Colts training camp preview: Defensive backs

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Indianapolis Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes (27) and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) walk off the field after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

INDIANAPOLIS – Kenny Moore II has been a constant for the back end of Matt Eberflus’ defense.

He’s been there since being discarded by the New England Patriots in September 2017 and claimed by the Indianapolis Colts, apparently with reluctance. At 5-9 and 190 pounds, Moore didn’t possess the ideal measurables to play cornerback at an acceptable level.

He not only relocated to Indy, but is thriving. Moore is on the short list of Eberflus’ most indispensible players.

That’s why it’s worth listening when Moore speaks. His is a voice of experience. He and safety George Odum are the only defensive backs to be part of Eberflus’ secondary from the start.

And Moore wants more. He wants better.

“We’re going into four years with Flus and his staff, but honestly it is just raising the bar another standard,’’ Moore said during the offseason. “I think there are some heights that we have to reach, some games that we have to go play.

“We definitely have to test this system in bigger games. I think in the back half in general we have some cleaning up to do. That’s what I was talking about. We have to play together more.’’

The progress of the pass defense is undeniable, but again, that phase isn’t where it needs to be. It ranked 27th in 2016 and 28th in ’17, Eberflus’ first season as coordinator. It was 16th in ’18, but slipped to 23rd in ’19 and 20th last season.

The Colts have hit a wall with interceptions: 15 in each of the past three seasons. They’ve also resided in the middle of the pack in allowing explosive plays (20 yards or longer): 10th last season (53) and 19th in ’19 (50).

As much attention as DBs draw in coverage, it’s worth pointing out their performance is directly impacted by a competent pass rush, or an inconsistent one. The Colts were tied for 12th with 40 sacks last season. The last time they cracked the top-10 was in 2014 when they were tied for 9th.

If the defense needs addition motivation, all it needs to do is scan the list of likely quarterbacks it’ll face this season: Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill (twice), Derek Carr and Trevor Lawrence (twice).

As was mentioned, Moore has been a constant for Eberflus. He’s started 40 games the last three seasons either on the outside or in the slot in the nickel package, and been one of the Colts’ more productive defenders. His busy stat line since ‘17 includes 208 solo tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, a team-high 10 interceptions and 32 passes defensed.

Moore’s leaping, one-handed interception in the end zone in front of Raiders tight end Darren Waller was one of the Colts’ more memorable individual highlights from ’20, and he added a 29-yard touchdown following an interception in the week 8 win over the Detroit Lions. During the 2018 playoffs, he set a franchise record with 3 sacks in two games.

Here’s a look at the position as the Colts prepare for training camp. Players report Tuesday to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield:

  • Starters: CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Kenny Moore II (nickel), CB Rock Ya-Sin, S Khari Willis, S Julian Blackmon.
  • Backups: CB T.J. Carrie, CB Isaiah Rodgers, CB Anthony Chelsey, CB Will Sunderland, CB Andre Chachere, S George Odum, S Shawn Davis, S Sean Davis, S Rolan Milligan, S Ibraheim Campbell, S Nick Nelson.

Re-upping

General manager Chris Ballard clearly liked what he saw from a pair of first-time Colt cornerbacks. After signing free-agent deals and handling integral roles in 2020, Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie were brought back for year 2.

“I’m happy with the end result,’’ Rhodes said after accepting a one-year, $4.77 million contract. “I’m a Colt. I played well with the Colts. I got along with the players and the coaches at the same time, so it was a great bond with us.’’

Rhodes fashioned a nice bounce-back season after two inconsistent seasons led to his departure from the Minnesota Vikings. He started all 17 games, including the playoffs, and had two interceptions – he returned one for a touchdown against the New York Jets in week 3 – and 12 passes defensed, tied with Moore for the team lead.

“Xavier had a heckuva year,’’ Ballard said. “Really bought into what we were doing.’’

Carrie, meanwhile, returns with a one-year, $2 million deal. His first season in Indy was impactful: a career-high two interceptions – he, too, returned one for a TD against the Jets – and eight passes defensed. Carrie was viewed as Moore’s backup at nickel, but saw extensive work outside as the season unfolded and the coaching staff’s confidence in Rock Ya-Sin wavered.

About Ya-Sin

We’re not going to spend much time discussing Rock Ya-Sin. We’ve already spent a ton of time mentioning his inconsistencies the past two seasons and the pile of penalties (14, tops among defensive players).

All we’re going to reiterate is this is a big year for the 2019 second-round draft pick. The Colts already missed on one early pick at the position – ’18 second-rounder Quincy Wilson – and missing on Ya-Sin further complicates things moving forward.

“Rock had his good moments and he had his rough moments, no different than a lot of second-year corners,’’ Ballard said. “It is hard to play corner in this league. The rules make it hard. They call PI on any freekin’ bump that happens.

“Rock knows that he’s got to make some improvements, but I think he’s got the right mental attitude to do it.’’

If Ya-Sin’s struggles continue, perhaps Marvell Tell III will get a stronger chance to contribute. The 2019 fifth-round pick opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns.

(BULLET) Solid at safety: There’s so much to like with the last line of Eberflus’ defense. Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon represent a pair of young safeties with leadership and play-making skills.

Willis was a 2019 fourth-round draft pick who’s started 23 games and generated two interceptions, 116 solo tackles and seven passes defensed. Eberflus loves Willis’ instincts.

“His ability to process and then to really move fast to the football,’’ he said. “After watching last year’s tape, he’s one of our best guys in terms of being able to be in a low zone and being able to break on a ball when it’s in the flat or in the curl zone. He’s special that way.’’

Blackmon needed little time to make an impression even though the early portion of his rookie season included completing his rehab from a torn ACL sustained at Utah. He started 15 of 16 games, including the playoffs, and finished with 47 tackles, two interceptions and six PDs. As for his game-changing skills, Blackmon’s first career interception clinched the week 6 win over Cincinnati while his forced fumble in overtime against Green Bay in week 11 led to a victory over the Packers.

Eberflus noticed Blackmon’s potential from the outset on on-field work. At one point, Blackmon was put in drills along with cornerbacks.

“We’re doing the break drills, the movement drills that DBs do, and we’re looking at each other and like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is as good as a corner,’’’ Eberflus said. “We knew right then he had that special quickness . . . he had the ball skills and he was a ballhawk type of guy.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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