INDIANAPOLIS – Rock Ya-Sin and his back-end colleagues have their hands full. Every week, they’re tasked with shadowing some of the fastest, most agile athletes on the planet.
Fail, and explosive plays in the passing game can demoralize a defense and doom a team.
A little help always is appreciated.
“A great d-line is the defensive back’s best friend,’’ Ya-Sin, the Indianapolis Colts’ second-year cornerback, said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call.
Individually, those best buds are Justin Houston, DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, Grover Stewart, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu, Taylor Stallworth and Eli Ankou.
Collectively, it’s a group assembled by Chris Ballard and his personnel staff. It’s not the best group in recent memory – haven’t forgotten the Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis bunch, have you? – but has the potential to be a more impactful force than the Colts have had in several seasons.
“I’m always going to say it always starts up front,’’ Ballard said.
That in mind, the d-line absolutely must be the catalyst if the entire defense is going to put be a roller-coaster 2019 behind it – solid early, ineffective late – and carry its share of the load.
One of the prime objectives of coordinator Matt Eberflus and his staff is creating more takeaways. As Ballard mentioned, it starts up front.
Often, the genesis of an interception in the secondary or a fumble recovery is the work being done in the trenches.
“I bet if you look at the numbers – and we’ve looked at them in the past – those takeaways happen in the pocket most of the time,’’ Eberflus said. “That percentage has been disputed over the years, but that’s definitely a way for it to happen.
“If you look at all the takeaways in the course of last year, it’s going to be a combination of rush-and-cover, cover-and-rush and also pressure.’’
Occasionally, it’s individual excellence.
“A really good player beating another player and making a play on the football in the pocket,’’ Eberflus said.
Mathis is the Colts’ career sack leader and continues to pay it forward by serving as a pass-rush consultant. Along with his record 123, Mathis owns the NFL record with 47 sacks/forced fumbles.
Even if Mathis and Dwight Freeney – or Houston and Buckner – don’t get to the quarterback for a sack, their pressure and presence often is undeniable.
“It’s huge, man,’’ Ya-Sin said. “That quarterback has less time to throw the ball even when we’re rushing just four, you know what I mean? A lot of times having to send five and six, it opens up holes in the defense.
“When we can rush four and get pressure on that quarterback, when he doesn’t have time to pat the ball all day and go through his progressions, it just speeds things up. Receivers can’t do as much at the line. They’ve gotta get into the route faster. (It) kinda throws off the timing.’’
The Colts have been so-so on Eberflus’ watch. The last two seasons, they’ve ranked tied-for-10th in takeaways (23 last season, 26 in ’18). They haven’t generated more than 27 since ’07 (37).
That’s why linebacker Anthony Walker raised a few eyebrows during training camp when the discussion turned to takeaways.
The goal for 2020: 40-plus.
“We believe we have the guys on our defense,’’ he said.
That mindset flows from the top down.
“I think you can never not have that on your mind with coach Eberflus as your coach,’’ Walker said. “That’s just every day – literally, ball-hawk. That’s the first thing we (talk about when) we walk into our meeting room as a defense. That’s the first thing that’s up on the board: ball-hawk, ball-hawk, ball-hawk, showing the turnover chart every day.
“If you’re going to play in this defense, that has to be your mindset.’’
That goal – 40-plus – is beyond optimistic.
The Colts have piled up that many just four times in team history, and not since 1987 (45).
Even league-wide, that’s a lofty figure. Over the last 20 seasons, a team has breached the 40-takeaway barrier just 18 times and only twice in the last decade (44 by Chicago and 41 by New England, each in 2012).
As much as the d-line must be the catalyst, the Colts believe they’ve finally gotten personnel at all three levels to be a disruptive unit.
In large part, credit Ballard moves in each of the last two offseasons. Last year, he signed Houston to a two-year, $23 million contract. In March, he acquired Buckner in a trade with San Francisco that cost him the 13th overall pick in the draft and a four-year, $84 million extension.
Houston ranks 8th among active players with 89.5 sacks, and also has 136 quarterback hits and 109 tackles for loss. Buckner was brought in to be the influential 3-technique. Since ’16 and among tackles, he ranks 5th with 28.5 sacks and 38 tackles for loss. Buckner also has been credited with 74 QB hits.
“I think he’s going to be dominant this year,’’ nickel back Kenny Moore said of Buckner. “I think he’s been dominant throughout his whole career, but I think this year he’s going to be special for us.’’
Another component of the Colts’ takeaway blueprint is linebacker Darius Leonard. In two decorated seasons and 28 games, he’s generated 12 sacks and accounted for nine takeaways (seven interceptions, two fumble recoveries). He’s the first player since at least 1982 with at least 10 sacks and five interceptions in his first 25 games.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.