Colts training camp preview: Defensive line

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05: Lamar Miller #26 of the Houston Texans is stopped for a loss by Jabaal Sheard #93 of the Indianapolis Colts in the second quarter during the Wild Card Round at NRG Stadium on January 5, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park July 24 for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

Defensive line

Starters: DE Justin Houston, NT Denico Autry, DT Margus Hunt, DE Jabaal Sheard

In the mix: Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Grover Stewart, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Ben Banogu, Jihad Ward, Gerri Green, Sterling Shippy, Reid Caraun, Obum Gwacham, Dadi Nicolas, Carroll Phillips.

He’s ‘the man:’ It was during offseason work and Frank Reich was asked about his early impressions of one of the new Colts. That would be defensive end Justin Houston, signed off the free-agent market with a two-year, $23 million contract.

Reich smiled.

“He just has a presence,’’ he said. “You can feel his leadership. Justin is a really savvy, smart player.’’

Houston is the player – the presence – that’s been missing on defense. Not since Robert Mathis’ record-setting 19.5 sack season of 2013 have the Colts possessed a singular defensive threat who absolutely forces offensive coordinators to focus on.

“You don’t just fall into 78.5 sacks or 79, wherever he is,’’ coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “He knows how to rush the passer, so it is important that we teach him the base fundamentals of the game and enhance his abilities with what he naturally does.’’

Houston didn’t exactly fit Chris Ballard’s template for roster building. He’s 30 and entering his ninth season. But he was the absolute perfect remedy to what’s been missing. Houston generated 11 sacks in 14 games last season, including the postseason, and his 78.5 career sacks rank 9th among active players.

He isn’t expected to be a one-man wrecking crew, but let’s not diminish his anticipated impact.

Listen to Margus Hunt, whose career has taken off the last two seasons in Indy with 19 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.

A player of Houston’s ilk, he insisted, “can open up a lot more options for us up front, for players to get after the quarterback more and versatile the defensive line more.

“He’s been impressive to watch out there – his pass rushing, his ability to set the edge and just his presence within the defensive line. He’s been a very positive feature.’’

The more attention Houston draws, the more one-on-one blocking the rest of the d-line gets. Then it’s up to Denico Autry, Jabaal Sheard, Kemoko Turay and the rest to win a good portion of their one-on-ones.

Houston embraces the idea of being the catalyst of the Colts’ pass rush. It was inconsistent last season, ranking tied for 19th with 38 sacks. It managed one sack or fewer in six games.

“I don’t mind at all,’’ Houston said. “They can help me as much as I can help them. I love the way they play – their attitude and their effort they play with on the field.

“I just want to be another pass rusher within the scheme that can help cause some more headaches.’’

Houston’s first season in Indy will require an adjustment. He was a stand-up end in Kansas City’s 3-4 scheme. Now, he must get comfortable playing more often with his hand on the ground.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big difference because nowadays it’s a passing league,’’ he said. “So 70-80 percent of the time you’ve got your sub (package) out there and I’m rushing the passer anyway. I think that’s just going to be a part of the game and I get to do that every down and not have to worry about dropping into coverage.

“So I think my job will be easier than it has been in the past.’’

Movable parts: Good luck keeping track who’s playing where in Eberflus’ scheme. And that’s the point. Yes, Houston is the RUSH end and Sheard his edge-setting complement. And Turay’s primary asset is as an edge rusher.

But so many of the players at Eberflus’ disposal are interchangeable. Autry and Hunt were effective last season whether they lined up inside or outside. The team believes 2018 second-round pick Tyquan Lewis is best suited as a 3-techique tackle, but he’s capable of playing outside as well.

And then there’s rookie Ben Banogu. The second-round pick began offseason work at SAM linebacker, but the coaching staff decided to move him to end and let him develop at one spot.

Determining whose talents fit better where and who possessed invaluable versatility were key objectives during the offseason.

“We (had) daily conversations with the assistant coaches,’’ Eberflus said. “‘Where are the guys that we brought in – either through the draft or free agency – where are they at? What are they doing well? What do they need to work on? Where do we see them ascending to potentially? We have to let them do the work on the field, but where can we see Player A ascend to? Where could he potentially go to at the end of training camp?’

“That’s so important because you know during the course of the season things happen. You are always cross-training guys and it’s important to have a guy like Player A that can play this position, but he can also play that position. So when something does happen injury-wise, that you don’t miss a beat.’’

Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard demanded much of the attention last season, but let’s not dismiss the extensive contributions of Autry and Hunt. Autry was one of Ballard’s free-agent pickups – a three-year, $17.8 million contract – who primarily had been a rotational player in five seasons in Oakland. He flourished in Eberflus’ system with 13 tackles for loss and a team-high and career-best 9 sacks. Hunt, a free-agent acquisition in ’17, started 15 games and contributed 13 tackles for loss and 5 sacks, both career bests.

Size matters: As far as the Colts are concerned, bigger isn’t necessarily better. They might feature the lightest d-line in the league as they place more value on speed and athleticism. Only two defensive players check in at more than 300 pounds: tackles Grover Stewart (333) and Caraun Reid (305).

“We like the skillset at our defensive tackle position,’’ Eberflus insisted.

The Colts were one of the NFL’s best against the run last season. They ranked No. 8 in fewest yards per game (101.6) and No. 6 in yards per attempt (3.9). They joined Houston and New Orleans as the only teams not to allow a 100-yard rusher during the regular season.

Worth noting: If everything works out as planned, Houston will join an exclusive neighborhood. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, only nine Colts have posted at least 10 in a season. Dwight Freeney did it seven times while Mathis, whose 123 sacks are a franchise record, hit double digits five times. No other player has done it more than once. The short list: Erik Walden (2016), Chad Bratzke (1999), Jon Hand (1989), Dan Footman (1997), Johnie Cooks (1984), Tony Bennett (1995) and Vernon Maxwell (1983).

Let the QB chasing begin.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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