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Scouting Report: Colts Defense Has NFL’s Leading Tacker, Solid D-Line

As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.

Continuing things with the Indianapolis Colts.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT

COLTS RUN DEFENSE

On paper, a very stout run defense allowing just 3.8 YPC, the 2nd best mark in the league (all stats here were entering Week 12, to be clear, and may have changed slightly since). They’ve allowed only nine rushing scores, just outside the top 10, while their 28 runs of 10+ yards are tied for the seventh least in the game. It’s another 4-3 defense, the third the Steelers have faced in three weeks, though they’ve been able to run against these even fronts than they have in years past. It’s a big and deep defensive line, though there are some injuries with Kwity Paye out and DeForest Buckner playing but limited by injury early in the week.

The Colts also have the NFL’s leading tackler, again, entering the week, in #44 Zaire Franklin. Coming into the week, he had an incredible 110 tackles. That’s in part due to him almost never coming off the field, playing 100% of the snaps in all but one game this season and 96% in the other. Right behind him is Bobby Okereke with 95 tackles while slot corner Kenny Moore is on the Mike Hilton-level and has 55 tackles this year. Up front, Grover Stewart is one of the most underrated interior linemen in football and has eight tackles for loss, accounting for more than 15% of his total tackles this season.

Their front can be multiple. They can slant and shoot or play more old-school, two-gapping, like you’ll see here.

Even in heavy personnel, the Colts actively find ways to keep Moore – their slot corner – on the field. Watch this 22-personnel grouping with an extra OL on 4th and 1. Moore, #23, is still out there, and teams are smart to run away from him. He can attack and fill as well as any DB in football. You won’t see any other slot corner in football against this personnel grouping.

Some other defensive stats. They’re the 11th-ranked defense in points per game, allowing 20 per. They’ve allowed 27 or fewer points in every game this season, so they do a nice job keeping the score down to help their struggling offense. They are a very good third-down defense, sixth in the NFL at 34.3%, while their red zone defense has been below average, 20th league-wide at 58.6%. They have just 11 takeaways this season, tied for 21st in the league, while their team turnover differential sits at a rancid -8, 31st this season.

Colts’ Pass Defense

They keep the ball short, allowing just 7.0 YPA, tied for 12th-best in football. But those shorter throws lead to a higher completion rate, 68.1% against, which ranks 27th. With a secondary that’s allowed just 30 completions of 20+ yards, that’s also tied for 12th-best, they keep a lid on things and force the ball underneath. Perhaps that sets up well for Steelers’ WR Diontae Johnson.

They’ve also allowed just 13 passing touchdowns this season, tied for 10th in the league. But they’ve lacked last, only four interceptions, while being middling in sacks with 28 as a unit (14th in the NFL. They have a deep defensive line led by Yannick Ngakoue, a talented pass rusher (who is somehow still only 27 years old) who leads the team with 6.5 sacks. Five members of their defensive line have at least 2.5 sacks on the season while a whopping 11 players have at least one sack this year. So they’re getting contributions from a lot of people without a standout guy. By comparison, the Steelers only have seven players with at least one sack.

While the Colts don’t have a ton of sacks, they have forced eight fumbles, one by eight different players. So they’re a pretty aggressive and attacking unit overall.

As a defense, they’re not a blitz-heavy team and never really have been, 15.2%, which ranks 30th in the league. Their pressure rate is far better, a tick above league average, 14th overall at 22.7%.

Four different players have one interception this year but no one on this team has more than one. Stephon Gilmore is their top corner.

Schematically, they mix things up well and present split-field looks. They also do a nice job to ROBOT crossers and ask a lot out of their linebackers in coverage. Carrying crossers, carrying and matching down the seam. It’s a match-heavy system overall. Watch the linebackers here.

Based on what I saw, I would run some deep post routes. Especially against the Raiders, the Colts were allowing those a lot. Mills and Dagger concepts to hold underneath players and hit the post over the top. Not something the Steelers have done this year but a gameplan-specific focus I’d attack. Teams have also run successful RB/TE screens against them though Pittsburgh has never been strong there. The Colts don’t banjo routes between the 20s but banjo (i.e. pass off) routes in the low red zone.

They also present overload looks on third and longs, which signals stunts and games that are about to be run.

Jonathan’s Defensive Report

The Pittsburgh Steelers now sit at 3-7 on the season, clearly on the outside looking in when it comes to their playoff chances. They face a Colts squad that has had its fair share of struggles in 2022, firing their head coach and offensive coordinator after their offense struggled mightily to start the season. While the Colts currently sit at 4-6-1, they still boast a defense that has several impact players at every level that could make life hard for QB Kenny Pickett and the rest of the Steelers’ offense on Monday Night.

Defensive Line

The defensive line for the Colts is led by Pro Bowl DL #99 DeForest Buckner. The 6’7″, 295lb defender is a giant in the middle for the Indy defense, having the strength and power to overwhelm blockers at the point of attack while also possessing the quickness and length to beat blocks as a pass rusher and get into the backfield. Buckner can move up and down the LOS and is a clear mismatch for guards and centers inside, accumulating 50.5 sacks in his career and 5.5 so far this season. He uses his hands well for an interior DL to shed blocks and put pressure on the passer.

 

Beside Buckner on the interior is DL #90 Grover Stewart. Stewart isn’t near the pass rusher that Buckner is, but the 6’4″, 315lb Stewart is one of the best run defenders in the league. He is an immovable object in the middle of the defense, having the brute strength and base to sit down in gaps and command double teams, allowing LBs to run to the ball. He effectively pushes the pocket, trapping opposing RBs in the backfield as well as a pass rusher, already tying his career high of three sacks this season.

 

Behind Stewart and Buckner are backup DL #96 Byron Cowart and #93 Eric Johnson who play sparingly as rotational pieces on the interior.

At edge rusher, the Colts traded CB Rock Ya-Sin to the Las Vegas Raiders to acquire #91 Yannick Ngakoue this offseason. Ngakoue has been a productive pass rusher ever since he was drafted in the third round by Jacksonville back in 2016. He has 62 sacks under his belt in his career and has 6.5 QB takedowns this season. Ngakoue is a thoroughbred as an edge rusher, lining up in a sprinter’s stance and coming off the ball hard to win with speed around the corner to bring down opposing QBs. He isn’t the best run defender, being inconsistent at holding to point of attack and keeping outside contain.

 

Opposite of Ngakoue is former first-round pick EDGE #51 Kwity Paye. Paye missed last week with an ankle injury, putting his status for Monday night’s game in doubt. Still, the 6’2″, 261lb defender is strong against the run, having good play strength and plays with great effort in pursuit of the ball. He is more disruptive than productive as a pass rusher, posting just four sacks as a rookie, but has four sacks this season and will look to add to that number if he is cleared for Monday.

Along with Paye on the edge is #59 Ifeadi Odenigbo who is an undersized, yet productive pass rusher as a rotational/reserve player along with second-year EDGE #54 Dayo Odeyingbo who is a freak athlete that is still developing in terms of technique and nuances of the game. #52 Ben Banogu also provides depth and serves as a core special teamer for the Colts.

Linebackers

All-Pro LB Shaquille Leonard is going to miss this game after being put on IR, but the Colts can still lean on his running mate #58 Bobby Okereke. The former third-round pick out of Stanford has become a quality player for the Indianapolis defense, being that modern-day run-and-hit LB most teams are searching for. Okereke excels when allowed to run freely to the ball carrier and is above the bar when it comes to pass coverage. He does well covering in zone and can run with most backs and tight ends when tasked with covering man-to-man.

 

LB #44 Zaire Franklin has seen his impact greatly increase on the defensive side of the football at the expense of Leonard missing most of the season. He started 11 games last season but has started every game thus far in 2022 and has racked up 110 total stops (68 solo), eight TFLs, a sack, three PBUs, and a forced fumble. Franklin made his bones as a special teams ace but has become a steady, reliable defender that should rack up tackles. The Colts also have #45 E.J. Speed who plays a high number of snaps on defense and is better in run-and-chase situations as well as coverage but can struggle going downhill and fighting off blocks due to lack of size (6’3, 224lb).

Behind the main starters for the Colts are former Mr. Irrelevant #41 Grant Stuard and #57 JoJo Domann who serve as impact special teams contributors.

Cornerbacks

Starting in the secondary for Indianapolis is CB #5 Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore signed with the Colts this offseason in-attempt to beef up the CB room and has played well. While he isn’t at the same level as he was back with the Patriots as a Pro Bowl/All-Pro cover man, Gilmore has provided the Colts with a capable CB1. He has six PBUs and an INT so far in 2022, doing his best against bigger, more physical receivers on the outside, but can get fooled by shiftier receivers who win with pure speed or nuanced route running.

 

The Colts also have #23 Kenny Moore II holding down the fort at the nickel spot. Moore is one of the best slot defenders in the league, being a physical defender against the run while also an opportunistic coverage defender. He has recorded 14 INTs in his first five seasons with a Pro Bowl nod coming last season but doesn’t have any picks thus far in 2022. While a good athlete that can adjust in space, Moore can struggle when facing pure speed, lacking that acceleration to keep up with sprinters that effectively stack him.

 

The Colts also boast #34 Isaiah Rodgers who is also a fit inside but can move outside depending on where Moore lines up. Rodgers has logged five starts and has 23 tackles, two PBUs, one forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries as a player that seems to be always around the football. #32 Brandon Facyson also logs a fair number of snaps for the Colts in the secondary. Facyson brings more height and length to the table (6’2″, 197lb), and has four PBUs thus far as a corner that does his best work against bigger receivers on the outside. #33 Dallis Flowers also has seen some action on special teams.

Safeties

Indianapolis landed S #26 Rodney McLeod this offseason along with Gilmore to add more experience and leadership to a young secondary. McLeod had been a fixture in the Eagles’ secondary for six seasons before trading the green for blue and has provided a veteran presence in the secondary, posting 57 total stops, five TFLs, four PBUs, and an INT thus far this season. He has played a lot in split zone/single-high but is effective when allowed to roll up toward the LOS and blitz or sit in zone coverage and jump routes while sitting in zone.

 

Beside McLeod at safety is #32 Julian Blackmon. Blackmon had a great rookie season in 2020, but unfortunately suffered a torn Achilles. He has made a comeback from the injury in 2022, starting five-of-eight games played in, and has recorded 19 stops, one TFL, one sack, and one PBU. Blackmon is a physical hitter, flying to the football and willing to throw his body around to make stops as a run defender. He does some of his best work deep on the backend as a centerfield safety, having the range, instincts, and ball skills to cover ground and impact deep pass attempts as he makes plays on the football in the air.

Rookie S #20 Nick Cross has played a fair number of snaps as Blackmon has gotten worked in more to the defense to start the season. Cross was a third-round pick out of Maryland this spring and is a great athlete, being a good run defender thanks to his play speed and pursuit of the football. He has flashed in coverage but still is pretty raw in terms of adjusting in man coverage as well as breaking on the ball effectively when tasked with zone coverage.  #25 Rodney Thomas has also seen a fair amount of work for the Colts, starting six games as a third safety and has 28 tackles, two PBUs, and a pick in his first NFL season.

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