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Film Room: Veteran defensive backs leading the way for surging Colts’ defense

Rhodes, Carrie, and Wilson have all been remarkable to start this season

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

One of the biggest areas of concern going into the season was depth of the secondary for this young Colts’ team. With players like Marvell Tell III and Roland Milligan opting out, the seemingly weak depth was going to be tested early in the season. On top of that, young starters in Rock Ya-Sin (illness) and Malik Hooker (torn Achilles) have missed time to start the year, thus forcing this depth into more of a starting role.

GM Chris Ballard has never been one to splurge in free agency but he did add some veterans this offseason. Former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes was signed to a one year, prove it deal coming off of his worst full season as a pro. CB TJ Carrie was also signed to a low one year deal coming off of a decent season in Cleveland. Safety Tavon Wilson was also brought in late in the process to fill out the depth at safety.

While these were certainly moves to shore up depth, it never felt like enough in the offseason. Personally I thought the Colts neglected the secondary a bit and opted to rely on average to below average veterans to play too big of a role this year. I can happily say that after three weeks, I am looking like I was dead wrong. It is still early but this trio has been outstanding so far and has locked down opponents in coverage. Here are the numbers in coverage for these three players combined through three games:

Chris Ballard has said that he wanted to add more of a veteran presence to this secondary and it is certainly paying off in this young season. Today we will be looking at the play of these three veterans and how they have performed so far this year.

Xavier Rhodes

It looked like Rhodes was going to potentially have another rough season with a relatively poor debut in Jacksonville. He allowed 3 catches for 33 yards and a touchdown in that game while also having a huge pass interference penalty in the second half. Since that game though, he has been absolutely lock down. He has given up just one catch on six targets the last two weeks and has come away with two interceptions. On the year, he has only allowed a passer rating of 56.9 when targeted and is currently the highest graded CB in the NFL according to PFF.

The bounce back started against his former team in the Vikings. Rhodes was rarely targeted all day and was rarely beaten in coverage. The only time he was targeted came here lined up against the Vikings’ number one receiver in Adam Thielen. Rhodes initially gets turned around by the nifty footwork of Thielen but is able to get just enough legal contact in there to slow the star WR down. Rhodes then shows excellent closing speed to the outside as he breaks on the ball and gets the pass break up.

The Colts line up in what appears to be either man or cover three match on Rhodes’ first interception of the season. Either way, Rhodes is responsible for the receiver on the outside on this early third down attempt. He does a great job of not giving up too much ground and sitting on the sticks, anticipating a short throw outside. As soon as the receiver breaks down his hips, Rhodes is able to sit on the inside shoulder and turn back towards the ball. From there he is able to locate the pass, jump the route, and take it back for the pick six.

Colts’ Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus gave us some communication today on Rhodes’ second interception of the year as he said the call man coverage. Rhodes and Kenny Moore II were looking at a potential switch off if the offense ran a rub route but that never happened. Instead, Rhodes does a great job of flipping his hips and getting his eyes on the quarterback. From that position, he is able to drift back into the throwing lane and make the big interception late in the first half.

TJ Carrie

If you all have been following my work on here this offseason, you know that I was skeptical on the TJ Carrie signing. It is not that I thought he was a bad player by any means, I was just nervous about his fit as a backup outside corner. He told media that he worked extensively on his outside game over the offseason and that has seemed to pay off. Filling in for Rock Ya-Sin, Carrie has only given up two catches on five targets for 10 yards on the year. He has come down with two interceptions as well and had allowed an absurd passer rating of 8.3 when targeted in coverage.

The biggest reason for Carrie’s success this season is his confidence. He is really trusting his reads and making the most of his opportunities on the field. This play may be my favorite from a Colts’ defensive back this season. Vikings were moving the ball pretty well on the ground this drive so Carrie took a gamble and guessed run. He blows past his receiver on the stretch run and hits the running back deep in the backfield for a huge loss. This is the type of physical play the Colts love from their cornerbacks.

Again the confidence is on display in this coverage on Thielen at the bottom of the screen. Carrie is in press man against an elite route runner so he knows he has to be careful here. He takes away the inside angle by positioning his body and sits on the back shoulder of the receiver. This forces Thielen to a tight spot with his route as the way he can sell the out route is now taken away. Carrie sits on the underneath route and is in perfect position for the pass break up on the outside.

While being in great position and getting pass breakups is great, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. This is a beautiful design by Eberflus as he blitzes the already rattled Sam Darnold. The Colts drop into a shell cover three with the remaining defenders and they all have their eyes in the backfield. Darnold panics and throws a pass where there is no offensive player in the vicinity. Carrie is lucky to be on the receiving end of this errant throw as he steps in front and takes it for yet another pick six.

Tavon Wilson

While he has only played 26 snaps on the season, I have really liked what I’ve seen from Wilson in the secondary. He has been targeted twice this season and has given up just one catch for -4 yards. He has also recorded 3 stops and a pass breakup in his limited snaps.

Wilson to me plays a lot like the veteran version of starter Khari Willis. Really sound in the run game and at his best around the line of scrimmage. Look at this play as Wilson sniffs out the run early and flies downhill into the backfield. He is able to burst through the line of scrimmage and get a big tackle for a loss.

Wilson just brings a really steady veteran presence to the secondary that the Colts haven’t had since Mike Mitchell wasn’t retained. With the Colts starting two young players in Willis and Julian Blackmon, having a third safety who has been around for a while and can still make plays is huge. This is an outstanding veteran play as he recovers while he is beat over the top. He doesn’t panic on the throw as he locates his man, plays through the hands, and forces the game ending incompletion.

Final Thoughts

I’m not going to lie, I was extremely skeptical about this depth going into the season. I was even more concerned when Rock Ya-Sin started to miss time due to his illness. I didn’t expect these veteran defensive backs to be able to step in and make the plays they have been making over the past two weeks.

While the players deserve a great deal of credit, Matt Eberflus also needs his fair share as well as his willingness to mix coverages and call aggressive game plans has put these players in positions to succeed. Overall, it has been a great start for this veteran defensive back trio and hopefully it can continue as the Colts’ schedule gets a bit tougher going forward.