INDIANAPOLIS — When this NFL season began, there was a lot of buzz about how defensive tackle DeForest Buckner would be a key Indianapolis Colts addition to a vastly improved defensive line.
Aside from his inside dominance in rushing quarterbacks and stopping the run as a three-technique cornerstone, Buckner’s presence would create opportunities for linemates. In the first three games, the Colts had nine sacks and 18 quarterback hits.
Buckner, as expected, has continued to be a force. He’s fourth on the team with 28 total tackles, has 2.5 sacks, and is among the NFL leaders at his position with 13 quarterback hits.
But the Colts (4-2) have amassed just four sacks in the past three games. Before this past bye weekend, the Colts got just two sacks in a home win over the Cincinnati Bengals, which had allowed the most sacks in the league by far. Quarterback hits have also dropped off with 14 in the three-game stretch.
Sacks might be more of a bottom line when pass-rushers are negotiating new contracts. Pressures and quarterback hits matter more to new Colts defensive line coach Brian Baker, who places a high value on his players’ ability to be consistently disruptive in speeding up quarterbacks in the pocket.
As the Colts prepare to visit the Detroit Lions (3-3) on Sunday, one of the lingering questions is if the Colts defensive line other than Buckner will improve? The Lions are 17th with 14 sacks allowed.
Bottom line, so far, Buckner has lived up to his part of the bargain since being acquired from San Francisco for a 2020 first-round draft choice and being awarded a four-year, $84-million extension that made him the NFL’s second-highest-paid defensive tackle behind All-Pro Aaron Donald.
But what of the rest of the Colts defensive line? The Colts are tied for 18th with 13 sacks as well as 2.2 sacks per game. Defensive end Justin Houston leads the team with 3.5 sacks, but he didn't even make the stat sheet in a Week 6 home win over the Cincinnati Bengals and had one assisted tackle and one quarterback hit in a Week 5 road loss to the Cleveland Browns. Defensive end/tackle Denico Autry had two sacks in the opener, but none since.
“Sacks are only part of it,” Baker said on a Zoom video call last week. “I’m always cognizant of what sacks are. You’re old enough to remember when the league used to just call sacks tackles for losses. Although they impact the game from a passing standpoint, at the end of the day, that’s what they are.
“That’s not to say that’s not important, they are, they’re very important to us and very important to me. But it’s a lot more to it. Are we speeding the quarterback up? Some of those stats aren’t appearing in the column. Did we affect the quarterback on some of the interceptions?”
The Colts lead the league with 10 interceptions, and have returned two of them for touchdowns.
“Do we need to get better? Absolutely,” Baker said. “But we are doing some of those other things that might not have a statistical measure. So I try to look at the whole thing, and also look at the whole thing relative to the guy.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting those guys to max out. There’s some other different points of emphasis, in terms of controlling the pocket, that maybe there’s been too much attention given to, to be a little self-critical, that will allow them to go get it. That’s certainly where my emphasis will be.”
He’s confident the Colts will improve their sack numbers.
“So I don’t get hung up on the lack of sacks,” Baker said. “The sacks will come.
“I would rather be consistent throughout the season, which we’re working towards, then the numbers will come as they come.”
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)