Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Colts D take aim at forcing 40 turnovers

DeForest Buckner (99) and Darius Leonard (53) are aiming for a big number in 2021: 40 takeaways by the Indianapolis Colts' defense. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s been talked about since Matt Eberflus was hired as defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts more than three years ago.

40.

No, the Colts don’t want to hold their opponents to 40 yards a game. That would be nice, but that's not going to happen.

Of course the Colts want to give up fewer than 40 points a game too.

But that’s not it, either.

The Colts' defensive unit wants to force at least 40 turnovers this season.

“That’s just the NFL greats of the history of the NFL, that 40 number,” Eberflus said. “That’s just there. It’s one of those numbers that’s really super high, and a few teams have achieved it, and we’re just trying to search for that …

"It’s a goal that we have, but again, we understand the mission is to go out and do it one game at a time.”

Even with a 17th game this season, forcing at least 40 turnovers isn’t as easy having a 1,000-yard rusher or having a quarterback throw 40 touchdowns. The last time a team forced 40 turnovers in a season was back in 2012 when Chicago and New England forced 44 and 41 turnovers, respectively. The single-season record is 66 by the Chargers -- in just 14 games -- in 1961.

Now the Colts want to become the first team to do it in the past nine seasons.

“I think we have the personnel to do it, but it’s hard to do,” coach Frank Reich said. “There’s a lot of things that have to go right. ... I think you’ve got to have a winning season, where you put the other team playing catch up, that’s where a lot of turnovers happen. I think it’s a great goal, and I think we have to get after it.”

Nearly all of the talk about the Colts during the past six weeks has centered around quarterback Carson Wentz, Wentz’s foot, Quenton Nelson’s foot, COVID-19 and the vaccination status of players.

There has been little talk about the Colts' defense.

The Colts have routinely finished in the top 10 in forcing turnovers under Eberflus, but they’ve come nowhere close to sniffing out 40 turnovers in a season. They really haven’t even gotten close to 30 turnovers in a season. They’ve forced 26, 23 and 25 turnovers in the three seasons with Eberflus as defensive coordinator. So forcing 40 turnovers is a seriously lofty goal.

How do the Colts plan on reaching that number?

By maximizing their opportunities.

“If you look at the tape, we’re always punching, we’re always stripping,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “The way we attack the ball. If you look at the missed opportunities that we had last year, I had six. Other guys had a dropped interception or the forced fumbles that we had, we don’t scoop it up. It’s realistic.”

The blueprint is there for the Colts to have potentially their best unit under Eberflus. And it goes beyond the fast, physical, play-through-the-whistle style that the coordinator has emphasized since Day 1 when he was hired.

They also have the players. Eberflus is looking at potentially his best defensive unit in four seasons in Indianapolis.

Leonard is rightfully the headliner of the defense for the Colts because there's not much he can't do on the field. But DeForest Buckner is the anchor. He, according to general manager Chris Ballard, has Defensive Player of the Year potential this season. Buckner, who revealed Wednesday that he broke the fourth metacarpophalangeal joint in his right hand before the season opener last season, had 58 tackles and 9.5 sacks in his first season with the Colts.

"I think about that all the time," he said of being Defensive Player of the Year. "It's one of my personal goals. I definitely think I have the potential to attain that goal."

But where is the pass rush going to come from for the Colts after the departures of Justin Houston (8.0 sacks) and Denico Autry (7.5 sacks) in the offseason?

The Colts were openly surprised to see that Michigan pass-rusher Kwity Paye was still on the board when they picked at No. 21. Paye's style fits perfectly in Eberflus' scheme because he plays fast. That speed and ability to get to the quarterback was on display on a regular basis during training camp.

“Our message to him is just stay with the fundamentals," Eberflus said. "The cycle of the snap – put your hand in the dirt, get off on the football, and then play that one play, a quick assessment of that play and then move on to the next snap ... It’s like being a prize fighter. You’re going to take blows and you’re going to give blows. You just have to keep working through the game.”

The defense will be tested early in the season, as they'll face offenses led by Russell Wilson (Seattle), Matthew Stafford (Rams), Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee) and Lamar Jackson (Baltimore) in four of their first five games.

“I would just say it’s our fourth year with coach Flus, most of the core guys, it’s our fourth year here in the same system, so it’s really just about us really coming together and creating that mentality of banding together as brothers," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "We have talent all over the field at all three levels, and the system is already set in stone, so at that point, it’s just about us taking ownership and becoming it.”