Colts D-Line has Impressed, But Coach Matt Eberflus Reiterates Proof is on Game Days

Perhaps the most promising development at Indianapolis Colts training camp has been the defensive line's solid play. That said, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus reminds the group has to excel when it counts.
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INDIANAPOLIS — When the Indianapolis Colts acquired All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from San Francisco in March, the proverbial bar was raised on what to expect from the defensive line.

After the Colts' eighth padded practice of training camp on Wednesday morning, it’s fair to say that optimism continues to be a positive trend. Buckner looks as formidable as advertised, defensive end Justin Houston is in excellent shape, and third-year pro Tyquan Lewis has had one of the strongest camps of any player on the roster.

All that said, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus grades his defenders on a demanding scale, and he’s not ready to accept too many compliments on how promising his line looks with the regular-season opener about two weeks away on Sept. 13 at Jacksonville.

“Yeah, I think that’s a work in progress,” Eberflus said on a Wednesday Zoom video call. “I think it’s a great question, but as we know we’ve got to start playing games and then you start really knowing where everybody is. And that changes – people are up and people are down – your makeup of your defensive line play.

“So we need all hands on deck at the defensive line – eight or nine guys. Hopefully, we’ll have that many up for the game at some point. Rotating those guys and when they’re in there, they’ve got to play. It’s an exciting group. Obviously the addition of the players that we’ve added certainly ups the talent pool there. They’re learning how to play off each other and play in the game with each other.”

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Eberflus was encouraged by what he saw from his defensive line in Monday’s scrimmage-like workout at Lucas Oil Stadium. Houston, Lewis, and Al-Quadin Muhammad would have had sacks if allowed to tackle.

Buckner’s three-technique position sets the tone. He’s one of the NFL’s best at drawing double teams, shooting gaps, and making plays as either a pass rusher or against the run. And players like Houston and Lewis, as well as All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and play-making nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II should also benefit.

Defensive end Kemoko Turay has yet to practice as he recovers from a broken ankle suffered in Week 5 last season. He was emerging as a solid pass rusher in his second NFL season.

One point of emphasis has been forcing more turnovers. The Colts’ 23 takeaways (15 interceptions, eight fumbles) tied for 10th-best last season.

“Yeah, turnover production – you always want more and we’re never doing it good enough,” Eberflus said. “So it’s got to be something that’s always on our mind – each player and each coach. We have to coach it every single play. So we have to do a better job with that, but I say that every practice. I say that every practice. That’s an ongoing process with us and we want to make sure we’re doing those things – the details that it takes to get the takeaway.”

He added that it’s about coaching how to handle the football on the perimeter, the angles that defenders take toward ballcarriers, where they bodies are positioned at impact, and how aggressively they go for a strip.

Houston, who had a team-high 11 sacks, was also No. 1 with three fumble recoveries. He was one of four players with two forced fumbles.

Although he’s a linebacker, Leonard showed why he’s one of the NFL’s most dynamic defensive playmakers as he led the Colts with five interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. The only other player with more than two was cornerback Pierre Desir with three, and he got two of those late in the year in a blowout win. Desir was waived in the offseason.

Safety Malik Hooker has said that creating more turnovers is one of his most important goals for 2020. The 2017 first-round selection has seven interceptions and no forced fumbles in 34 career games.

(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)