INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – If nothing else, they’re not avoiding the subject or disguising a certain level of anxiety.
The subject: the status of the Indianapolis Colts’ pass rush with the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals looming.
The background: the Colts finished last season with 25 sacks, the second-fewest in the NFL and tied for third-fewest in team history.
The backstory: general manager Chris Ballard invested a third-round pick in Tarell Basham in the 2017 draft and snatched Kemoko Turay in the second round of April’s draft. Oh, and he released end John Simon earlier this week, a move that eliminated from a revamped defense a high-effort, productive player with less upside than Basham and Turay.
So, any concerns with a pass rush that must exert pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who was sacked 39 times last season while directing – brace yourself – the NFL’s 32nd-ranked offense?
“You’re always going to be concerned about rushing the passer,” Ballard said Sunday. “I’m talking about real rush and that’s going to be something we are going to have to continue to dig and try to find here as we go along.”
First-time defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus did little to dial down the anxiety level.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” he said Thursday. “It’s just where we are. It’s where we are as an organization. It’s where we are as a group.
“We’re gonna just keep evaluating and getting the best four in there that we can for third down and two-minute situations and get the best guys to rush the passer.
“It’s something that we’re constantly working on.”
Here’s where we remind everyone the opener is Sunday.
That Eberflus still is searching for either a legitimate pass-rush threat or a creative method of compensating for the lack of one represents a major concern heading into the season. His 4-3 defense is most effective when the front four generates the pass rush and the back seven is able to fan out in zone coverage. Think of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Tony Dungy’s defense back in the 2000s.
If the front four fails at producing steady pressure, Eberflus will have to dial up blitzes and frequently abandon zone coverage for man coverage behind it. In any scheme, a tepid pass rush quickly erodes the integrity of the defense.
“Each week you have a plan,” coach Frank Reich said. “There is a saying that says, ‘A man of wisdom avoids all extremes.’ What you find is you have a general philosophy and then within that general philosophy you move up and down the continuum as needed.
“You adjust in the game so you’re prepared to do that. You go in with an idea of what you want to do defensively and how much you want four-man rush and then the needle moves depending on the flow of the game and what you’re trying to accomplish . . . I think there are a lot of factors that go into that.”
A main factor is the level of pressure the primary rushers – Basham and Turay – are able to exert. Veteran Jabaal Sheard, the starter at left end, also figures into the mix after leading the team a year ago with 5.5 sacks.
Basham had a modest rookie season. He came off the bench in 15 games and finished with 2 sacks and 4 quarterback hits. He flashed his pass-rush skills at Ohio University with a school-record 29.5 sacks.
“I definitely feel the obligation,” Basham said. “We’re talking about ourselves this year as the ‘rush men.’ It’s just a group of guys that are going to get after it every day and go as hard as they possibly can for four or five plays and then they’ll get somebody else in there for you for four or five plays.
“We’re going to keep it going like that all year. We’re going to wear other teams out, wear offensive lines down. I do feel like it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that we’re ready to accept.”
Turay’s rookie preseason was interrupted by a knee injury, but the Colts remain high on what he might bring – what he needs to bring – to the defense.
“He’s growing as we speak,” Eberflus said. “He’s like a sponge. He’s doing a good job of absorbing all of that stuff in terms of pass rush, technique and fundamentals.
“He’s getting better every single practice and we’re excited about where he is.”
In four seasons at Rutgers, the 6-5, 253-pound Turay posted 15.5 sacks, but only 4 as a senior. The Colts looked past the numbers and saw a raw talent that simply needed experience.
Turay, Basham and the other pass rushers are benefiting from working with assistant coach Robert Mathis, the team’s career sack leader.
“They drafted us for a reason,” Turay said. “They see potential in us. Mr. Ballard got Tarell last year because of his scheme. They have a lot of faith in what we can do now and in the future.
“For us, the future is now.”