INDIANAPOLIS — No one was happy with how the 2019 regular season ended for the Indianapolis Colts.
As a 5-2 start melted into a 7-9 finish and the team missed the postseason for the fourth time in five years, plenty of blame was placed on a struggling offense and quarterback Jacoby Brissett particularly. That unit certainly saw the bulk of the offseason focus, with veteran Philip Rivers being imported at quarterback and three of the first four draft picks being used to select offensive skill position players.
But the defense also deserves its fair share of criticism.
Over the final month of the season, Indianapolis surrendered an average of 29.4 points and 279.4 passing yards in five games. The team went 1-4 during that stretch to fall out of playoff contention.
Breakdowns were evident in several areas, but the absence of cornerback Kenny Moore II was a major common denominator. Moore’s versatility allows defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be more daring and creative with his schemes. Without him, the Colts often got stuck in bland zones that were easily picked apart by quarterbacks including Jameis Winston, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and rookie Gardner Minshew.
Moore went down with a high-ankle sprain late in the first half against the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 1 and was unable to get back on the field to finish what began as a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He said he’s feeling 100% now, and he’s not very interested in rehashing the recent past.
“I think, at this point, we’re just leaving 2019 in 2019,” Moore said during a Zoom conference call this week. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We can’t really worry about the picture that everyone else paints of the Indianapolis Colts. To be the team that we want to be in the future, we’re starting the work right now to be that team.
“So whatever happened last year, whatever adversity was set, we just have to get knocked down and we’ve just got to get back up and just keep swinging. So 2020 is here, and that’s all we’re worried about right now.”
There will definitely be a different look to the starting lineup.
Moore’s return should be a boost, but the team’s biggest offseason acquisition was all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
General manager Chris Ballard sent the 13th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for Buckner then signed him to a four-year, $84 million contract that will make him the NFL’s second-highest paid interior defensive lineman by average annual salary.
It’s a move that has been praised inside and outside the team’s headquarters and one that puts in place the three most important positions in Indianapolis’ 4-3 defensive scheme for the first time.
The three-technique is responsible for collapsing the pocket, getting pressure in the face of opposing quarterbacks and disrupting offenses. It’s one of the many things Buckner has excelled at during a four-year career that began as the seventh overall draft pick in 2016.
The Colts already have an all-pro weakside linebacker in Darius Leonard, and Moore fills the all-important slot cornerback role. Buckner completes the triumvirate and raises expectations for the unit as a whole.
“The three-technique is the engine that drives the d-line, and it drives the whole defense,” Eberflus said. “Then having a guy like Kenny Moore and also Darius at the two spots that are right in the middle of the defense — if you watch Darius and you look and see where he is, he is standing over the football pretty much every time. The Mike sometimes gets pulled out of there, but that Will linebacker for us and the way we have it set up stands over the football. So we have a premier impact player right there that is in the middle along with a three-technique in DeForest that is also right in the middle.
“Then you have Kenny, who is more athletic, quick — DeForest and Darius would obviously argue that — but he is the athletic player that is in space that has the quickness — that strike and playmaking ability that Kenny has. If you look at it as a triangle — kind of a reverse triangle — you’ve got DeForest up front, you’ve got those two guys sitting right there. That helps you to be a strong defense, and that is what we are wanting to be.”
Moore is excited about his role.
Part of what makes him so important to this defense is his ability to be effective on the blitz. He’s arguably the best blitzing cornerback in the NFL, with four sacks combined over the last two years in the regular season and three more in the playoffs.
As much as Buckner will aid the defensive secondary’s coverage ability — forcing quarterbacks to get the ball out faster and perhaps altering their accuracy — Moore is looking forward most to competing to put pressure on opposing passers.
“Those three positions all connect in some sort of way as far as blitzing and getting to the quarterback,” he said of the key play-making spots in Indianapolis’ defense. “The defensive line is the engine of our defense. So the better they are, the better we will be in the back end and the better the linebackers can be as far as hitting and running and blitzing as well.
“So it’s going to be very fun because having a good defensive line — somebody has to get the sacks, and I plan on getting the sacks,” Moore added with a laugh. “No, it’ll be great competing with those guys and having a race to the quarterback. So I can’t wait.”