INDIANAPOLIS – He’s larger than life. Literally.
Drive past the south side of Lucas Oil Stadium and DeForest Buckner – hands on hips, eyes peering at an offensive lineman to manhandle, quarterback to smother or running back to embrace – stands guard. His mural is one of four decorating the stadium, joining T.Y. Hilton, Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard.
Buckner is a big man: 6-7, 295 pounds. His mural takes it to a different level: 50 feet.
And yes, he’s taken time to, well, view himself.
“That was pretty cool,’’ Buckner said. “Last year coming in, there was only T.Y. up there. He’s been here awhile. He’s a helluva player.
“After being here for a year and actually be put up on the building, it shows me a lot, how much the organization appreciates me. And I appreciate the organization for giving me a shot.’’
Affixing murals to the stadium date back to the RCA Dome, and are reserved for top-tier talent: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Adam Vinatieri.
You have to earn your place.
In short order, Buckner has.
Listen to Chris Ballard, who addressed one of his defense’s most glaring deficiencies – the three-technique tackle – when he traded the 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft to the San Francisco 49ers for Buckner, then signed him to an $84 million extension.
Buckner responded with arguably the best season of his still-developing career. He earned his first first-team All-Pro recognition – just the third Colts’ defensive tackle honored, joining Gene Lipscomb (1958-59) and Art Donovan (1954-57) – and piled up 9.5 sacks, a franchise record for a defensive tackle.
“Last year was pretty freaking awesome,’’ Ballard said Wednesday, pausing briefly and picking his words carefully. “First year in the scheme and he’s in unbelievable shape, even better shape than he was last year. We track that pretty hard.
“I think the sky is the limit. I mean, I do. I think he’s got Defensive Player of the Year capabilities, I do.’’
That again would elevate Buckner into rarified air and might require an even larger mural.
One Colt has been selected Defensive Player of the Year: Bob Sanders in 2007.
The personal goal is to make it two.
On Buckner’s To Do list for 2021?
“Obviously making All-Pro, Pro Bowl,’’ he said. “Get Defensive Player of the Year, things like that. All those goals are mine each and every year.’’
Ballard pounced when he discovered the 49ers were willing to trade Buckner. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus didn’t attempt to hide his endorsement.
“Frank (Reich) and I were both in those discussions and I had two words: ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes,’’’ Eberflus said after the Colts acquired Buckner. “There was not any hesitation.’’
There are three vital positions in Eberflus’ defense: the three-technique tackle, Will linebacker and nickel corner. That translates into Buckner, Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore II.
Buckner is the linchpin. And he’s just 27.
Eberflus has seen Buckner take on a larger leadership role, which is important considering the offseason departures of Justin Houston and Denico Autry.
“His growth as a leader is really stepping up,’’ Eberflus said. “I can feel it in the whole group and the defensive line room, and I think he will be impactful in that way. The first year you’re kind of feeling out the group and what the culture is here and where he is.
“I think this year 2 is going to be another big step for him.’’
That includes on the field.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Brady witnessed Buckner’s disruptive presence every day in training camp when it was 1s vs. 1s. It was either find a way to at least slow down Buckner’s inside push, or deal with a dysfunctional offense.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re targeting him, and we can get four hands on him – guard and center – (and) helping them at times,’’ Brady said. “You can’t do it every play, but when you can, you have to try to help out those guys.’’
Facing pressure is a job description for quarterbacks, but they universally loathe pressure up the middle. Quarterbacks feel a bit more secure when they can step up in the pocket and allow the outside rushers to be pushed past them.
“If you have speed rush guys on the edges, the safe haven for a quarterback is to step up into the pocket,’’ said Brady. “We have a group up front and if they can keep the pressure from getting too into the quarterback, then the quarterback will be fine.
“When you have a guy that’s disruptive inside, it can cause a little bit of problems.’’
Buckner’s value to the defense might have been best showcased in week 12 last season. He and Autry missed a critical AFC South meeting with Tennessee after being placed on the COVID-19 list.
The defense yielded 449 total yards, 229 rushing yards and 28 first downs – all season highs – and the Titans rolled 45-26.
The Colts recovered and earned a wild-card playoff berth, but their first-round loss at Buffalo left everyone dissatisfied.
“Every season you can look back at it and say, ‘Man, if I had just made this play. If only we had done this. If only we had done that,’’’ he said. “But it didn’t happen. Focusing on this season, we all know what we need to do as a unit, as a team, offensively, defensively.
“Everybody just needs to do a little more. That’s what we needed to do last year. That’s why we fell short.’’
Reaching Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. is the prime objective.
“Definitely realistic for this team,’’ Buckner said. “You saw what we were able to do last year, and I feel like we’ve only gotten better over the offseason roster-wise and we’ve got a great core coming back.
“I think it’s possible, definitely.’’