INDIANAPOLIS — DeForest Buckner placed his hand on the ground and stared across the line of scrimmage as the New Orleans Saints offense got set. The Colts had just kicked a field goal to take an early 10-7 lead in the second quarter, and their star defensive tackle wasn’t interested in trading any more points with their opponent. So, when the ball was snapped, Buckner did what his two-time All-Pro resume suggests he would: He made a play.
Buckner used a swim move to beat Saints center Erick McCoy up the middle, and when quarterback Derek Carr stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pressure, Buckner pounced on him and jarred the ball free. Indianapolis defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo recovered the fumble, and in a matter of seconds, the Colts’ offense was back in business at the Saints’ 30-yard line.
Buckner’s strip-sack had changed the tenor of the game, and perhaps the most fascinating part is that he did it almost on pure instinct.
“On that particular play, we kind of subbed in a little late, and I didn’t get the (play) call,” Buckner said, laughing. “I was looking around like, ‘Where’s the call?’ … So, I kind of just winged it. I knew the center was gonna overset me, and (Zaire Franklin) stepped up, so I knew he was gonna occupy the guard for a second, so I just gapped it and made a move and it worked out.”
Real scary hours. 😱
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Odeyingbo shook his head in disbelief when reevaluating the play, noting that Buckner’s ability to wreak havoc is second to none even when he’s not fully aware of his assignment.
“That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you’re living right,” Odeyingbo said, laughing.
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However, that early turnover wasn’t a sign of things to come. Carr was barely pressured throughout the rest of the game, being hit just one more time, as the Saints rebounded and pulled away for a 38-27 victory. Veteran cornerback Tony Brown Jr., who only started against New Orleans due to injuries, took a lot of heat for his poor performance in the Colts’ secondary, but the pass rush wasn’t much better.
In fact, the pass rush has been another glaring weakness for a Colts defense that is giving up a league-high 28.6 points per game. While Indianapolis ranks 12th in the NFL with 21 sacks and 18th with a 7 percent sack rate, it plummets all the way down to 29th in pressure rate at just 29 percent, per TruMedia. The league average is a tick above 35%.
The Colts defensive linemen know they won’t be getting much help from their defensive coordinator in terms of bringing extra help to pressure the quarterback. Gus Bradley ranks 29th in the NFL with a 19.9 percent blitz rate, so it primarily falls to the team’s front four to generate pressure.
And when they fail, the whole defense suffers, particularly the young and unproven players in the secondary.
Buckner said his unit has been working diligently to become more impactful, but finding a concrete way to do so won’t be easy.
“If you really look at it, the past couple of games, teams (have) really been play action maxing us, and we got a whole bunch of doubles up front,” Buckner said. “We got one or two guys that got one-on-ones in those situations, and in those situations, we’re counting on those guys with those one-on-one matchups to get to the quarterback, especially to take some stress off the backend.”
Buckner has held his own, especially in the absence of starting nose tackle Grover Stewart (PEDs suspension), with 18 QB pressures, which is one shy of the team-high. He’s also notched four sacks, forced two fumbles and even scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. However, depending on a defensive tackle to spearhead an NFL team’s pass rush is unrealistic. Buckner’s presence should actually make things easier on his fellow defensive linemen. But the Colts’ defensive ends — those general manager Chris Ballard chose — have not lived up to their billing.
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Samson Ebukam, whom the Colts signed in free agency, is tied with Buckner with a team-high four sacks and has one forced fumble. He leads the team with 19 QB pressures, which ranks 66th in the NFL.
Kwity Paye, the 21st pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, started hot with one sack in each of his first three games and one QB hit in each of his first four games, but he’s gone cold with zero sacks or QB hits since. His 13 QB pressures rank 99th in the NFL.
Odeyingbo, a 2021 second-round pick, is tied with Paye with 13 QB pressures this season. He’s recorded two sacks and six QB hits. The former Vanderbilt standout began his NFL career while recovering from a torn Achilles and missed the first seven games of his rookie season, but he hasn’t missed a game since.
“For me, it’s about finding my consistency in my game,” said Odeyingbo, who believes his body has fully rebounded from his devastating injury. “I feel like I’m on the way there, and I feel like I’ve had a lot of splash plays, but there’s been ups and downs.”
Odeyingbo and Paye are still serviceable edge rushers with room to grow, but their development — or lack thereof — speaks to a larger question Ballard must answer: What young defensive players has he found in recent years that Indianapolis can unquestionably call building blocks for the future? Excluding rookies and second-year players like cornerback JuJu Brents and safety Rodney Thomas II, who’ve shown promise but haven’t solidified themselves yet, or safety Nick Cross, who hasn’t played much, the answer might be zero.
Buckner, who was acquired via a trade with the 49ers in March 2020, is 29. Franklin, who’s the only player in the NFL to record at least 100 tackles so far this season, should be a part of Indy’s long-term plans, but at 27, he isn’t exactly a youngster. The same goes for 28-year-old starting cornerback Kenny Moore II, who actually wasn’t a Ballard draft pick and went unselected in 2017.
When looking at Ballard’s track record across a three-year span from 2019 to 2021, he hasn’t drafted many notable defensive players, and certainly not on the edge. Ballard anticipated Paye and Odeyingbo would deliver breakout campaigns in 2023, but the jury is still out on both at the halfway point of the season. Meanwhile, their 2021 draft mate, fifth-round pick and defensive back Shawn Davis, was cut before his rookie season started.
Third-round pick Julian Blackmon headlined the Colts’ 2020 defensive class and has developed into a solid safety. But Blackmon’s draft mates, who were all sixth-round picks — defensive tackle Robert Windsor, cornerback Isaiah Rodgers and linebacker Jordan Glasgow — are no longer with the team. Windsor now plays in the XFL. Rodgers was suspended and cut for violating the NFL’s gambling policy, which obviously isn’t Ballard’s fault, and has since signed with the Eagles. Glasgow has not appeared in an NFL game since 2021.
In 2019, Ballard selected cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and edge rusher Ben Banogu in the second round. Ya-Sin was traded to the Raiders in exchange for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue ahead of the 2022 season, and Ngakoue spent just one solid season (9.5 sacks) in Indy before joining the Bears in free agency.
Banogu, who had just 2.5 sacks in his four years with the Colts, was not re-signed last summer and briefly joined the Cowboys before being released in August. He is not on an NFL roster. Linebacker Bobby Okereke was a third-round pick in 2019 and developed into a high-level player, though he was not re-signed last summer due to a crowded and expensive linebacker room.
Safeties Khari Willis and Marvell Tell III, along with linebacker E.J. Speed rounded out the Colts’ defensive draft picks in 2019, but Speed is the only one who remains. Speed has developed into a good player, while Willis retired ahead of the 2022 season, which, in fairness, is another scenario Ballard couldn’t predict. Tell hasn’t appeared in an NFL since 2019 and was waived in 2022.
Of course, no GM is going to hit on every pick, and Ballard deservescredit for nailing selections like linebackers Franklin and Shaq Leonard in 2018. Franklin is on pace to shatter the franchise single-season tackle record he set one year ago, and Leonard was on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory with three first-team All-Pro selections before his back issues arose, which raises questions about his future with the franchise. However, Ballard can’t live in the past, and Indianapolis’ struggles right now are due, in large part, to his inability to find game-changers — particularly on the edge — in the draft, which he’s consistently prioritized over free agency.
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“Somebody gotta go make a play,” Buckner said, asked how the Colts’ defense can bounce back. “That’s what it comes down to. We gotta finish. These past couple games, it’s really been on us.”
And these past couple years, it’s been on Ballard to get him some help.
(Top photo of Derek Carr and DeForest Buckner: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)
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