Between free agency and the draft, it seemed as if the Indianapolis Colts loaded up on enough offensive pieces for the 2020 season to raise fans out of their seats in excitement at Lucas Oil Stadium responding to touchdowns every 5 minutes.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers, Southern Cal receiver Michael Pittman and Wisconsin back Jonathan Taylor are primed to register big yards next to their names as if they are playing pinball.
However, at the same time those guys were practicing Zoom plays, deciphering their new team’s playbook and talking razzle-dazzle optimism, the other half of the team was preparing methods to prevent foes on the other side of the ball from gaining yards and scoring points.
Anyone who has followed professional football for more than 5 minutes knows defense is the secret to winning, even if the process can be less flashy. The Colts have stocked the roster with ferocious key young guys.
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One player who made an impact during last year’s 7-9 season was linebacker Bobby Okereke, a 2019 third-round draft pick out of Stanford. Colts team leaders liked what they saw, and Okereke liked that the Colts beefed up by bringing in all-star DeForest Buckner from the 49ers.
“I think we’ve had the goal of being a top-five defense, if not one of the top defenses in the league,” he said. “We want to lead the NFL, set the NFL record of having 40 takeaways, 40-plus takeaways. We’re fast, we’re physical and we’re a young defense.”
Not to mention, perhaps a bit brash. That will be OK if Okerke and those surrounding him can dominate in such a fashion. The defense is not going to score more touchdowns than the offense, but if the defensive 11 can terrorize opponents in such a manner, it will take the heat off of the offense.
NFL teams must be capable of scoring in a hurry, whether it is in the closing minutes of the first half or the last few minutes of the game. There are always going to be close ones when a team must score in the clutch.
The defense must possess the killer instinct to go get the ball and hand it to the offense for a last-chance try.
It may be that this year’s defense is better prepared than at any other time under head coach Frank Reich to be a turning-point defense, one that has been painstakingly formed and built from the ground up over the last couple of years.
Transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 since 2018 on the fly has been a challenge, but the Colts may have arrived. Part of the technical changeover was also getting the message across to players just what is the standard expected from the coaches.
“We want to play at a certain level in terms of effort, in terms of our intensity, in terms of our execution down in and down out,” said defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. “Obviously, when you do that and you play a certain way, you have to practice a certain way, so that is all-encompassing.”
That may sound like football generalities and the kind of comments every coach makes to his team. To a degree, that is so since it means going 100%, 100% of the time and that would seem to be a given philosophy for every team in the league,
Yet it is always worth saying, always worth emphasizing. If not, every team would personify that approach every game for 60 minutes, and real life on Sundays does not always look that way.
Sometimes, it seems Buckner has been a little bit overlooked during offseason discussions. The Colts gave up a No. 1 draft pick for him, so they felt he was the equivalent of a No. 1, only with experience. Buckner is seen as a game-changer, an impact player who can uplift a defense.
“Well, at least you know what you’re getting with DeForest — exactly what you’re getting,” Eberflus said. “You’re getting a Pro Bowl talent, a high-level player that has dominated his position.”
That means “the trickle-down effect” will aid other Colts starters, he said.
The price of a No. 1 pick is high, but Eberflus never hesitated in his desire to acquire Buckner once discussions began with San Francisco.
“I had two words: ‘Yes and yes,’” Eberflus said.
The Colts seem well-equipped to shut down teams. Guys like Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker also figure to be in the mix for most tackles on the team.
What they realize is that new players, like Xavier Rhodes, too, should provide the Colts with more weapons on defense.
“I think we added pieces that took us from what we feel had a chance to be good/great defense to an elite defense,” Walker said.
And everyone knows the heights elite defenses can reach.