Colts Demand More From D-Line

Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach Brian Baker and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus are tough graders when assessing their players. That means a constant expectation for improvement.
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INDIANAPOLIS — The mere mention of how All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner draws his share of double-team blocks prompts an eyebrow crease from Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach Brian Baker.

While a disruptive defender like Buckner sees his share of extra attention, Baker isn’t the kind of guy who wants to hear about how pass-rushers can’t get to the quarterback because they’re facing double teams.

“Like I tell all those guys and I’ve been telling guys for years, you get those guys frustrated coming to the sideline, everybody is getting double-teamed,” Baker said last week. “I’m like, ‘Son of a gun, guys, they ain’t playing with 15, OK? Everybody can’t be getting double-teamed. Somebody has got to win their one-on-ones.’ And they’re all being trained to do that.”

The Colts (2-1) have nine sacks and 18 quarterback hits, based on gamebook statistics. In the past two games, the defense has generated five sacks — Baker would like to see more than that — but two of the sacks resulted in safeties and the defense had seven quarterback hits in each victory.

In the season-opening loss at Jacksonville, the Colts had four sacks but just four quarterback hits. Getting pressure and disrupting a pass play can be just as important as a sack, and the Colts defense didn’t do enough of either, especially in the first half of the 27-20 road loss to the Jaguars.

The increased pocket pressure in back-to-back home wins — 28-11 over the Minnesota Vikings and 36-7 over the New York Jets — is what Baker and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus expect to see on a consistent basis.

Indianapolis Colts defensive end Justin Houston tackles New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold for a safety in Sunday's 36-7 home win at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Justin Houston sacks Sam Darnold for a safety on Sunday.

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But there were still instances where players didn’t finish with sacks.

“That’s something we’re working on with the defensive line,” Eberflus said Tuesday. “We say the, ‘four equals one,’ meaning that it’s one rush but four guys have to work together in their rush lanes. We’re working on that this week. We obviously work on that every single week.

“We have to do a better job there because we had him in the shoe, which I call the pocket, a bunch of times, and he made some good plays. (Sam) Darnold is a big, strong guy and he got away from us quite a few times. That’s going to happen a few times, but we thought it happened too many. We just have to coordinate our rush better and get better, four equals one to get him on the ground. We’re looking to improve that, our technique during the week.”

Baker, like Eberflus, is demanding when it comes to grading players. Eberflus reminds how defenders are graded for “loafs” as well as “hustle” plays.

“We’re always searching for guys that can play eight guys on the defensive line,” Eberflus said of the rotation. “We really base it mostly off of our loaf system and the hustle system. If a guy comes in and he plays 25 plays but a third of his plays are loafs, we will decrease his reps until he can play at the level we need him to play at in terms of his hustle and his hitting and his execution. That’s across the board.

“When a guy shows that he can be on our all-hustle team, which is a 90 percent hustle grade, then he can play as many plays as he’s able to execute. There are guys in there that are doing that. Grover Stewart does a great job. (Al-Quadin) Muhammad does a great job. There are a lot of guys in there. (DeForest Buckner) ‘Buck’ does a great job of hustling every single play and those guys are on the all-hustle team every single week. That’s what we’re searching for. The rotation will be based on those guys that can play hard every single snap with good technique.”

Baker, who was added to the coaching staff in the offseason, has 36 years of experience including 19 in the NFL. He was asked about how he grades.

“I’m fairly tough,” he said.

When assessing the Colts seven sacks in the first two games, he said, “Seven sacks are just seven plays out of over 100. If those were the only good snaps we had, then we’re not very good.”

He’s focused on proper effort, how players finish, technique, and playing with the necessary level of physicality.

So far, the defensive end Justin Houston has a team-high 2.5 sacks, Denico Autry 2, Buckner 1.5, then Tyquan Lewis, Kenny Moore II, and Khari Willis each with 1. The latter two are defensive backs who got theirs on a blitz.

Buckner has a team-high five quarterback hits while Houston and Autry each have three.

“The good thing is, we’ve got more than just one good football player lining up for us in the defensive line,” Baker said.

The Colts visit the Chicago Bears (3-0) on Sunday at Soldier Field. Bears quarterback Nick Foles likes to throw the ball deep, which means taking more time for routes to develop. How well the Colts pass rush disrupts Foles will be a key to this game.

“As it’s been stated before,” Eberflus said, “and you guys have heard this a thousand times but it’s so true, that it starts up front.”

(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.)