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.
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.
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.
Khari Willis is such a damn good run defender. He's like an extra linebacker in the box with how he takes on tight ends and fullbacks in space. He has been 7th in run stop % for safeties each of the last two years. pic.twitter.com/j0d9leW5vR— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 15, 2020
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.
Have always loved Khari Willis run fits from the safety spot pic.twitter.com/V2ONH0cLUG— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 15, 2020
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.
Willis is so so good at beating tight ends in the run game. Whewww pic.twitter.com/okL76dzSMf— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 16, 2020
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.
Only five missed tackles for Willis in year two. He has improved in this regard from his rookie season. He's now an excellent open field tackler who limits YAC and kills screens pic.twitter.com/44xfMtUHtT— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 16, 2020
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.
The biggest improvement for Willis has been his ability in coverage. Seeing the field much better in zone and man. Still needs to get his head around better in man but he is taking the right steps. Perfectly in the hip pocket of Tyler Boyd on this wheel route pic.twitter.com/xsDVofhjHo— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 16, 2020
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.
Willis improvements in coverage:— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 16, 2020
Completion % allowed is just 57.7 and passer rating allowed is down to just 75.6. He has only allowed 38 yards after the catch as a primary defender this year. pic.twitter.com/QdFx6jD0uL
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.
The addition of Julian Blackmon has allowed Indy to play Willis more in the box. The result has been better production and he is seeing the field so much better in coverage. He has been excellent for the Colts in year two pic.twitter.com/Sjfy94yosR— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 16, 2020
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.
This is great unspoken chemistry between Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon here in Cover 2. Willis aggressively plays the deep in before transitioning to the deep over route. Blackmon plays the ball as Willis plays the man. Pass ends in an interception. Love it pic.twitter.com/khKtehCdvE— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) September 24, 2020
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.
One thing that has been great to see from Khari Willis in year two has been his ability to make plays when given the opportunity. Wasn't able to capitalize much in year one but he's starting to make some big plays now pic.twitter.com/COElRWJ4Re— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 15, 2020
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.