Recapping the 2019 Colts: Defensive line

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 17: Justin Houston #99 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates a sack during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,” Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.”

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.”

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.”

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Defensive line.

  • Starters: DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Justin Houston, DT Grover Stewart, DT Denico Autry.
  • Backups: Margus Hunt, Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Trevon Coley.
  • Injured reserve: Kemoko Turay.

The good: He never saw himself as the singular cure to what had been ailing the Colts’ defense. He wanted to prove there was life after 30 and after Kansas City. He wanted to prove worthy of the two-year, $23 million free-agent contract Ballard extended.

Done.

In what was a wildly inconsistent season for the defense, Justin Houston was the constant. In his 9th season, offered immediate returns on Ballard’s investment. He led the Colts with 11 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss. He showed he was more than a pass-rush specialist with 44 tackles. None was more memorable than pulling down Damien Williams for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 with 5 minutes to play on his return to Arrowhead Stadium in week 5. It virtually clinched the 19-13 upset of the Chiefs, and he celebrated it by turning to the Kansas City bench and flexing.

Without question, Justin Houston represents the best veteran free-agent acquisition by Ballard, who prefers to build a roster by other methods. He generally was a quiet presence, but was the emotional leader during a game and in the minutes leading up to the game. He broke down the defense prior to games and got it amped up.

“It is hard for a new guy,” Reich said, “but he came in and commanded that respect from the start. Just his presence, there is something. Some guys have that ‘it’ factor. He’s got that, but then he’s earned it on the field as well.”

Houston reached double-digit sacks for the fourth time in his career, but for the first time since 2014. The last Colt with at least 10 was Erik Walden with 11 in 2016.

“Obviously we were looking for an impact player as a defensive end,” Reich said.

And they got their man.

Other positives were more scattered. Jabaal Sheard was, well, Jabaal Sheard. Despite missing the first three games following knee surgery during training camp, he compiled another busy stat line with 25 tackles, including 8 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks. Grover Stewart and Al-Quadin Muhammad each posted career-bests with 3 sacks and Stewart transitioned from rotational player to 13-game starter.

Kemoko Turay appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season as a pass-rusher before suffering a season-ending ankle injury at Kansas City and rookie Ben Banogu offered pass-rush glimpses with 2.5 sacks and 8 pressures.

Ballard was particularly pleased with Turay’s progress before the injury.

“Losing Kemoko Turay was a big hit,” he said. “I think you saw it. You saw it against the Chargers. You saw it against Kansas City. Neither one of those teams could block him.

“He was a fastball that we needed. I think he really took another step.”

The bad: Too many players fell short – well short – of expectations. Remember when Denico Autry and Margus Hunt combined for 14 sacks, 17 quarterback hits and 26 tackles for loss in 2018? Neither was able to mount anything resembling an acceptable encore. Autry finished with 3.5 sacks, 11 QB hits and 4 tackles for loss. Hunt was a season-long non-factor with 17 total tackles, and zero impact plays. He saw his playing time drop from 69 percent of the snaps in ’18 to 43 percent.

It’s entirely possible the Colts will part ways with Hunt. He’ll be 33 this summer and carries a 2020 base salary of $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, Tyquan Lewis failed to take the expected step forward following his nondescript rookie season. The 2018 second-round pick – 64th overall – was inactive for seven games as he dealt with a foot/ankle injury. When he finally got himself into game shape, he didn’t offer much. Lewis was on the field for roughly 40 percent of the snaps in the final five games and managed just five total tackles.

The pass rush finished in the middle of the NFL pack with 41, but too often it was Justin Houston or no one, especially after the loss of Turay. Only Darius Leonard (5) and Sheard (4.5) had more than 4.

The offseason: Coordinator Matt Eberflus has a linchpin with Houston and a possible pass-rush complement if Turay can make a full recovery from the dislocated ankle. And we’re expecting a bounce-back season from Autry.

After that? Questions abound.

Initially, does Ballard make an effort to re-sign Sheard? He turns 31 in May and is heading into a 10th season. Ballard prefers to build with younger talent, but Sheard would offer that veteran presence to mix and mentor the youth while also providing impact on the field. He was one of Ballard’s first free-agent acquisitions in 2017 – a three-year, $25.5 million contract – and at least matched expectations.

“He’s everything you want a player to be in terms of being a pro,” Ballard said. “ . . . wherever his future may be, whether it’s here or somewhere else . . . I hold Jabaal Sheard in high regard. Appreciate him, what he brought to the Colts.”

It was hard to determine if that was an appreciative “See ya” from Ballard, or him simply expressing his admiration for Sheard.

Ballard made it clear Year 3 is critical for Lewis. He was expected to be a D-line cornerstone at this point, but that hasn’t been the case.

“I need to see more,” Ballard said, adding he informed Lewis during their exit interview Dec. 30 the upcoming season was “a big year for him. We’re going to expect him to come in and really show what we think his talent level is.

“We see him as a guy who can play both at end and inside, and he’s got to be able to give that to us.”

Ballard’s blueprint for roster building includes being strong along the offensive and defensive lines. He was disappointed in the latter, especially the ineffectiveness of the interior to exert consistent pressure on the pocket.

That in mind, no one should be surprised if the Colts look for outside help, either through veteran free agency or the draft.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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