Earlier this week I took a look at the Colts' positional offensive strength and weaknesses. Today we do the same for the defense.
The defense potentially has six different starters in 2013, and should look very different from the unit that finished 31st in defensive DVOA in 2012. The Colts have the potential to be an above average squad in 2013, but will still have some weaknesses to work out.
Each position has additions and improvements, but no position looks perfect on paper for 2013. Let's take a look at why.
Last season, the Colts' defensive line went through a rash of injuries that resulted in Lawrence Guy, Clifton Geathers, and Kellen Heard all playing significant snaps near the end of the season. Part of the reason why the Colts lost in the wild card round against Baltimore was the fact that the Colts could not stop Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice. The two combined to run for 171 yards on 28 carries, an average of over six yards per carry, as Guy and Geathers played significant time.
Going into the offseason, the Colts' front office knew the depth issues they faced, and did everything they could to rectify the situation. The Colts re-signed Fili Moala, signed Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean-Francois, and drafted Montori Hughes. Add that to Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney getting healthy, and you have depth that goes three-men deep at each position.
Weakness: Lack of top-end talent
The Colts have nine guys who can play on the defensive line (Redding, Chapman, Jean-Francois, Hughes, McKinney, Franklin, Nevis, Moala, Mathews), but none of them are the top-end stars to build around. Most are average or below average, having the potential to play at above-average levels for short periods of time. The depth is great, but the lack of talent will keep the line from being one of the better ones in the league. Chapman has the potential to be a long-term star, but he has never played a game in the NFL as of yet, even if reports out of OTAs are positive.
The linebacker crew has potential across the board going into 2013. The most obvious candidate based on 2012 is Jerrell Freeman, Ryan Grigson's big CFL find from his first year as a GM. Freeman had a surprisingly impressive season in 2012, and should get better in his second season in the NFL. In addition to Freeman, Pat Angerer has high potential at inside linebacker. Angerer struggled during 2012, but was fighting through injury, and has the potential to be the tackling machine he was in 2011.
At outside linebacker, potential exists in Bjoern Werner, the Colts' first round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Werner has the potential to be a pass-rushing demon, as well as a strong edge-setter in the run game. With the three of them combined with Robert Mathis, the Colts' starting linebacker crew has the potential to be the best it's been in this millennium.
Weaknesses: Pass Rush
With the Colts' defense relying so much on pass rush coming from the the linebacking crew, the lack of pass rush ability in the crew is a considerable concern going into the season. Robert Mathis did a decent job last season, when healthy, and should be better in the ROLB position, but it will also be without Dwight Freeney drawing attention across from him.
The projected starting inside linebackers Angerer and Freeman both got negative pass rush grades from PFF last season, and projected starting OLB Erik Walden was PFF"s worst pass-rushing OLB in 2012 with a grade of -25.5. Kelvin Sheppard and Kavell Conner both finished with positive pass rush grades, but were rarely used, combining for just 42 snaps in pass rush last season.
Rookie Bjoern Werner was brought in order to address these concerns, but Werner himself has limitations that will hinder his ability to be a primary pass rusher.
Strengths: Nickel Coverage
The Colts' top three corner rotation of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler all covered well last season, combining for a +21.5 grade in coverage from PFF. Davis and Toler both finished in the top 15 among corners in coverage grade, despite playing less than 1000 snaps combined.
Butler, meanwhile, was one of the most effective slot corners in 2012; opposing quarterbacks finished the season with a passer rating of 43.1 when throwing at Butler lined up in the slot, the third lowest number in the league. Butler was in good company, checkout the top four in opposing passer rating as slot corners in 2012:
If the Colts' top three corners stay healthy and aren't completely hung out to dry by pass rush, they should perform well in coverage in 2013.
Weakness: Run Support
We could talk about the lack of talent at the fourth and fifth cornerback spots, but more interesting to me is that all of the Colts' corners have struggled in run support. The Colts top four corners: Davis, Toler, Butler, and Cassius Vaughn, combined for a combined run defense grade of -11.8 in 2012.
The biggest problem for Davis and Butler was their tendency to miss tackles in run support: both finished in the bottom ten among 114 qualifying cornerbacks for tackling efficiency in run support in 2012. Toler was actually a very good tackler, being the only player out of those 114 corners to not miss a single tackle in 2012. But, he simply didn't naturally get to the runner quickly, and only managed two run stops in 100 run snaps.
Strength: Starting Experience
Between Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry, the Colts' has a lot of starting experience at the safety position, and productive experience at that. The two have combined to start 185 games, but both are only 28, and still in their respective primes. On top of that, both players have strong resumes, Landry as a hard-hitting enforcer and Bethea as a versatile safety that uses good instincts and sound fundamentals to play both the run and pass well. The two should be able to play off each other well in 2013, whereas Bethea struggled to cover for Tom Zbikowski last season.
Weakness: A down 2012
While both Landry and Bethea have played very well in recent years (Combined +33.7 from 2008-2011 from PFF), both players struggled mightily in 2012. Landry struggled more in the beginning of the season, recovering to play well near the end, while Bethea's inconsistencies showed throughout the year.
You have to like each player's potential to bounce back in 2013, with Landry putting it together by the end of the season and Bethea no longer having to cover for Zbikowski and a weak cornerback group. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while the two safeties should still be in their prime, each had one of their worst seasons of their career last year. Hopefully they'll prove this year that the down play was a circumstantial fluke, and not a career-altering trend.
Tough crowd today. Good work emphasizing the high turnover. I too am worried about the DL lack of any clear talent. I know the Colts have shifted to a system which places less emphasis on the DL rushing the passer, but I'm very concerned that with the lack of real talent the DL won't cause enough disruptions to enable the OLBs to get anywhere near the QB.
pro bowl is voted on by idiot fans------@jettro......
just because you make a pro bowl doesnt mean you had a great season.......you should know this. well maybe not...
It seems like you need than just pff and a half a brain to write a good article. im not sure who is worse you or brad wells
@jettro Which half a brain do you have? You need to take a course in English writing since you can't spell, use punctuation or write a sentence that makes sense. Beware the "pot calling the kettle black."
@JohnTemple1 @jettro I was here to read about the colts, and unfortunately saw a bunch of ignorance. NONE of the colts acquisitions or draft picks WILL make a pro bowl within 2 years.....but are the colts improving? well, yes...however, record wise I think they will REGRESS.........@jettro however, I do like the Laron Landry pick up....if he stays healthy..he can bring some much needed swag to our backend and run support. bethea has been operating by himself back there for far too long...
@JohnTemple1 @jettro the world is full of bitter smart folks that THINK they are smarter than the rest but are actually dumb.and conversely, the world is full of ignorant people that think money trumps ignorance..and lastly, there are also millions of people that think making a pro bowl makes you a great player.........and FINALLY, there are men like me that are smart enough to not get bitter at a world that is chocked full of "idiots" blowhards, rich old fucks, and too dumb to care........
Good article but I think you underrate the defensive line. In my view, Franklin, Chapman, Hughes & Ricky jean all have the potential to turn out All-Pro seasons. Redding is aging but still capable in a solid rotation and the rest provide serious depth that should help limit injuries. With the Colts focusing now on stopping the run first, I think Grigson has done a remarkable job bringing in the right kind of talent. If the Colts can force 3rd & long regularly, I think you'll also see a big improvement in the pass rush.
@JohnTemple1 huge colts fan here.....I dont see chapman, hughes, or francois capable of pro bowl seasons. chapman and hughes are both rookies who probably wont even play much...jen francois wasnt even a strater on the 49ers, and well franklin, while solid, I dont believe he will see the field more than any of the rest of the names mentioned here as the colts clearly are gonna use lots of rotation.....so franklin wont be able to get the numbers needed to attract pro bowl attention......I think Hughes will ultimately win this job, if he stays out of trouble....he is big and strong and nimble as a mountain lion.
@JohnTemple1 Like I said, the DL is definitely deep. But expecting stars out of that group in 2012 is way over the top. Chapman and Hughes have potential for the future, but neither have played an NFL game yet. As for Franklin and Jean-Francois, we know what they are, and that is NOT All-Pros. RJF has never even been a primary starter, and Franklin is a role player at this point in his career. Neither have even made a Pro Bowl before, much less been the best in the league at their positions.
@Kyle Rodriguez @JohnTemple1 You may be underestimating RJF. He played as the primary backup for all the DL positions in San Fran and is still young. I don't expect any of them to be All Pro's in 2013 but Chapman, Montori Hughes and possibly RJF have the potential to grow into an All pro. Abuyo Franklin will probably start and be pushed by Montori. We don't need "stars" to be successful,just solid line play.
Comment: I can't stand the PFF. It's often said there are three types of lies, Lies, More Lies, and Statistics. My Statistics profesor used to say it all the time, and it's been used for a long time and there is a reason(Mark Twain often used this quote). In this case, Football is played on the field. Numbers are scewed, one of the reasons that Toler had a high rating is because he didn't play a lot, and our middle LB got low grades because they weren't asked to rush the passer and Conner and Sheppard had high grades because they didn't play on pass rushing downs! While it can be used as an indicator, it should not factor into decision making. Football is played on the field, not in a stat book. If you build a team around PFF numbers you're going to struggle like the Redskins have done under Snyder. The reason why Andrew Luck's passing completion rating was low was because we did NOT dink and dunk, no on in the league attempted more passed of more than 20 yards than Luck. It's easy to get low INT's and High completion percentage if you're not taking chances, yes he led an NFL season record 7 4th quarter comebacks? Yes, that's a tie of the all time record. Gut and making plays when it counts are what wins football games, not what the PFF says.
A couple years back, I made a bet with a friend that the 49ers would win 10 games, even 49er fans bet against me, they won 13. They're arguments?Talent that doesn't produce, look at the stats! Then they point to Harbaugh having not coached in the NFL. In two years they went from the team with no talent to playing in the Super Bowl and much of this same 'ho hum' talent is considered top notch.
What I will say from watching the team? We had a horrible offensive line, It's was painfully obvious, we couldn't pass or run block. On defense, we had trouble up front, but keep in mind that we were pulling in free agents off the street to play DL. We really struggled at producing turnovers, and yes the pass rush was weak, as was the DL consistency(see comment about who was playing on the DL). We had trouble sustaining drives, and I attribute that to Arians dislike for dink and dunk, if it's 3rd and 5, don't sent all your receivers out 15 yards! This also kept Luck running for his life as he had to hold onto the ball longer. I'm not deluded to think we're going to be the best team in the league, but you never know what could happen if the team gets hot late in the season.
@SteveBarlow I'm not really sure what you're trying to say. You say that you don't like PFF because "numbers are screwed," but you used numbers to defend Andrew Luck.
Statistics are a key part of football analysis. If you don't think that NFL teams use them, then I don't know what to tell you. In fact, even PFF, which you can't stand for reasons I don't quite understand, is used by NFL teams as a part of their scouting departments.
Numbers are often misused, but only because people say that they mean things they were never meant to say. If you say Andrew Luck was the second-least-accurate quarterback last year because his completion percentage was the second lowest, you're not using the statistic correctly. All completion percentage measures is exactly that: what percent of passes were complete. It doesn't account for offensive system, receiver drops, etc. That doesn't mean completion percentage is useless, it just means you have to use it accordingly.
@Kyle Rodriguez @SteveBarlow I agree that some times statistics are misused. I'd say their unpopularity stems from two reasons.
First, analytics has challenged traditional ways of thinking in the NFL and its some aspects of its blue collar anti-intellectualism. PFF for instance reviles both tough-guy "you are what your record what you says your are" thinking and point out the poverty of traditional idea that a good running game and good defense is effective. The other problem is that quantifying football is far more difficult than baseball. The shorter season and the difficulty of actually actually finding the right data and using it effectively make analyitics less powerful force in the NFL then the MLB.
Hard to believe that Bethea is only 28. (I didn't think the NFL allowed players to come in right out of high school.)
General comment - another well thought out article. Like you point out, we'll have potentially 6 new starters on D and 4-6 new starters on O. Yet, the so called professional talking heads never go into that when they (rarely) discuss Colts on ESPN or the NFL Network. The new talent is the story this year, not Arians leaving. How the new starters fit in and perform is the key to the season. Someone call Evans and Sharper and lend them a clue. They obviously don't have one.
@SteveBarlow Agreed. I think we have much more depth this year than last. I don't know if we will repeat last year's record, but I do believe this is a better team.
What's more is that they are influenced/blinded by trends, and some just say crazy things because saying what everyone else is saying doesn't 'stand out' or start a discussion(Skip Bayless)
@smonroe For me, their defining moment was when discussing Luck and Griffin a month or so ago.. Sapp was singing Griffins praises, spewing out the usual stats for and against both guys, then I think Evans pointed out that Luck had no O-line or running game.. Sapp's reply was that that's irrelevant because they were discussing individuals, not their teams... Frustrating!!
Tangent I know, credit to sites like this for keeping Colts fans sane!