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Film Room: Khari Willis is quietly taking positive steps in year two

Willis has been a vital piece for the Colts in year two

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts’ defense has been one of the most surprising aspects of this team in 2020 as they rank 5th in total defense and 6th in DVOA rankings. While there have been many standouts on this outstanding unit, a lot of the attention has turned to rookie playmaker Julian Blackmon at the safety position. However, his running mate Khari Willis shouldn’t be overlooked when talking about this team.

Today we will look at the season Willis is having and how he has been able to improve in so many aspects from his rookie year.

Statistical Improvement

While this isn’t the most beautiful graphic in the world, I did put together a chart that looked at the stats from Willis in both his rookie year and his second year in the league. Keep in mind that he still has three more games to play in year two as well. He has more snaps, interceptions, sacks, pass deflections, and quarterback hits in fewer games. He has also taken big strides in coverage which was a bit of an issue for him last year.

Run Defense

Khari Willis was one of the best safeties in the league in terms of run defense as a rookie. He ranked in the top ten in run-stop percentage and was near the top of the league in overall run stops as well. In year two we have seen much of the same even with the markedly different snap counts. He is playing every down now and that dominant run defender is still showing up in games. The Colts have been able to use him more in the box this year and it has led to many plays like this where he just overpowers a tight end and plays like an extra linebacker on the field.

There may not be many safeties in the league that run the alley and understand run fits like Willis. While he isn’t an elite athlete by any means, he is an extremely intelligent and instinctual one who tends to get a good jump on most run plays. This allows for him to fill his gap before a blocker can get on him and he is reliable enough in space to make one on one plays on ball carriers. Look at how he comes downhill and fills the gap on this run.

He has always been a great scraper across the field as well. He’s tough to block in space due to his strength and anticipation and it allows for him to cut off runners the way he wants to. He essentially dictates the play in run defense and that is a huge asset to have at the safety position. Here he undercuts the block from the tight end and fills to the outside to get the quick tackle on the sweep play.

Open Field Tackling

While tackling in the open field wasn’t an issue for Willis in year one, it was certainly something he could improve on. He missed nine tackles last year while playing roughly half of the defensive snaps. In year two we’ve seen an obvious improvement from him in this regard as he is on pace to play many more snaps than he did in year one and has just five missed tackles on the year. He has been great at staying square to the ball carrier and wrapping up for sure and efficient tackles in space.

Improvements in Coverage

While it was a promising rookie year for Willis in 2019, there were still some issues in coverage. He struggled a bit with his deep zone drops and he stood to improve a bit in man. While his man coverage is still a bit of a work in progress, there has been a noticeable improvement in that regard. He is staying more in-position now and he is reacting rather than guessing when one on one. This rep is excellent as he sticks with Tyler Boyd on the wheel route to the outside. The next step for his development in man is to work on getting his head around when in-phase and watching the receiver’s eyes as the ball arrives.

In zone coverage, he has been able to play a bit more downhill and around the box. This change in positioning has been big for him as his coverage stats as the primary defender has improved greatly. He has allowed just 57.7% of passes thrown his way to be completed and quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 75.6 when targeting him. The most remarkable stat is he has only allowed 38 yards after the catch all year. I’d like to think that playing him more near the box has contributed to those numbers improving.

So why is Willis playing more in the box in year two than he did in year one? Well, that goes back to the play of Julian Blackmon. Blackmon’s ability to play over the top while also being able to play two high has made the Colts’ defense much more versatile. With Malik Hooker last year, he was a bit too inconsistent as a tackler to leave him back as the last line of the defense. With Blackmon, the Colts have a hard-hitting safety that can cover the field with range. The result has been the ability to play Willis more in a position of strength and the defense has been better for it.

Simply Making Plays on the Ball

One of the major issues in Willis’ game in year one was the lack of making plays on the ball. He had just one pass deflection and zero interceptions in his first season. That is what was truly separating him from being a decent starter to being a high-quality starter. This year however we have seen him make those plays and be a bit of playmaker for this team. He has five pass deflections and two interceptions already this year with three more games to go. He is starting to take that next step to becoming a high-level starter for this team.

A lot of being a playmaker as a safety in the NFL is simply about luck and how the ball bounces. However, safeties have to take advantage of the couple chances they get a season and build momentum throughout a ball game for their team. In year one we didn’t see Willis make those plays while in year two, he has been able to capitalize. If he continues this progression as a safety, he could be one of the better box defenders in the league in the next few seasons.

Final Thoughts

It is easy to forget about a player like Willis on a defense that features big-name players such as Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, and Kenny Moore II. However, he is one of the most valuable players on that side of the ball. His versatility and intellect on the back end are two of the driving forces that have made this defense so good in 2020.

It is certainly time we give our appreciation to a player like Willis. He is a silent leader in the locker room who is only getting better on a fun defense. If he continues to make the strides that he has taken so far in year two, this safety duo could be one of the best in the NFL before too long.