INDIANAPOLIS — First of all, it is important to acknowledge the men the Colts were missing.
DeForest Buckner has been everything Indianapolis thought he’d be, a game-wrecking, defense-altering presence who makes everybody around him better, especially Denico Autry, the man Buckner simultaneously displaced at defensive tackle and freed to put his playmaking skills to good use.
Neither player was available for Sunday’s critical rematch with Tennessee.
For the first time this season, the COVID-19 pandemic put the Colts in a bind, claiming their two most productive defensive linemen with control of the AFC South on the line. Without Buckner and Autry, the Indianapolis defense admittedly found itself at a disadvantage against Titans superback Derrick Henry.
But the way, Henry steamrolled the makeshift Colts defensive line in a 45-26 blowout showed that as far as this Indianapolis defense has come after the addition of Buckner, it’s not quite where the Colts want it to be.
Not quite up to the standard general manager Chris Ballard has set for the Indianapolis defensive line.
Chris Ballard on defensive line: ‘You know I’m driven by it’
Ballard has obsessed over the defensive line from the moment he arrived in Indianapolis.
“You know I’m driven by it,” Ballard said at the start of training camp this season. “You know we have to be great there.”
For that reason, Ballard has focused a lot of his resources there, spending money to sign free agents like Autry and Justin Houston, along with the since-departed Jabaal Sheard and Jonathan Hankins, among others, and taking repeated swings at the position on the second day of the draft three years in a row.
It’s why Buckner was the player that finally made Ballard pull the trigger, giving up a first-round pick and $21 million per year to land the interior force he needed.
“The 3-technique drives this thing,” Ballard famously said at the time.
And when the Colts defensive line is fully healthy — as it has remarkably been throughout the 2020 season up to this point — Indianapolis has the kind of playmaking line Ballard envisioned.
Brought fully together by Buckner, the Colts defense had been one of the game’s best this season, part of the top five in both yards and points, the kind of defense that dictates the kind of game an offense can play.
Replacing Buckner’s presence was never going to be an easy task.
But the defensive line Ballard has always envisioned building would be deep enough to play better without Buckner than the Colts did on Sunday.
The defensive line Ballard has been trying to build is the kind that could weather the loss of its star better than that. Ballard, Eberflus and the rest of the Colts defensive staff have been trying to build a line that’s eight or nine players deep, capable of sending fresh waves at opposing offenses even if its best players had to miss a game.
Indianapolis simply isn’t there yet.
The Colts defensive line has essentially been six deep this season: Buckner, Autry, Houston, nose tackle Grover Stewart, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and hybrid lineman Tyquan Lewis. Others have seen the field, but those are the six who’d been asked to play primary roles before Sunday’s game.
Lewis, the 2018 second-round pick finally blossoming this season, took over for Autry, and Stewart, another breakout player who just signed a three-year, $30.75 million deal on Saturday, shifted into Buckner’s spot, moving backup Taylor Stallworth into the nose tackle spot.
It wasn’t enough. Tennessee overpowered the Indianapolis front.
Derrick Henry rushes for 178 yards
Henry, arguably the game’s best back and the only runner to have consistent success against Colts coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme, racked up 178 yards, slicing through the sort of enormous holes that simply haven’t been available against Indianapolis this season. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked just once — on a play where linebacker Darius Leonard chased him out of bounds — and hit just twice, the hits coming from Leonard and safety Khari Willis. By the time the Colts found their footing a bit in the second half, Tennessee already had 35 points, more than any offense has scored in a full game against Indianapolis this season.
“It shouldn’t take us getting punched in the mouth for us to come out and respond,” middle linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We have to throw the first punch, and we understand that this is a boxing match at the end of the day.”
The Colts defensive line is supposed to throw that kind of punch, even if injury has taken away its haymaker.
But Indianapolis wasn’t even able to mount much of a pass rush, even though Tennessee is down to its third left tackle due to injury and battling through ailments at both left guard and center. While Houston has been solid if not quite as good as he was last year, Muhammad continues to be a good rotational player and the Autry/Lewis combo have had some success, Indianapolis hasn’t gotten enough from its edge rush.
Kemoko Turay’s season was torpedoed by injury, and last year’s second-round pick, Ben Banogu, hasn’t lived up to expectations yet. The Colts have rendered him inactive four games in a row. Veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Day also didn’t pan out the way the Colts wanted him to, his own season hurt by an injury in training camp.
That meant that on Sunday, Indianapolis gave extensive snaps to Stallworth, a street signing in early August, and journeyman defensive end Cassius Marsh. With Buckner and Autry out, the Colts rotation of difference-makers was down to four. Indianapolis wasn’t as deep on the defensive line as Ballard wants him to be.
That could still change.
Turay might get healthy and get back to his former form; Banogu might find his footing and make the kind of leap that Lewis has made this season.
But the way the Colts got steamrolled on Sunday showed that as good as this Indianapolis defense has been this season, it’s not quite where the Colts want it to be just yet.