Colts shift late into two high and Blackmon knows Burrow wants to attack the middle of the field. He baits the inside throw before jumping inside for the INT. The route recognition by the rookie here is superb pic.twitter.com/tKSQOcflVd— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
Those last few plays were all in coverage but his play in run defense has been outstanding as well. For a player who typically lines up at the “free safety” spot for this team, he is very comfortable with running the alley and being physical in the run game. Here he reads the reverse play perfectly and takes a great angle to the boundary to limit the offense to a short gain on the play.
Get you a safety who can make plays in the passing game and run the alley in run defense pic.twitter.com/7KtsmvNwRr— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
This tackle against the Titans shows the level of confidence that Blackmon is playing with this year. This is a super aggressive run blitz through the line that could be a huge play for the offense if he misses this tackle. However he doesn’t hesitate whatsoever on the play, even when meeting with the 240 pound Derrick Henry in the backfield. It is rare to have a safety who has been as great as Blackmon has been in coverage as a rookie but to also have them be confident and willing to run the alley and be physical in the run game. This is huge for his development.
Julian Blackmon is outstanding pic.twitter.com/s5EYHmQMFT— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
At the end of the day, offenses are going to score in the NFL. Even against the top defenses, offenses are going to find a way to score with how the league is set up now. The biggest factor for defenders to combat that is the ability to make those game changing plays that force turnovers and get the ball back to your offense. Blackmon has shown that numerous times this year but his biggest play came in overtime against the Packers. Giving the ball to Aaron Rodgers first in overtime seems like a recipe for disaster but Blackmon saves the day with this forced fumble. Incredible job of splitting the double team and punching out the ball to win the game for the Colts.
Everything about Julian Blackmon's forced fumble is incredible. Splitting the double team on the screen and punching the ball out in the process. Special playmaker pic.twitter.com/QfUrVRVoO3— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
At the end of the day, he is still a rookie and there will be some mistakes and missed opportunities in his first season. However I am rarely seeing these mistakes in my film reviews and he really is playing at an extremely high level. For instance on first watch I thought this big completion against the Colts’ Tampa 2 was on Blackmon for not getting over the vertical seam route. After looking at it again though, it was truly just a great call by the Packers. The two corner routes on the outside pull the safeties apart and Marques Valdes-Scantling makes a great catch in traffic.
What again astounds me with Blackmon is how close he is to making a play on a ball he had no business being near. He is a legit talent at safety and the Colts may have found another defensive star on day two of the draft under Chris Ballard.
Why watching the All-22 is important. I thought on Broadcast that Blackmon was more at fault for this deep shot but really its just a great design by the Packers against the Tampa 2 coverage. Blackmon nearly makes an insane play recovering too pic.twitter.com/1TtRGpK1lU— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 23, 2020
I will go on record and say I wasn’t super high on the selection of Julian Blackmon in the third round for the Colts. I thought he had some issues in deep coverage in his Senior film and the ACL injury definitely scared me a bit. However, I was relatively happy with the selection because I know that Utah defensive backs receive some of the best coaching in college football and I liked his two way ability as a safety.
When I talked to his college teammate Jaylon Johnson, who has quietly been a star for the Bears this year, here is what he said about the coaching he and the other defensive backs got at Utah:
They wanted us to be students of the game and to know exactly what we are doing and what we are looking at and how to take advantage of certain tendencies. They were very detail oriented when it came to the game and when it came to studying. They prepared us every day and they were on us every day. In terms of being versatile and learning different positions and being a leader to bring other people along and being a professional, they taught us a lot.
I think it is fair to say that we have seen all that with Blackmon so far in year one. He has the early makings of star safety in this league and could very well be on his way to being one of the best in the game. He is playing phenomenal football this year and is one of the main reasons why the Colts have a top five defense in the league.