Colts defense is different, but will it be better?
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It didn’t take a football savant to realize change was needed.
The Indianapolis Colts defense, 2016 edition, didn’t measure up by anyone’s standards, and that was reinforced soon after general manager Chris Ballard settled behind his desk and reviewed the wreckage.
What resulted, though, was a makeover of massive proportions.
Consider: of the 11 players who started last season’s opener against the Detroit Lions, only one – one! – remains on the active roster. Congratulations, T.J. Green.
Coordinator Ted Monachino Thursday afternoon conceded a casual fan might be surprised with that type of turnover.
However, he quickly added “anybody that paid attention to what we were a year ago and what our focus was from the end of our last game through the start of this one on Sunday, I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody if they kept track.
“There’s been an awful lot of changes. People around the league, they see sometimes you have to do this. You have to make some changes. For sure they would have to understand.’’
Ballard and his personnel staff have put as much distance as possible between themselves and what was one of the worst defenses in franchise history. Forget the ’16 group ranked 30th in yards allowed, 25th against the run and 22nd in points.
Things were so much worse.
The 382.9 yards per game allowed was the second-highest in team history. The Colts tied a franchise-low with eight interceptions. The run defense yielded 4.7 yards per attempt, the sixth-fattest average allowed. Ever.
“If you keep putting the same guys out there, you kind of expect the same results,’’ offered end Henry Anderson, one of the few defensive holdovers. “If you want different results, you’ve got to switch things up a little bit.’’
Or a lot.
Robert Mathis retired, but so many others were shown the door.
“Never been a part of that,’’ cornerback-turned-safety Darius Butler said.
Listen as he tried to recount the starting group against the Lions.
“We had Sio (Moore). We had (Antonio) Cromartie. We had DQ (D’Qwell Jackson), EWall (Erik Walkden),’’ he said, his eyes darting around the locker room, looking for help. “We had Mike (Adams), T.J. Sitting here trying to do that, it’s nuts, man. David Parry . . .’’
Gone. Gone. So many gone.
During the offseason, the Colts demolished their defense, then methodically rebuilt it. The starting lineup that will face the Los Angeles Rams Sunday is a mixture of veteran free agents, draft picks and a few holdovers.
Free agents fortified the front seven: tackle Johnathan Hankins, nose Al Woods, linebackers John Simon, Jabaal Sheard and Jon Bostic, end Margus Hunt.
“Our identity right now goes along with our front,’’ Monachino said. “We’re big. We’re physical. We’ve got enough athleticism to make the plays that we’re supposed to make.
“If you’re going to say you’re a big, physical football team, you’d better collect a bunch of big, physical football players and that’s what we’ve done.’’
Rookies will play early often in the secondary: safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston.
“They will have some rookie hiccups, I’m sure,’’ Monachino said.
None of the rookies lacks confidence.
“I feel like there’s nothing to be nervous about,’’ said Hooker, the team’s first-round draft pick. “You know your job and you know what you’re doing. Your athletic ability takes over.
“So I feel like I’m physically gifted enough to go out there and compete.’’
Monachino’s scheme generally requires cornerbacks to be aggressive and handle receivers with little safety help. That could change on occasion with this young group.
“It’s going to be up to us as a staff to protect them when we can,’’ Monachino said. “That’s hard to do in our system with as much ‘match’ as we play.
“All of them have enough confidence that they don’t want to be protected, but I’ve got to protect them from themselves sometimes.’’
The best protection for a young, unproven secondary is a reliable pass rush, but that’s another area rife with uncertainty. A byproduct of the defensive renovation is the Colts return just a smidgen of the 33 sacks collected in 2016. Hassan Ridgeway had 1.5 sacks a year ago. The other 31.5 are gone.
Until proven otherwise, Sheard and Simon must be the pass-rush catalysts, and they combined for just 8.5 last season.
“We’ve got some complementary guys,’’ Monachino said. “We’ve got some guys who can win on their own. We don’t have the rare, elite pass rusher right now, but we can create some things with movement and alignment and pressure.’’
Monachino reiterated he’s never been involved with such a massive overhaul, but “this is a good thing, I promise. Better or worse is still to be determined. Different is most certainly the case.
“We are bigger. We are stronger. We are faster. That should translate into us playing markedly better.’’