DeForest Buckner excited to be ‘driver’ of Colts’ 4-3 defense

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MIAMI, FLORIDA – JANUARY 30: DeForest Buckner #99 of the San Francisco 49ers speaks to the media during the San Francisco 49ers media availability prior to Super Bowl LIV at the James L. Knight Center on January 30, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There’s a time-tested tenet when utilizing any variation of the Tampa-2 defense.

Explain, Chris Ballard.

“The 3-technique drives this. It does,’’ he said in January. “Every time I’ve been part of this, the 3-technique drives this thing.’’

The cost was exorbitant, but now Ballard’s got a driver who’s more than capable. Think of Will Power showing up behind the wheel of your next Uber ride.

Welcome to Indy, DeForest Buckner.

“I mean, obviously they’re looking for a 3-technique and I think I’m one of the best in the league,’’ he said Wednesday in a conference call. “I can stop the run, rush the passer.

“I feel like I can bring my leadership whether it’s on the field, just being able to lead by example or speaking up when I need to address certain things. It all starts in practice. I practice how I want to play in the game, whether it’ll piss somebody off I’m just trying to perfect my craft.

“Every day, I approach the game where if I’m not getting better, I’m getting worse.’’

Let’s make a note it’s Wednesday, and the Colts’ defense got better. Perhaps markedly so.

“DeForest is a premier defensive tackle in this league,’’ Ballard said in a statement released by the team. “Adding a player of his caliber demonstrates the importance and commitment of building a strong defensive front.’’

The depth of Ballard’s commitment is proven by the price it took to acquire the former San Francisco 49ers’ standout. A GM that covets every draft pick sent the 49ers his first rounder in the April 23 NFL Draft – 13th overall – and signed Buckner to an extension that ties him to the Colts through 2024.

Buckner automatically becomes the highest-paid Colt and one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive players. He was due to make $12.378 million in 2020 as part of the final year of his rookie deal – the 49ers selected him with the 7th overall pick in 2016 – and the four additional years are worth a possible $84 million. He’ll gather in nearly $40 million in the next two years.

Buckner, who turned 26 on Tuesday, didn’t talk with Ballard while the trade was being arranged. However, agent Joel Segal was quick to relay the sentiments of his new GM.

“Hearing how much (Ballard) believes in me,’’ Buckner said. “He thinks I’m a key piece to what we are building here in Indy.

“I’m just excited. As a player, that’s what you want to hear from your bosses, you know what I mean?’’

Again, the Colts view the 6-7, 295-pound Buckner as the disruptive force that’s been missing on the interior of coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defensive line. In 63 regular-season games – he’s missed only one game in four seasons – he’s generated 28.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits and 38 tackles for loss.

Ask any QB which type of pressure bothers him the most, and most will insist it’s pressure up the middle. That keeps him from stepping up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush.

“My length obviously helps me a lot with trucking down whether it’s a running back or a quarterback on the run, and obviously if I can’t get to the quarterback then trying to disrupt the passing lanes with my length,’’ Buckner said. “Just little things like that.’’

In San Francisco, Buckner was a piece in a dominant defensive puzzle that included Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman. The 49ers ranked 2nd overall, 1st against the pass, 3rd in sacks-per-pass-play and 8th in scoring.

San Francisco and Buckner reached Super Bowl LIV in February, but were chased down by Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City, 31-20. The 49ers’ rise to prominence was steady: 2-14 in 2016 (Buckner’s rookie year), 6-10, 4-12 and 13-3, which led to the Super Bowl.

Buckner admitted it was “tough’’ to discover he didn’t fit into San Francisco’s long-term plans.

“When you play your heart out for an organization and you’re obviously one of the key guys, obviously you build a lot of life-long relationships there,’’ he said. “To find the fact that you are a possibility to be traded, I mean obviously with any guy in this profession, it would kind of hurt a little bit.

“But at the same time, you can’t take it personal because it’s the business of the game. It’s the business we chose.’’

He’s now in business with the Colts, and his first impression is encouraging.

“You can see the team that Chris Ballard has put together over the years,’’ Buckner said. “It’s a really special team.

“Being an addition, it’s kind of a win-now mentality, you know what I mean? We landed Philip Rivers and everything.’’

Buckner immediately becomes a focal part of a defense that has lacked playmakers. His presence should further enhance the effectiveness of end Justin Houston, a free-agent acquisition a year ago with a two-year, $23 million contract, and free up All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard.

The 49ers thrived on a “trust’’ approach.

“Being able to trust one another on the field,’’ Buckner said, adding he can “definitely see it on this defense. We’ve got a lot of talent. We’ve got a lot of great veterans like Justin Houston . . . also the young talent at linebacker with Darius Leonard.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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