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Bobby Okereke is Key to Colts' Pass Defense: Film Room

Linebacker Bobby Okereke is in the midst of a career-best season in 2022 for the Indianapolis Colts.
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The Indianapolis Colts made a pretty massive change this offseason on the defensive side of the ball, replacing Matt Eberflus (who is now the Chicago Bears' Head Coach) with long-time DC Gus Bradley. With Bradley bringing his patented single-high scheme to the Colts, the roles and responsibilities of these defenders changed quite a bit.

The position that saw the most change was the linebacker group. Rather than being spot-dropping cover two backers (like they were under Eberflus), these linebackers were going to have to cover a lot of ground in the passing game for this scheme to work.

Luckily, the Colts had a talented linebacker group led by All-Pro Shaquille Leonard. He was expected to take on a major role in this scheme, as he was in line to switch to the MIKE position. With him missing a majority of the season due to an offseason surgery (and re-injury), the onus fell onto the other players in the position group. The one player that has filled that void has been Bobby Okereke.

Okereke is a fourth year player in a contract season. After spending his first season in the NFL as the Colts' SAM backer, he switched to the MIKE position for the next two seasons (filling the void left by Anthony Walker). This year, under Gus Bradley, he bumped back outside to the WILL position.

It hasn't been an easy adjustment, but Okereke is thriving in this scheme at this point of the year. He is playing like a Pro Bowl linebacker, and his play is contributing to the Colts' success in pass defense. Currently, Pro Football Focus has him rated as the 17th best coverage linebacker in the NFL, and the 13th best linebacker overall.

Okereke is in the midst of a great season, and I am going to highlight today how good he has been in coverage for this team.

Man Coverage

Vertical Routes

In order to have success in this type of scheme, a linebacker has to be an outstanding athlete. Gus Bradley has no issue with having his linebackers turn and run with vertical routes down the field. Usually this happens off of play-action looks (in zone-match calls), but Okereke has seen his fair share of straight up man coverage calls.

Whenever Okereke has been asked to cover a vertical route down the field, he has answered the call. Whether it is a wide receiver (such as Courtland Sutton or Zach Pascal) or a tight end (Foster Moreau), Okereke has been able to stay in position and even force incomplete passes with his strong play.

The biggest play of note in the clips below came against the Las Vegas Raiders. Okereke carries the tight end vertically to the endzone while staying in the back hip pocket. As the ball arrives, he calmly plays through the hands and dislodges the potential completion in the endzone.

Underneath Man

NFL teams love to isolate speed against linebackers. When an offense can get a running back or a wide receiver in space against a linebacker, it usually means good things for the team with the ball. With Okereke, he makes opposing offenses work for every yard.

He did have his struggles against Davante Adams a few weeks ago (which linebacker wouldn't?), but I've been very impressed with how he mans up in the redzone in particular. He plays strong through rub routes and he rarely gets knocked away from his man in coverage.

Okereke is a physical player that possesses great speed, and it shows up quite a bit when he is asked to cover underneath. The first clip below was a key pass breakup against Tennessee Titans' running back Dontrell Hilliard:

C3 Weak Backside

Technically, these next few clips are zone coverage, but Okereke has man responsibilities on these plays. In the Colts' Weak Cover Three calls (against 3x1 formations), the backside players are responsible for man coverage on the receiver and the running back. This usually leaves Stephon Gilmore and Bobby Okereke on an island to the weak side.

Without a strong cover linebacker, teams would eat that RB-LB match-up alive in these calls. Luckily for the Colts, Okereke has handled himself well in these looks. In these two plays below, Okereke locks up two really solid receiving backs in J.D McKissic and Rhamondre Stevenson, respectfully.

Zone Coverage

I believe there is still another step for Okereke to take as a zone linebacker, but he has made some really good strides this season. He is an aggressive downhill thumper when the ball is caught in front of him, and his route recognition is improving with every game.

There are two ways to study linebackers in zone coverage. The first way is to watch how they react and feel routes in front of them. Okereke does a great job with this, as he has examples on tape of blowing up mesh calls and RB choice routes with his vision.

The other area to study is how the linebacker reacts and feels routes behind them. This is where Okereke can still stand to take another step. He is great in the half field, as he can usually identify sticks and spacing routes with ease to his side. I just want to see him get a little bit of a better feel over the middle of the field with intermediate routes.

He is by no means bad in this area at all, though. In fact, he is easily the Colts' best zone linebacker (even when everybody is healthy).


The last area that I want to look at is a technique called "Robot." Robot is the shortened term for "roll over and back" for linebackers against play-action. In simple terms, this technique is what is used in Gus Bradley's scheme to get his linebackers into throwing lanes off of play-action.

Rather than having the linebackers backpedal and slowly cut off opposing crossers and post routes, Robot technique means the linebackers are turning and sprinting to those routes. Their job is not to break up a pass (necessarily), but rather to get in that throwing lane as soon as possible.

The clips below are good examples of Okereke taking his read step against play-action and then Roboting back into the backside crossing routes. The Colts have been strong against play-action this season, and his play is one of the major reasons why.

Gus Bradley loves to make his linebackers run in this scheme, and that even applies to the Robot technique. There are some cover three calls where the WILL linebacker is responsible for the inside slot receiver on vertical routes (typically in 3x1 sets).

On these calls, the WILL (Okereke) has to turn and sprint down the field to undercut these deep over routes. Okereke (luckily) is a phenomenal athlete and more than capable of these difficult assignments.

The Bottom Line

The Indianapolis Colts' defense is playing at a high level this season, and one of the major contributors to that is linebacker Bobby Okereke. He has been stout in the run game, but his pass coverage is what is really propelling this defense forward.

He still has some room to improve, but he has been the perfect fit in the Colts' new defense under Gus Bradley. With uncertainty surrounding the status of Shaquille Leonard in the future, the Colts have to do everything they can to bring back Okereke this offseason.

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