If the Indianapolis Colts’ offense is as coordinator Pep Hamilton suggests the “Greatest ‘Shoe on Turf,” what’s the defense?
“You stumped me there,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said recently during offseason training activities.
At best, it’s going to be a work in progress.
The Colts don’t know for sure when outside linebacker Robert Mathis will be healthy from his Achilles tendon tear that cost him last season. Mathis, who led the NFL in sacks in 2013 and is the franchise’s all-time leader in that category, is a key component. They can rush the passer without him, but they’re better when he’s on the field. Mathis often demands double teams.
In a 3-4 scheme that starts with getting pressure on the pocket, the Colts’ defense faltered in this area against elite teams last season. And that created problems in run defense, which the New England Patriots exploited in a 45-7 AFC Championship Game rout.
Offseason questions about this team have centered around Mgnusky’s defense. Critics were aghast when the team used its first-round pick on wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. Although the next four picks were used on defense, the continual concern is did the Colts do enough?
They added outside linebacker Trent Cole and defensive end Kendall Langford in free agency. Both fill need positions, especially Cole if Mathis can’t be ready when the season starts. Inside linebacker Nate Irving was signed to bolster the run defense, although he’s coming off a season-ending knee injury. Dwight Lowery was added at safety, although it’s uncertain if he’s a long-term solution or just a temporary fix.
Manusky, who likes to say “across the board” a lot in his interviews, used the term again when assessing the newcomers.
“Across the board, the guys we brought in from Dwight to Trent to Kendall, just guys that are football players,” he said. “We lost some guys, of course, but these guys are, more than anything, it’s a very astute group of defensive players this year. I think, across the board, from the draft choices, the guys we picked up through free agency, they’re very serious about playing ball and getting better at their profession.”
The Colts added cornerback D’Joun Smith and defensive end Henry Anderson in the third round of the draft. Smith will compete for playing time although the team would appear to be set with Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler as the top three corners. Toler is in a contract year, so Smith might be a year away from playing regularly with the base defense. Anderson should see time as a reserve behind Langford. The idea is to keep the guys up front with a rotation.
Safety Clayton Geathers was drafted in the fourth round and, while raw, head coach Chuck Pagano said recently the rookie has the speed and tenacity to contribute right away. That still might be as a reserve behind Lowry and returnee Mike Adams, who made his first Pro Bowl last season and was re-signed to a two-year deal.
Nose tackle David Parry is a fifth-round pick who will get a look as a reserve, although the Colts will likely start out with Josh Chapman and Montori Hughes. How much time Parry gets probably won’t be known until he gets on the field in preseason.
The Colts know they have to fix a run defense that allowed 177 yards and three TDs in the Patriots debacle. While effective at times during the regular season, it didn’t hold up in the most important game. And good teams don’t become great until they win Super Bowls.
“I think we finished up 11th or 12th against the run (15th, 113.4 yards allowed per game), but when the teams come in and they start running, it’s hard to get into that groove,” Manusky said. “We’ve got to do a better job of coaching it and we’ve got to do a better job actually executing it as well.”
The Colts broke down the run defense and came up with 419 plays in which they allowed an average gain of 2.2 yards. On 59 others, they allowed about 12 yards per carry.
“It’s either missed tackles or communication,” the coordinator said. “So communication is one of the biggest things defensively we need to do, across the board. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, across the board. If that means taking less out or putting more in, it defends on the players that you have.”
The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are a constant reminder of the Colts’ past shortcomings. Another continual question: Have the Colts closed the gap on their rivals?
“That’s what we’re going to try to do,” Manusky said. “Every year you go into with the expectations of beating every team and for us to beat every team and do that, you’ve got to have that plan set in place going across the board. With the guys we added, it’s going to help us get to where we want to get to.”
If not, continual questions about the defense won’t just stop, they’ll be asked with greater frequency.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.