INDIANAPOLIS — The offseason acquisition of All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner constituted the Indianapolis Colts’ concerted effort to be stronger on the line.
Question is, how will the back end hold up in pass defense?
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus enters his third Colts season with a young group of defensive backs — 11 players are 25 or younger. Two additions bring experience, but cornerback Xavier Rhodes was available for a reason — Minnesota released the 2017 All-Pro cover guy when he faltered the last two seasons and his one-year deal for $3 million reflects how much he has to prove in trying to regain past form. Cornerback T.J. Carrie joins his third team in seven years and his one-year deal provides depth. He’s not penciled in as a starter.
The Colts regressed from 16th to 23rd in pass defense last season, although their 15 interceptions ranked seventh. One late-season factor was nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II being sidelined by injury — he missed five games including the last four, three of those losses.
It’s not a stretch to suggest the Colts secondary is the thinnest position group on the roster. Consider that Rhodes is joined at the starting cornerback slot by second-year pro Rock Ya-Sin, who had his ups and downs as a rookie. Ya-Sin plays physical is still learning how to lock onto pass catchers — he was often flagged for holding or pass interference in the first half of the season. Cornerback Marvell Tell III is also dealing with the same NFL learning curve entering his second season.
Safety Malik Hooker, a 2017 first-round draft pick, has yet to live up to that selection, which became more evident when general manager Chris Ballard decided to not pick up the fifth-year contract option for 2021. The other starting safety is Khari Willis, who is also entering his second season. Like Ya-Sin, Willis is young and has potential, but again the key word for the entire group is consistency. That’s the word Eberflus has used to describe where his secondary stands entering 2020.
“I would say that if you watched Malik last year – when I watched him in practice because we have only had him for two years, I really saw a step in terms of his practice,” Eberflus said in a recent Zoom video conference call. “In training camp I could see it, early on in the season I could see it. He really started to bust his tail and go the way we were talking about going all of us in practice in terms of effort, execution, playmaking. I feel that he was taking steps in that direction, I really do. If you watched him in some of those games. I just refer back to some of the plays we are watching with some of the players right now – the Miami game, the Denver game, the Pittsburgh game – those games that we had. He really was playing well at a very high level.
“What he does and what everybody else has to do is just be more consistent. If you are going to be a high-performing player, an All-Pro player or a high-performing starter, the consistency just has to be there, OK? That’s what we are asking all of our players to be – practice consistently and play consistently, and that is what we are going to get. Your play in the games doesn’t fall far from the practice. That is what we are searching for is consistency in all of our players.”
The Colts drafted Utah safety Julian Blackmon in the third round because they liked his versatility as a former cornerback with speed and coverage skills. But Blackmon is also coming off knee surgery and might not be back on the field until September or October.
Safeties George Odum and Rolan Milligan have been playing reserve roles, but will see some snaps, too, because the Colts are young and have needed to rotate in players, especially when Hooker has been injured — he’s missed 15 games in three seasons.
“Those are all pieces that we look at during the training camp and also during the season,” Eberflus said. “What is our best matchup? What gives us the best chance to be successful be it on first down, two-minute, third down, or in red zone? So we have always prepared those guys in different ways that are advantageous that we feel (for) our defense to be successful.”
Eberflus sounds sold on Rhodes, who is reunited with Colts defensive backs coaches Jonathan Gannon and Alan Williams, both former Vikings assistants familiar with the cornerback’s ability.
“We had ‘Xav’ a couple of years ago when I was coaching at the other place I was at and we were coaching at the Pro Bowl,” Eberflus said of his previous stint with Dallas. “We had him there and I just fell in love with him in terms of his work patterns. I was just amazed at how the guy could move for how big he is. I mean the guy looks like a big safety and he is playing corner. We just really fell in love with him. He is a physical, really good tackler and he has played at a Pro-Bowl level. We are excited to get him back to that point.
“We feel that – I know Chris (Ballard) has said this as well – (Rhodes) has a chip on his shoulder in lieu of the circumstances and we are excited about that. We will see where he goes from there but let’s get him on the grass and start working with him. We are certainly pleased with having ‘Xav.’”
Rhodes said in an offseason conference call that part of his struggles the past two seasons could be attributed to playing hurt. How much that is to be believed likely depends on what he shows in Indianapolis.
When Colts head coach Frank Reich was asked about the need for his secondary to evolve from playing mostly zone coverages, he expressed confidence that Eberflus would figure it out.
“You get to know ‘Flus’ and you see this really disciplined, strong guy and you think, ‘Does he have any flexibility? Can he adapt?’” Reich said. “Sometimes I think we mistakenly think guys like that are stuck in their ways. ‘Flus’ is not stuck in his ways. ‘Flus’ knows how to adapt. He knows how to adapt to our personnel. I see it (in) the last two years, when we get guys hurt or when certain pieces – ‘All right, now we have to play more zone.’ Or, ‘Hey, now we can play more man.’ Or ‘We’re not getting the production out of this coverage or this front or this blitz so we’re going to change it up.’
“‘Flus,’ I think is unique, or I think he’s the way a coach should be. He has really strong core principles, but yet he has a creative mind and he understands it’s about players needing to play those schemes. So you have to fit those players in there and do what’s best for them given your core principles. I’ve seen on a high level, he has that ability. As we continue to add pieces to our defense, I think it’s just going to get better and better under this scheme.”
(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 email@example.com.)