With Colts’ GM Chris Ballard, creating turnovers is paramount

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Colts GM Chris Ballard.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Leave it to Chris Ballard to offer perspective when discussing his decision to inject Malik Hooker into what has been a deficient Indianapolis Colts defense.

Shortly after the first-time general manager used the 15th overall pick in the April draft on the ball-hawking Ohio State safety, the hype machine started to whirl crazily. And it was Chuck Pagano at the controls.

Pagano shared a conversation he had with Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, a former coaching colleague at the University of Miami, while scouting Hooker.

“He was quoted as saying, ‘(Hooker) is the closest thing to Ed Reed,’’’ Pagano said. “That stood out to me.’’

It should. Reed was a Hurricane safety who went on to a decorated career with the Baltimore Ravens and likely will be a first-ballot selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

To his credit and Hooker’s benefit, Ballard stepped in.

“Well, let’s slow down a little bit,’’ he said, noting Reed was a Hall of Fame-caliber talent. “Let’s pump the brakes a little bit.’’

Hooker appreciated the comparison, but insisted “I wouldn’t even dare put myself in that category.’’

Let’s revisit that discussion in 8-10 years.

While we wait, let’s discuss the reason behind the Colts taking a play-making safety in the first round of the draft for the first time since their relocation in 1984.

Hooker, Ballard said, was “a guy that takes the ball away. That’s a unique trait to find.

“It’s all about the ball. The more times we can get our offense the ball, the more shots we have to score.’’

As a first-time starter with the Buckeyes last season, Hooker snatched seven interceptions and led the nation by returning three for touchdowns.

Perspective? The Colts tied for the second-fewest interceptions in the NFL and matched a club-record low with eight in 2016. Only five teams had fewer than their 17 total takeaways, and that group finished with a combined 21-59 record.

It’s risky to compare one-season snapshots, especially when they involve the NFL and college. But the lack of takeaways and difference-making plays by the defense has been a persistent problem since the arrival of Pagano, someone with a defensive background, in 2012.

Over the past five seasons, the Colts have generated:

  • 110 total takeaways, tied for 25th fewest in the league.
  • 64 interceptions, tied for 23rd fewest.
  • 183 sacks, tied for 18th fewest.

And here’s some truly damning evidence that something had to change. Two of the three least effective defenses at creating turnovers in club history in a full season have occurred on Pagano’s watch: a record-low 15 in 2012 and the 17 last season, which tied the total from the ’11 unit.

Ballard’s early emphasis has focused on reversing that unsatisfactory trend. The ties that bind most of his draft picks, veteran free agent acquisitions and undrafted rookies include athleticism and speed.

“Just think back to when Indy was really hummin’, when y’all were really hummin’ offensively and defensively,’’ Ballard said. “That team was built strictly on speed. When you get the lead, we’re going to be able to freakin’ run and rush the passer and go.’’

Ballard’s roots reach back to Chicago, where long-time Bears coach Lovie Smith preached, stressed, demanded takeaways.

“We would not take players if they couldn’t catch the football at any position on defense, other than the defensive line,’’ he said. “If a linebacker couldn’t finish on the play with a catch, if a corner didn’t have ball skills, if a safety didn’t have ball skills, we weren’t going to take them.

“Look, those are extra possessions. Those are game-changing plays.’’

Hooker was one of the nation’s premier game-changers last season. Third-round pick Tarell Basham set single-season (11.5) and career (29.5) sack records at Ohio and was named the Mid-American Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

“I expect to be able to pressure the quarterback,’’ Basham said. “I know that’s what they got me here to for, to be a good pass rusher.

“I plan to affect the game. That’s why they got me in here.’’

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