Well, that was a fun ride. The Colts' miraculous journey to the playoffs ended in a fairly comprehensive victory by the Ravens last week in Baltimore. The young Colts team which had rose up against all-comers reverted to their true talent level, and as a result it wasn't a particularly enjoyable game for the spectator.
Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly huge positives to take from the Colts journey this year, and - having following the defense specifically all year - it's perhaps time to review their overall performance, consider decisions made in-season and examine how we can progress this offseason.
My thoughts regarding the defense as we entered the year were pessimistic to say the least - transforming from a Tampa 2 4-3 unit to an aggressive, blitz-happy 3-4 hybrid front under the tutelage of Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky. Personnel-wise, there were only two players whom I felt completely comfortable with in terms of the adjustment and how they would fare - Antoine Bethea and Robert Mathis. The rest of the Front 7 could either be termed undersized or simply a bad fit for a 3-4 scheme. As such, the Colts took measures to inoculate themselves against complete defensive implosion via the acquisition of Brandon McKinney (NT) and Cory Redding (DE) from Baltimore, with the trade for Vontae Davis on the back end providing an infusion of raw talent where it was clearly required. I feel breaking down the year by position group is going to be the easiest way to do this, so i'll begin.
The defensive line was perhaps the biggest concern of mine headed into the season behind the secondary. I was reassured by the aforementioned moves to acquire McKinney and Redding, but questions remained, particularly regarding run defense, considering the huge issues we'd experienced in the Tampa 2 regarding the interior line. The loss of Brandon McKinney to an ACL injury which removed him from consideration for the year was a large blow, particularly considering the PUP listing of promising Alabama Crimson Tide NT Josh Chapman upon his selection last year in the draft.
As such, we were left to shoehorn 4-3 Tampa 2 players into the 3-4, with limited success. Cory Redding (35 TCKL, 2.0 sacks) proved to be a worthy addition to the line and added a truly stout presence in the interior. The rest of the line was a bit of a mess - Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala and Drake Nevis all absorbed snaps towards the start of the year and didn't provide a great deal, after which the Colts sifted through Free Agent and Practice Squad candidates and began to shape up in the trenches.
The aforementioned additions included Clifton Geathers and Lawrence Guy, emerging contributors by the end of the year on a disruptive if vulnerable defense.
Overall, the unit held up as well as can be expected, given the injuries and woes which beset them throughout the year. Cory Redding proved his worth as a free agent addition, and mitigated the more painful acquisitions of Cassius Vaughn and Tom Zbikowski (more on that later.) As far as looking to the future, this is clearly an area in which the Colts have to improve.
I'll start inside. Pat Angerer is clearly more suited to his previous role in a conventional 4-3 defense, though we've still seen him fly around the field in limited snaps. Injuries limited Angerer's action to 11 games with a paltry 28 tackles and a forced fumble, and the linebacking depth chart should be an interesting one to watch this offseason with a healthy Pat.
Kavell Conner really showed merit as a bruiser in the run game, able to confidently pursue the ball carrier and deliver a fierce hit. Moving forward, he needs to show development in his ability in coverage, or he'll be a clear weak point on a (hopefully) improving unit in terms of pass defense.
Finally, Jerell Freeman. On the defensive side, certainly the acquisition of the year. After previously starring for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL, Ryan Grigson made obtaining Freeman his second transaction after wrapping up Darren Evans on a future contract and Freeman's instincts and ability to tackle quickly made him a hit. I really see this guy as a potential staple of the linebackering corps for years, provided he can work on the coverage element as referred to also with Conner. His instincts in terms of finding the ball carrier are rarely wrong, but he could work on anticipating the quarterback and routes across the middle. Overall, a good year for the inside backers.
Moving outside, Dwight Freeney; Robert Mathis; Jerry Hughes. This amounted to our greatest hope for the Colts defense, namely that we would be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. In practice, Mathis showed excellent versatility in his quick adaptation to the 3-4 OLB role, while Dwight Freeney initially acted to hamstring the defense with his poor play and improved to a more even footing by the end of the year. The reliability of tackle figures notwithstanding (NFL.com credits him with 12 TCKL and 5.0 sacks in 14 games) he has continued to remain ineffectual in the run game and too often the pass game given our terrible corners.
Mathis' work (8.0 sacks, an INT and a forced fumble in 12 games) deserves particular praise given his productivity relative to time on the field, and if he remains healthy I foresee a big year coming.
Freeney will likely be let go in Free Agency, and I consider it necessary. He's too much of a luxury at this point, and for as long as our other defensive components remain woefully lacking, he isn't a crucial re-signing. Jerry Hughes (41 TCKL, 4.0 sacks) showed some development as a pass-rusher despite an irritating knack for penalties, a trait shared with the versatile Moise Fokou, who seemed to save his most frustrating transgressions for crucial occasions.
I would usually be loathe to group safeties with cornerbacks given their differing responsibilities (and with the Colts defense, differing levels of play), but this is a year when I can do so with comfort. The entire defensive backfield needs to take a good hard look at themselves, with a couple of small exceptions. I feel sympathy for Antoine Bethea given his clear ability, but we're clearly not getting the best out of him at this point. A marquee safety cannot thrive in an environment where he has to compensate for the mistakes of others, which is where the rest of the corps come in.
Jerraud Powers, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn, Tom Zbikowski, Sergio Brown. All should be disappointed with their level of performance this year, some clearly more than others. Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers deserve to be separated from the rest, the former for his development and progress shown towards the latter end of the year, the latter for his effort and ability despite size issues. Zbikowski proved to be a poor acquisition given the presence of Joe Lefeged, and Brown and Butler both showed their true colours at some point despite promise from Butler in particular on occasion. Finally, Cassius Vaughn.
Oh, Cassius, you pain me so. The fact that the Colts limited their exposure and only traded Chris Gronkowski to the Broncos to acquire Vaughn's services does mitigate the hurt. But the presence of Vaughn on the field in lieu of better alternatives was the single biggest irritant of the 2012 Colts season, and let it not be forgotten. Here was an individual so woefully inept in coverage that opposing quarterbacks targeted him at will. Statistics aren't necessary - I'm sure you've all observed it in great measure and don't really want to think about it. Unfortunately, knowledge of Vaughn's ineptitude only permeated through to the Colts coaching staff when it was too late, deep into the Wildcard playoff game in Baltimore with momentum on the Ravens side.
I frankly don't understand the persistence we had with Vaughn, and I know a lot of Colts fans feel the same way. All I can say moving forward is that this unit clearly requires an infusion of talent through the NFL Draft and Free Agency. I reserve praise hereon for Joe Lefeged, who saw a lot of action on Special Teams and proved his worth as a gunner, frequently downing punts inside the 10 yard line. He's an interesting developmental guy moving forward, but I'd still be looking for an extra safety to complement Bethea, in the hopeful event that Zbikowski is let go.
At corner, it's truly anything goes. As alluded to earlier, Davis' progression towards the end of the year obfuscates the verdict on the trade, the effects of which won't be known until at least the middle of next season. His ability in terms of providing physical run support and a decent pair of hands on the back end means he can be relied upon in a #2 cornerback role in my book. He does however need appropriate talent around him both outside and in the slot. The Colts currently lack hugely in that department, and as such cornerback should be the focus going forward on the defensive side of the ball if there truly has to be a priority.
The Colts defense in 2012 ultimately surrendered 5.1 yards per carry and allowed opposing QBs to obtain an average rating of 90.1 - the latter a considerable improvement on earlier in the year and a reflection of our relatively crazy end of year in terms of making plays to create turnovers. The yards per carry figure is somewhat warped by the ridiculous Kansas City game where the Colts surrendered over 300 yards and the fact that the AFC South has continued to shown proven pedigree in the run game with quality runners elsewhere complemented by sub-par quarterbacks.
Overall, I was content with the work of the defense against the run for the majority of the year, with the team showing an opportunism which hadn't existed beforehand in terms of forcing teams to punt. Against the pass, we were painfully limited. I would hope next year that the only holdover cornerback from this year is Vontae Davis, given the contractual issues of Jerraud Powers and the on-field issues of the other players at the position.
Defensive MVP: Robert Mathis/Jerell Freeman - LB
Acquisition of the Year: Jerell Freeman - ILB
Flop of the Year: Cassius Vaughn - CB
Requirements: CB1; DE; NT; SS; CB3; CB4
The requirements referred to above will be dealt with in due course here at ColtsAuthority, and I believe we're looking to kick the Free Agency machine into action at some point fairly soon, whereupon i'll look at potential additions and evaluate their merit.
In the meantime, let's enjoy another Peyton Manning playoff run and hope for the best where he's concerned. Hope I haven't killed you with words.
I'm surprised you didn't put OLB as a requirement. With Freeney likely gone and Mathis' age, I would have thought OLB would be a position of need. Lots of them in the draft. I want to believe in Jerry Hughes but he seemed to start strong and fizzle out as the season unfolded. Maybe his snap count was dramatically reduced as Freeney got healthier, I don't know. What do you guys think about OLB?
That being said, I agree that all of your requirements are positions of great need and spending any effort to upgrade those positions is not going to be a bad decision. Great piece, Ben!
While Dwight clearly didn't have the greatest season, I think you're being pretty harsh given that he was out with a high ankle sprain for the first 5-6 weeks of the season, and he didn't look healthy when he came back. We lost him after the first drive in the Chicago game IIRC.
@Payton I kinda feel the same way. I wonder if there is a price/agreement that keeps Freeney. I would like to see him retire as a Colt (we all know how that doesn't always work out) but I do worry that keeping him could be a mistake. No matter where he ends up, I hope he does well.
@bradicus18 @Payton my biggest concern with bringing Freeney back at this point isn't performance - I felt like he was very good+ the last month of the season. Instead, I just feel like Freeney - Mathis - Hughes are all redundant. They can get to the passer (to varying degrees) and they can't cover. Hughes is the most "well-rounded" of the 3 (better in the run and passing games), but still doesn't have the kind of coverage abilities that I think you need to be on the field for a majority of the snaps.
To make a long story longer: When 2 of Freeney, Mathis, and Hughes are on the field, the Colts are either rushing at least 5 (2 OLB + DL) or they have a major liability in pass coverage. I'd like to find a more complete player to play the sam (actually, the only "real" OLB position in this defense, as the other OLB is just a glorified DE)
Darius Butler grades out at a +5.5 (eighth best FA CB) at PFF (C. Vaughn is dead last LOL), so I am unclear why you are so against resigning him.
Do you think Moala and Nevis have any value for the Colts going forward? Both got hurt, but I actually thought at the beginning of the season they may fit better in a 3-4 than they did in the 4-3.
@DougEngland I think both got hurt at crucial points in their development. They were both looking like they were finally turning the corner in the Pagano defense and BOOM, they were done for the year...hard to judge those guys accurately IMHO...especially Nevis who we know has an engine on him.