Positional look at the Colts: Defensive line

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Quarterback Carson Wentz #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles avoids a tackle by defensive end Jabaal Sheard #93 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on September 23, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.

Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.

Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.

TODAY: Defensive line

  • Starters: Jabaal Sheard, Margus Hunt, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis.
  • Backups: Kemoko Turay, Hassan Ridgeway, Grover Stewart, Al-Quadin Muhammad.

Looking back

There’s no denying the quantum leap experienced by the defense following the universally forgettable 2017 season. So much of that can be traced to the front four. Jabaal Sheard remained one of the NFL’s most underrated D-linemen. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt enjoyed career years. Rookie Tyquan Lewis was a factor when he wasn’t battling foot and knee injuries. Another rookie, Kemoko Turay, flashed early pass-rush promise before fading late.

In this instance, Aristotle was spot on: the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The Colts allowed the league’s third-fewest points over the final half of the season, and spent all season making plays that made a difference. They ranked second in the league in tackles for loss with 91 – five players had at least 10 – and tied for 10th with 26 takeaways. They were the only team with at least one takeaway in each of the first 15 games.

There was no bigger evidence of the year-to-year jump following the transition from the previous 3-4 scheme to Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 than in the run game. Indy sliced nearly 19 yards off its per-game average of 2017 (101.6 after 120.4) – its biggest improvement in more than a decade – and was one of three teams to not allow a 100-yard rusher.

The defense finished 10th in scoring (21.5) after languishing at 30th in 2017 (25.3). It was 11th in yards per game allowed (339.4) after being 30th the previous season (367.1). The last time it finished top-11 in both categories: 2008.

Again, it all started up front.

Autry was one of Ballard’s biggest free-agent acquisitions (three-years, $17.8 million) despite having started only 29 games in four seasons with the Raiders. He responded with a breakout season while missing four games with injuries: 37 tackles, including 13 for a loss; a career-best 9 sacks and an additional 11 QB hits. In week 13 at Jacksonville, he had 3 sacks and 3 tackles for loss at Jackson. In week 14, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after generating 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss at Houston.

Hunt, whose ability to play inside and outside was invaluable, had career-bests with 5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.

Looking ahead

On the business side, Ballard and his personnel staff must determine whether to pursue Hunt and nose tackle Al Woods, who finished the season on IR. We’re in favor of re-signing Hunt – if the price is right—and allowing Woods to test his value on the open market. After appearing in 44 games with no starts and 1.5 sacks in Cincinnati, Hunt has started 20 games the last two seasons and collected 6 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He’s been a perfect complementary part in Indy.

On the field, the most pressing issue is determining whether Turay can realize a sizable leap in year 2 as a consistent pass-rush threat. The second-round draft pick generated 4 sacks and 11 QB hits in his first nine games, but too often was a non-factor down the stretch, especially when Eberflus went with linemen more adept at holding up against the run. He didn’t step on the field in the week 15 win over the Cowboys and was on the field for 1 of 65 defensive snaps in the week 16 win over the Giants.

Offseason concern

High. Even if the Colts believe Turay is capable of being a legitimate pass rusher, that area remains one of the most pressing moving ahead. There’s no one on defense demanding special attention from offensive coordinators, and Eberflus will have to continue to be creative in pass-rush situations with blitzes to exert the necessary pressure.

We’re expecting Ballard to look for top-end help for his D-line on the free-agent market and the April draft.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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