Losing veteran leaders like inside linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and defensive ends Denico Autry and Justin Houston should have hurt the Indianapolis Colts' defense in a big way, considering all that they meant to the group on and off the field.
So far though, that really hasn't been the case as the Colts added high-ceiling youngsters like defensive end Kwity Paye and linebacker Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed to the starting group.
After the unit played like a top 5 group in 2020, the goal for 2021, according to projected starting inside linebacker Zaire Franklin and veteran starting safety Khari Willis is to make the jump from being "pretty good" defensively, up to "elite."
“I would honestly just say that it’s about us coming together in camp and as a collective early on in the season to just make that jump from being pretty good to being elite," Franklin said to reporters during his media availability Tuesday after reporting to Westfield for the start of training camp. "I think that’s just what we all have in mind. We all talk about just really wanting to be that overpowering, overwhelming, dominating defense. I think we were close and last year we showed more flashes of who we wanted to be and this year is more about truly being that elite defense, being the best defense in the league this year.”
Though the Colts will have to break in new starters at inside linebacker and both defensive end spots, Indianapolis can take solace in the fact that defensive stalwarts such as Willis, Kenny Moore II, Xavier Rhodes, DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, Grover Stewart, Julian Blackmon and Bobby Okereke return, making this one of the deepest defensive cores in football.
With a deep group on the defensive side of the ball, it's imperative that the Colts take another step forward overall. That should happen in 2021, considering the core has played together for at least four seasons under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“I would just say it’s our fourth year with Coach Flus (Matt Eberflus), most of the core guys, it’s our fourth year here in the same system so it’s really just about us really coming together and creating that mentality of banding together as brothers," Franklin said. "We have talent all over the field at all three levels and the system is already set in stone, so at that point it’s just about us taking ownership and becoming it.”
“I think there’s always more, especially when you get a chance to look back and reflect on the previous season you had – work on certain areas, certain situations where you know you can put yourself in and look like ‘Wow, we could have been so much better in these areas,'" Willis added Tuesday. "In those areas, you take those steps, as a team and as an individual, you take responsibility and then I think you come out here and you work on it. I think that’s what we’re excited to do.”
In seven of 16 games last season, the Colts allowed 20 points or fewer, which was one of the top marks in the league. However, the other nine remaining games the Colts allowed 21+ in each, resulting in a record of 4-5.
If Indianapolis can take the next step forward defensively and lower the average points per game allowed from 22.5 down to around 20.0, the Colts could add another win or two to the standings and truly push for a Super Bowl.
Have thoughts on the defense aiming to take the next step? Drop a line in the comments section below letting us know how you feel!