INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Today: DEFENSIVE LINE
Starters: E Justin Houston, DT DeForest Buckner, DT Denico Autry, DE Kemoko Turay.
Main backups: DT Grover Stewart, DT Sheldon Day, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE Ben Banogu, DE Tyquan Lewis.
Depth: DT Rob Windsor (R), DE Kendall Coleman (R), DT Jegs Jegede, DT Chris Williams (R), DT Kameron Cline.
Pressure’s on: There are players who need to enter the season with a serious sense of urgency. Hello, Tyquan Lewis. You, too, Xavier Rhodes.
But it’s hard to argue the player who figures to face the most scrutiny and, yes, pressure isn’t DeForest Buckner. Addressing that position, perhaps even that player, clearly was an offseason priority.
“The 3-technique drives this thing. It does,’’ Chris Ballard said of the Colts’ defense in his postmortem of an unsatisfactory 2019. “Every time I’ve been a part of this, the 3-technique drives this.’’
When San Francisco opted to make Buckner available, Ballard swooped in. He went totally out of character by finalizing a trade that cost him the 13th overall pick in the draft. That was followed by giving Buckner, who turned 26 in March, a four-year extension worth $84 million and tying him to Indy through 2024.
“DeForest is a premier defensive tackle in this league,’’ Ballard said. “Adding a player of his caliber demonstrates the importance and commitment of building a strong defensive front.’’
During the evaluation of Buckner, Ballard and Frank Reich approached their defensive coordinator. Matt Eberflus was bullish on doing whatever it took to acquire him.
“Frank and I were both in those discussions and I had two words: ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes,’’’ Eberflus said. “There was not any hesitation.’’
Eberflus was in lockstep with Ballard.
“The 3-technique is the engine that drives the d-line and it drives the whole defense,’’ he said.
Hence, the enormous pressure awaiting Buckner’s first season as a Colt. To recap, it’s twofold: the price it took he get him to Indy, and his expected impact on a defense that faded badly over the second half of ’19.
In San Francisco, Buckner was surrounded by other defensive playmakers: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman. The 49ers defense ranked 2ndlast season in fewest yards allowed and 8th in points. The Colts feature Justin Houston and a rising Darius Leonard, but Buckner was considered the singular missing piece.
In four seasons with the 49ers, he missed only one of 64 games and was a consistent interior presence with 263 tackles, 28.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits and 38 tackles for loss.
“(Ballard) thinks I’m a key piece to what we are building here in Indy,’’ Buckner said. “As a player, that’s what you want to hear from your bosses, you know what I mean?’’
As much as possible, Buckner will deflect talk of the pressure that follows him into 2020.
“I’m excited to be here and there is no added pressure that I feel at all,’’ he insisted. “I mean I go into every season knowing that my job is up for grabs as well. I’ve just got to come in and continue to do what I do and I’ve done my entire career in San Francisco and bring it over to the Colts.’’
The team’s decision-makers are convinced the addition of the 6-7, 300-pound Buckner will elevate the play of those around him: Houston, Leonard, Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, Anthony Walker and the secondary.
That’s what elite players do.
Breakout season?: We started to see flashes from Turay in 2018. As a rookie, he generated 4 sacks and 13 QB hits in 14 games despite dealing with a knee injury much of the season. There were flashes last year – 1.5 sacks, five QB hits – before he suffered a broken right ankle in the week 5 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Just like that, Turay’s year 2 was over. And the defense missed him.
“Losing Kemoko Turay was a big hit,’’ Ballard said. “You saw it against the Chargers. I think you saw it against Kansas City. Neither one of those teams could block him.
“He was the fastball that we needed. I thought he really good another step. He took a step in the right direction and he’s worked his butt off to get healthy.’’
The situation is ideal for Turay to emerge. He’ll be lining up opposite Houston and should benefit from Buckner’s presence inside.
Now’s the time.
Now, or not here: We’re not here to dump on Tyquan Lewis, but let’s not kid ourselves. The 64th overall pick in the 2018 draft is heading into a make-or-break year.
Don’t take our word for it. Ballard made that clear to Lewis when they met at the end of last season.
“What I told Tyquan was, this is a big year for him,’’ Ballard said. “We’re going to expect him to come in and really show what we think his talent level is.’’
It remains to be seen whether the Colts position him at end or tackle, or make him one of their moveable parts. Whatever the role, Lewis must contribute.
Injuries have limited him to 17 games and six starts the past two seasons. He’s managed just 18 tackles and 2 sacks.
“I need to see more,’’ Ballard said.
Fact worth noting: The arrival of Buckner, presence of Houston and anticipated emergence of Turay begs the question: might the Colts have a pair of double-digit sackers this season?
Barring injury, there’s every reason to believe Houston gets there. He led the defense last season with 11 and added a team-best 18 QB hits. He’s produced at least 10 sacks in four of his nine seasons and his 89.5 career sacks are 8th among active players.
Buckner has had 19.5 sacks the last two seasons, including a career-best 12 in ’18. Turay certainly has double-digit sack potential.
But let’s not downplay the difficulty in a pair of Colts producing at least 10 sacks.
They’ve had a pair of 10-plus sack players just four times: 2010, ’08, ’05 and ’04.
The tag team each time: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.