If Colts’ defense is to improve, it must start up front


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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – By all appearances, an area of strength for the Indianapolis Colts’ still-evolving defense rests up front.

The line seems loaded.

There’s proven talent with a possible starting unit of nose Johnathan Hankins, end Kendall Langford and tackle Henry Anderson.

Depth? There’s David Parry and Al Woods, a pair of nose tackles who share 51 starts; a tackle group that includes Hassan Ridgeway, T.Y. McGill, Josh Boyd and rookie Grover Stewart; and Margus Hunt, a free-agent pickup from Cincinnati who has appeared in 44 games, albeit primarily as a special-teams standout.

If the Colts are to make any significant strides on defense – remember, they were historically bad in 2016, allowing the second-most yards per game in franchise history (382.9) – it has to start up front.

“I feel great about it,’’ Langford said when asked about the potential of the defensive line. “As you mentioned, it’s on paper, so that really doesn’t mean anything. The game still has to be played.

“I do think we will be better this year on the defensive side of the ball than we were the previous year. I’m just excited about it.’’

Anderson also is enthused with the possibilities. That in large part – pun intended – emanates from the presence of Hankins, the 320-plus free-agent acquisition from the New York Giants.

Hankins is expected to be the inside enforcer that’s been missing since the Colts’ shifted to Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme in 2012. The previous starting nose tackles: Parry, Josh Chapman, Montori Hughes, Aubrayo Franklin, Antonio Johnson and Martin Tevaseu.

“As I suspected, Hankins is quite a good player,’’ Anderson said. “Obviously you can’t tell too much from OTAs because we don’t have pads on, but he’s definitely good.

“He’s a huge dude. And for as explosive as he is, I mean you don’t see that with many guys that big. So just kind of the pop that he comes out of his stance with is pretty impressive and I’m sure that’s going to translate once we put the pads on.’’

In four seasons with the Giants, Hankins started 41 of 52 games. He not only held up against the run with 140 tackles, but also exerted inside pressure in passing situations with 10 sacks. He had a career-best 7 in 2014.

Hankins was part of a Giants defense that a year ago was one of the NFL’s best: 10th in fewest yards allowed, 2nd in fewest rushing yards.

But while much is expected of Hankins, so much depends on Langford and Anderson regaining their health.

Langford was arguably the Colts’ best defensive lineman in 2015 after signing a free-agent contract, but endured a frustrating ’16. He underwent surgery in August to address a “chondral defect’’ in his right knee. Langford returned to the lineup for the season opener while still in rehab mode, but saw his streak of 135 consecutive appearances end Oct. 30. He was placed on the injured reserve list in mid-November.

Langford isn’t participating in on-field activities, but expects to be ready for training camp in late July.

“I’m moving in the right direction,’’ he said. “I’m on pace to whenever they cut me loose I’ll be ready.’’

Anderson, meanwhile, is eager to regain the form he flashed as a rookie in 2015. The third-round pick was in the midst of an all-rookie season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the ninth game against Denver.

Anderson returned last season, but still was working his way back from reconstructive surgery. That was compounded in mid-October when he injured his left knee.

Anderson insisted he feels “good,’’ adding he’s “a little rusty because we haven’t played in so long. It’s good to get out there and knock some of that rust off and get back to feeling like you’re in mid-season form again.

“But the body feels totally fine.’’

Last offseason, Anderson always felt he was chasing his teammates. While they were concentrating on sharpening the defense and dealing with adjustments, he was doing the same while still rehabbing his knee.

“I feel like I’m advancing with the rest of the team,’’ said Anderson, who insisted he’ll be ready for camp. “It’s not rehabbing and feeling like I’m behind everyone.

“This year is totally different.’’

And that’s the idea. The defense, especially up front, must be different and markedly better. The run defense ranked 25th in yards per game allowed (120.4) and 30th in yards per attempt (4.7).

Again, a strong case can be made that it hinges on Langford and Anderson returning to form.

“If they come back and everybody is healthy, we’re going to probably say goodbye to some guys that’ll end up getting picked up and probably be in the rotation or be starting somewhere,’’ Pagano said. “That could happen.

“I feel like we’re ahead of where we’ve ever been as far as guys being able to not only play well against the run but also give you some pass rush on passing downs.’’

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