Indianapolis Colts DC Gus Bradley has pieces for success, but Darius Leonard's health issues linger

New Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has the pieces for a strong defense, at least if All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard can return to full speed after offseason back surgery. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS – The first five-plus months of Gus Bradley being on the job as the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator have included the addition of several key components, while also losing one of their starting safeties and facing the possibility of starting training camp without their best playmaker.

The Colts added starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue via free agency and a trade, respectively. But they lost starting safety Khari Willis to a surprising retirement and All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard had back surgery this month to put his status for the start of training camp at the end of July in question. In addition, cornerback Kenny Moore II isn’t happy about his contract situation.

But Bradley will be prepared to handle whatever obstacles are thrown his way.

“He shows through triumph and also through tribulations,” said Ngakoue, who also played for Bradley with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “When things go good, when things go bad, he’s the same guy. So, that’s what he showed me. With people like that, not in just this football realm but just in life, man, those are people that you want to stick near and dear to.”

The biggest news of the Colts' offseason defensively was the absence of Leonard on the field. They can’t afford to be without their All-Pro linebacker for an extended period of time. He’s the pulse of the team’s defense.

What started as an offseason of getting his left ankle healed -- it was surgically repaired last offseason but continued to bother him throughout 2021 season -- ended with him having back surgery this month. The Colts said they weren’t aware of how severe Leonard’s back pain was initially because he hadn’t done any on-the-field activities with the team due to the ankle issue.

The Colts will take a methodical approach regarding his return, even if it calls for him to miss most, it not all, of training camp. It's worth being patient with Leonard because he's totaled 537 tackles, 16 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, 11 interceptions and 15 sacks through his first four seasons in the NFL.

Once healthy, Leonard will be the leader of the second level of the Colts' defense that was basically revamped following the offseason departure of DC Matt Eberflus, who is now the head coach of the Chicago Bears. Eberflus also took several members of his Colts staff with him to Chicago.

That meant Bradley, who was the coordinator in Seattle when the Seahawks had the ‘Legion of Boom’ unit led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas III, among others, had to add pieces to his staff with the Colts. One of Bradley’s key additions to the coaching staff is former NFL head coach John Fox as the team’s senior defensive assistant.

“I never met Gus before [hiring him], but I knew a ton about him because of my relationship with [Philadelphia Eagles head coach and former Colts OC] Nick Sirianni and [former Colts QB] Philip Rivers who were with Gus at length,” Colts coach Frank Reich said back in the spring. “This is a guy who totally fits our culture. I think he’s going to bring a dynamic to our defense that’s going to help us elevate. I think we’ve played some really good defensive football over the last four years, and I’m expecting that we’ll continue to get better.”

Once Leonard gets fully healthy, Bradley, who was with the Las Vegas Raiders last season, will be working with a unit that has playmakers on the line, at linebacker and at cornerback. Ngakoue, who has 55.5 career sacks, will be up front on the line with Kwity Paye and DeForest Buckner. Gilmore was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. Those two key pieces are expected to help a defense that was 16th in the league in yards allowed and second in takeaways with 33 last season.

Defenses that Bradley oversaw -- Chargers (2017-20) and Raiders (2021) -- finished in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed in four of those five seasons. The Colts' defense will need to play at a high level to deal with the gauntlet of quarterbacks on their schedule, like Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson and Mac Jones.

"Same tree, a little different flavor [than Eberflus], but still the emphasis on effort, speed, fundamentals, taking the ball away -- all those things that we’ve talked about in the past, we’ll do with Gus," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said.

The traits Ballard looks for in the draft -- strength and speed -- fit perfectly with the way Bradley runs his defense. Bradley's defense wouldn't be described as exotic, more like pretty simple. He'll mix it up at times to allow free runners to get to the quarterback while sticking with a 4-3 scheme.

“I just feel like I guess you won’t see the D-line really playing or reacting to the blocks, moving with the blocks and things like that," Buckner said. "It will be more like we are on our tracks, and we are getting vertical. Penetrating a lot more, you’ll see. If the guys are really embracing the scheme, you’ll see us in the backfield a lot more for sure."