[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="512" caption="Kelvin Hayden intercepts a pass in 2009's matchup against the Rams"]Colts Defense
The Colts' defense has always been a liability.
With the front office spending money and first round draft picks on Peyton Manning and offensive weapons, the defense always is the weaker link between the two. Every season, we approach the season hoping that the defense will be improved, that Peyton Manning will finally have some help from the other side of the ball.
Every year, we're disappointed.
The common consensus around the blogosphere as we approach the 2011 season seems to be that the defense absolutely must improve the run defense if the Colts want to have a chance at a deep playoff run.
While I'd concede that the run defense needs to improve, there's another factor that must have a higher priority.
While the conventional wisdom says that playoff teams need to be able to stop the run in the playoffs, statistics tell another story.
Over the last six years, the average rank for playoff teams, in terms of yards per carry, is about 13th
in the league, not too far from average (16/32). Still, it's little above average. To put this in perspective, the Colts average rank in YPC over the last six years has been about 20th
in the league, a little under average. Somehow, the Colts have managed to beat the odds in terms of run defense, due to several factors.
One, Peyton Manning. Two, run defense isn't a very important factor. While the average playoff team has above average rush defense, it's not very much above average, hinting that it's not one of the more important factors.
YPA, defending the pass, turns out to be a far more important statistic in terms of teams that get into the playoffs. The average yards per attempt rank for defenses in the playoffs is 10th
, and the Colts have averaged at about 8th
in the league. This makes sense that, along with Peyton Manning, the defense has been doing a solid job of contributing to playoff seasons.
However, while YPA and, to a much lesser extent, YPC, can tell us a little bit about average playoff teams, only YPA can tell us something about how far teams will advance in the playoffs. The average ranking of teams (YPA) gradually decreases as the round in the playoffs go on, with Conference Championship Participants (CPCs) averaging a ranking of 7.6, and Super Bowl winners averaging a ranking of 6.2.
YPC rankings, on the other hand, are all over the place. CPCs average 11.2, and Super Bowl winners average a regular season ranking of 15.2, just about average.
Based on this, while a team can be very average when it comes to defending the run, they must be able to defend the pass well. The surprising thing is, that based on these basic statistics alone, the Colts' defense has been (for the most part) doing its job for the last six years.
Even in 2010, when they ranked 25th
in YPC, and 10th
in YPA, the basic stats aren't too bad. Especially when you figure that the average YPA ranking (the one that's really important) for 2010 playoff teams, was also 10th
So, while the rush defense is not good, and does need to improve, it's not the crucial piece that seems to be holding the Colts back. Heck, the Packers were worse than the Colts last year at defending the run, yet they won the Super Bowl, and are favorites to win the NFC in 2011.
So what is the thing that is holding the defense, and the team, back?
The answer lies in the pass defense, not in yards per attempt, but in big plays.
The big plays, game changing plays, for pass defense come in interceptions and sacks, two things that the Colts struggled with mightily in 2010.
The average conference champion over the past six years has been just under 11th
in interceptions, and just under 8th
During that same time, the Colts averaged 14.5th
in interceptions and 19th
in sacks. They've made it into the Top 10 twice in interceptions (2005 and 2007, arguably the two biggest could-have-been years in the Manning era), and only once in sacks (2005).
You wouldn't think that sacks would be the Colts biggest defensive problem over the years, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis manning the edges. But the reality is that the Colts have had nobody besides those two generating pressure.
The Colts have actually been above average in terms of turnovers, although not as good as I believe they need to be in order to make a deep playoff run. Sacks however, have been nowhere near the level a championship defense should be.
2010 was a debacle for the Colts defense, the worst in these last six years. They were 30th in interceptions, and 23rd in sacks.
Super Bowl Champion Green Bay on the other hand, was second in the league in both categories, while runner-up Pittsburgh was 5th and 3rd, respectively.
The big play ability of the defense just seemed to disappear with the injuries. While the interception rate has been decent in the past, the damaged secondary of 2010 was awful. That damaged secondary made it harder on the already bad, sack situation as well, as quarterbacks could get the ball out of the pocket quicker.
So, the Colts desperately need to improve from 2010 levels of sacks and interceptions, but how?
Well, the return of secondary players from injuries will help dramatically, but the Colts have been below championship caliber levels even while healthy.
The addition of pass rushers at the defensive tackle position (Nevis, Harris) will help as well, especially if one of the new defensive ends (Tyler Brayton, Jamaal Anderson) proves they can pass rush from the tackle position.
If Jerry Hughes continues to develop, the ability to spell Freeney and Mathis would make for a much easier playoff run.
Beyond that, the pieces for the Colts are likely set. They probably won't be picking up any high profile members of the secondary, and they aren't going to turn into Blitzburgh either, although Coyer may amp up the blitzes a notch. The healthy Bob Sanders of '05, '06 playoffs, and '07 isn't coming back.
No, the best action the Colts can take for 2010 is one that Coltsider author Kyle Mason has implored the Colts to take:
Play more bump and run coverage on the outsides.
The Colts have acquired more man-to-man corners over the last few years (Jerraud Powers, Justin Tryon, Kevin Thomas), and the tighter coverage would allow the pass rushers a few more precious seconds to get to the quarterback.
They have the pieces to do it, and the soft zone isn't working anymore.
Hey, maybe, just maybe, if all of the key Colts defenders are healthy in 2010, they can play well enough to be a decent defense. If all the defense could stay healthy, they might be able to be good enough to ride on the offense's coattails to a Super Bowl (assuming the offense is at league leading levels again).
But why take that chance, especially with the injury history on this defense? Increase the amount of bump and run coverage on the outside, and you just might lighten the load on Peyton Manning's shoulders.
You just might turn into a championship-worthy defense.