Roster Review: New scheme, veteran additions excite Buckner

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Jul. 20—INDIANAPOLIS — To say DeForest Buckner is excited about the changes coming to the Indianapolis Colts' defense this year is an understatement.

The veteran defensive tackle spent the offseason texting his teammates about the virtues of new defensive line coach Nate Ollie, despite the fact Buckner has no prior experience with the former Ball State star.

The two men are connected by Robert Saleh — who was Buckner's defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers and the head coach of the New York Jets last year when Ollie served as the assistant defensive line coach.

Saleh got his start with new Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley on the Seattle Seahawks' coaching staff in the 2010s. So there is some level of familiarity all around.

And Buckner believes the changes on the way will be particularly good for the big guys up front.

"Playing in this scheme, the d-line is really the engine of the defense," Buckner said in April. "You know what I mean? ... We're attacking up front. Pretty much, we're blowing things up. Everybody else is cleaning things up behind us."

With veterans scheduled to report to training camp Tuesday, here's a look at the defensive tackles who will be asked to execute that scheme:

THE STARTERS

The new scheme isn't the only thing that has Buckner excited about 2022.

After recording 16.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in his first two seasons with Indianapolis, the 28-year-old is ecstatic to welcome a pair of proven starters to the defense.

Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue arrived in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders and should bring significant pressure from the edge and clear up some of the traffic in the middle for Buckner. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore signed as a free agent and is expected to give the defensive linemen an extra tick to get to the quarterback with his outstanding coverage skills.

The two additions have the Colts dreaming of becoming a top-five defense this fall, and Buckner is completely on board.

"I was jumping for joy," he said. "I was really excited. Being able to add an elite rusher like Yannick — he brings a lot of things to the table. ... Obviously, it takes some doubles off of me and makes the quarterback step up a little bit."

Buckner was a first-team All-Pro in 2020 and a Pro Bowler last season, leading Indianapolis in sacks both years. The hope is he doesn't three-peat as the sacks king.

He will again anchor the defensive line and be a focal point for opposing offensive coordinators. But the new help around him should alleviate some of his burden.

Lining up next to Buckner, Grover Stewart remains one of the NFL's most underrated players.

The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder moves incredibly well for his size and has been slowly making a case to stay on the field even for some passing downs. Since becoming a regular starter in 2019, Stewart has grown into an elite run stuffer, and the new attack front should further unlock his athletic potential.

"It'll be more kind of like we're on tracks and we're just getting vertical," Buckner said. "You know what I mean? Penetrating a lot more. You'll see. And guys are really embracing the scheme. You'll see us in the backfield a lot more for sure."

THE DEPTH

The Colts lost a valuable rotational piece when Taylor Stallworth signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, and there's very little experienced depth left on the interior.

Defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Dayo Odeyingbo can reduce inside in sub packages, and that will alleviate some of the concern.

But as far as pure defensive tackles go, rookies Curtis Brooks and Eric Johnson top the list.

Brooks slid to the sixth round in part because of concerns about his size (6-2, 287 pounds), but he was ultra-productive for a Cincinnati defense that led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff. He finished with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2021 and recorded 162 tackles, 12 sacks and 23 tackles for loss during his career.

Johnson, a fifth-round pick out of Missouri State, projects as a nose tackle. The 6-4, 299-pounder had 131 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss throughout his college career.

Chris Williams also figures to be in the mix. He spent the 2020 season on the practice squad and appeared in eight games last year, recording four tackles.

ON THE BUBBLE

R.J. McIntosh appeared in 18 games with the New York Giants in 2018 and 2019, recording 13 tackles and two sacks. A fifth-round pick out of Miami (Florida) in 2018, he was cut by the Giants last August and spent time in the preseason with the New Orleans Saints before landing on the Green Bay Packers' practice squad.

Caveon Patton is an undrafted rookie out of Texas State who recorded 153 tackles, three sacks and six tackles for loss in his three-year college career.