Recapping the 2019 Colts: Defensive backs

Colts

Kenny Moore II (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Defensive backs

  • Starters: CB Pierre Desir, CB Kenny Moore II, S Malik Hooker, S Khari Willis.
  • Backups: CB Rock Ya-Sin, CB Qunicy Wilson, CB Marvell Tell III, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, S Clayton Geathers, S George Odom.

The bad

Collectively, the back end of Matt Eberflus’ defense didn’t hold up. It allowed a 70.1 completion rate – the second straight year 70 percent was breached – but that’s a like-it-or-not byproduct of the scheme. The approach is to allow underneath throws, then swarm to the ball and limit yards after the catch. It’s to force opponents to mount long drives and keep gashing plays to a minimum.

The problem last season? Not only did QBs pick apart the secondary – during an ineffective three-game stretch in December, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston and Drew Brees went 79-for-97 (81.4 pct), led by Brees’ ridiculous 29-for-30 – they exploited it with “chunk plays,’’ defined as 20-plus yard gains. There were 50 chunk plays that generated 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was a marked increase over the previous year: 41 chunk plays, 1,238 yards, 7 TDs.

There was plenty of blame to go around as Eberflus mixed more man coverage with his zone principles.

“A lot of times it’d be a line-of-scrimmage technique, where they’d get beat off the line and not stay on the top, not be high for 5, and they got out-run,’’ Ballard said. “It came down to technique, focus, being in the right spots.

“Those things get you beat.’’

The Colts matched last year’s 15 interceptions, but the touchdown total bounced from 21 to 29. They came up with three interceptions against Winston, but that was dwarfed by the overall dominance of Winston, Brees and Tannehill during that three-game stretch: 79-of-97, 945 yards, 10 TDs, three interceptions, a combined 133.0 rating.

Trial by fire

It became clear the coaching staff was balancing winning in the moment with building for the future. Top draft pick Rock Ya-Sin – 34th overall and the first of three 2nd-rounders – started 13 games at corner and was on the field for a team-high 82 percent of the defensive snaps. Fourth-round safety Khari Willis appeared in 14 games, nine as a starter, and handled 59.9 percent of the snaps. They literally dealt with on-the-job training.

Willis was third on the team with 71 tackles. Ya-Sin was fourth with 61 tackles, and added one interception and five defended passes. But his aggressive nature in man coverage also resulted in eight penalties, most by a Colt and tied for third-most among NFL DBs. He was flagged four times for holding, three times for interference. It must be noted those numbers were bloated by a forgettable outing against Denver’s Courtland Sutton, when Ya-Sin was penalized four times – a fifth was declined – for 56 yards.

“He had some really good moments, and he had some ugly moments,’’ Ballard said. “Let me tell you what I love about this kid: he’s exactly what we thought he was going to be in terms of grit, toughness.

“Holy crap, you line up 16 games and you’re asked to play some great players. All he does is work. Good day, I’m going to keep working. Bad day, I’m going to keep working. That’s why he’s going to get better.’’

Fifth-round pick Marvell Tell III also should benefit from early exposure. He made the transition from safety at USC to NFL corner and appeared in 13 games with one start. At times, he worked in the slot when injuries ravaged the depth chart.

The wounded

Ballard rewarded Pierre Desir (three years, $25 million, $12 million guaranteed) with a new contract in March, and gave Kenny Moore II an extension in June that made him the highest-paid nickel corner in the NFL ($30 million over the next four years, with $18 guaranteed). Neither was able to offer the expected immediate return.

Desir, clearly Indy’s top corner, suffered a bruised right knee in the week 2 win at Tennessee, then appeared on the injury report with a hamstring issue heading into the week 4 meeting with Oakland. He played through the knee injury and dealt with the hamstring – the latter greatly cut into his practice time – until it forced him to miss four games. Desir started the final six games, but never seemed to approach the level that earned him his new contract. He led the DBs with three interceptions and 11 defended passes, but two of the interceptions and five defended passes came in the week 16 blowout of Carolina.

“He (had) some struggles,’’ Ballard admitted.

Moore, meanwhile, started 11 games and was his versatile, disruptive self with 2 interceptions, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and three defended passes. However, he dealt with a broken thumb during the preseason and an injury to his left ankle that kept him out of the last four games.

There were several factors to the defense experiencing a late-season fade, and Moore’s absence was chief among them.

“I don’t want to underestimate the loss of Kenny Moore,’’ Ballard said. “I think he’s a real special player. We had a major drop-off when we lost Kenny.’’

The offseason

It’s worth wondering whether we’ve seen the last of Clayton Geathers and Quincy Wilson. Geathers will be an unrestricted free agent in March and while he remains a Ballard favorite, his playing time and impact decreased last season. Wilson is under contract, but barely moved the needle in ’19. He appeared in just nine games and was on the field for just 65 total snaps and seven tackles over the final 13 games. He was inactive seven times, and the last two were partially a result of a shoulder issue.

Ballard had a serious discussion with Wilson as the 2017 second-round draft pick headed into the offseason.

“I said, ‘Look, this is it for you. This is a big year for you,’’’ he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how he comes back and his mindset. I think it’ll be good.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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