Although the Indianapolis Colts’ list of defensive walking wounded is painfully lengthy, they need two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis back on the field more than anyone.
Davis could miss much of September with a medial sprain of his right ankle. In a 3-4 scheme that will be without suspended defensive tackle Arthur Jones for four games and has starting defensive ends Kendall Langford and Henry Anderson as well as safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Patrick Robinson on the mend, the loss of Davis still stands out.
New defensive coordinator Ted Monachino is trying to piece together an aggressive unit that applies constant pass-rush pressure with blitzes. To run that system, the Colts need cornerbacks who can not only cover but play reliable press coverage in slowing opposing receivers and disrupting the timing of routes. If either the pass rush or coverage falters, the plan unravels.
That’s why Davis, among the NFL’s best at press coverage, is so important. In the interim, 11th-year cornerback Antonio Cromartie was recently signed in an attempt to refortify a banged up secondary that also has nickel cornerback Darius Butler hobbled by an ankle injury. Robinson, a seventh-year pro, was added in offseason free agency to play opposite Davis, but the newcomer has been nursing a groin injury for about two weeks.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the defensive leader, compared the current depleted situation to when the Colts had to endure without quarterback Andrew Luck for nine games last season. The perennial playoff team faltered to 8-8 and missed the postseason.
“We’ve been through the worst scare last year with (No.) 12 being out,” Jackson said Wednesday. “If any team can get through it, it’s us.
“Vontae fits this system. If you’re a secondary guy and you’re in this building and you’re aware of the style of defense we’re going to play, we’re not a coverage style defense on the back end where you play with zone eyes. We play man here. A lot of press. A lot of man. A lot of pressure. You can’t replace a guy like Vontae. You can’t do it. We’ve got Cromartie in, we get some guys back healthy, we’ll be OK. But, again, that’s going to fall on myself, our pass rush, the entire team not to beat ourselves and to hold off and do the best we can until we get key guys back. You can’t replace key guys. You can fill in, but you can’t replace, especially a guy on an island like that, one of the toughest positions on the field.”
The 28-year-old Davis is intensely competitive. The eighth-year pro doesn’t back down from shadowing the NFL’s best wide receivers, one of the more unenviable challenges in the game. Defenders with such swagger, confidence and ability are not only essential, but rare.
“It’s the reason he’s had success in this league and continues to have success in this league,” Jackson said. “He competes. That’s half the battle. He competes every down. He’s not afraid to match up with the top receivers, and that’s what his position calls for. Not everyone is capable of doing that. There’s maybe 10 guys in this league who are on that island and playing consistently well. You can count on him.”
Cromartie has quality experience as a four-time Pro Bowl defender, most recently in 2014, but was cut by the New York Jets after last season with three years remaining on a $32 million contract. He attributed his 2015 struggles to a groin injury.
He didn’t play in the preseason, but Cromartie has assured he will be ready for the Colts’ season opener against Detroit on Sept. 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Head coach Chuck Pagano called Cromartie “a perfect fit” for this defense.
“The reason I would agree with that is because of the situation you have with Vontae Davis and you already have a guy that understands the defense,” Cromartie said. “The terminology is the same that I’ve already learned when I was in the Rex Ryan defense.”
On the eve of rosters being trimmed to the league-mandated 53 players this weekend, the Colts cut their losses with cornerback D’Joun Smith, a 2015 third-round pick who was waived-injured on Friday. Smith missed most of his rookie year with a knee injury and then was slowed this preseason by an ankle issue.
Another subtraction from a thin secondary heightens the need for Davis to get healthy as soon as possible. When all the bodies can suit up, the Colts would presumably have a wealth of experience with Davis, Cromartie, Robinson and Butler.
But Pagano recently conceded the current secondary situation is “a little scary.”
“It’s going to take a collective effort from the team,” Jackson said. “We have to play complementary football regardless if we have everyone up, and we have to do more so now. That’s not giving up foolish penalties. That’s playing sound football, knowing where to be. Generating turnovers.”