Analysis: What's No. 1 Problem With Colts' 30th-Ranked Defense?

It's easy to blame cornerbacks for giving up pass plays, but root of problem starts up front with Colts' pass rush.

When watching the Indianapolis Colts defense, how many times do you scream about cornerbacks Greg Toler, Darius Butler or Vontae Davis being burned in coverage?

At the same time, how often do you watch to see if the defensive line is getting consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback?

Not that I’m a football genius, but some stuff is pretty obvious for anyone to see if they know what they’re looking at. And when sizing up the Colts’ No. 1 problem with their 3-4 defensive scheme, it starts with the pass rush.

The Colts favor a defense that relies on pressure, which includes blitzing, while cornerbacks play press coverage because quarterbacks are supposed to have less time to throw. Granted, Toler often plays back because he’s more of an instinctive defender who is prone to mistakes when anticipating a play. Bottom line, when quarterbacks have all day to throw, even the best cover guys are going to give up big plays because receivers have more time to break free.

In looking at pressure, the most common statistic cited are sacks. They get defensive players paid, although there’s more to defense than tackling the quarterback. Sticking with sacks, the Colts have 19 in 12 games. That ranks 28th. In sacks per pass play, the Colts rank 29th.

Extrapolating that number to account for the final four games of the season, the Colts are on pace to finish with 25 sacks. Since 1994, they’ve been that low only one other time. It’s a significant drop-off from 41 last season, when six-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Robert Mathis missed the season, and 42 the year before that.

Mathis, the franchise career leader with 115 sacks, has just four this season. He hasn’t had one in four games. Outside linebacker Trent Cole was signed to a two-year, $14-million contract because he has 85.5 career sacks. He has only one. Outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, last season’s leader with 6.5, has only one.

The Colts are 6-4 in games with a sack, not exactly an overwhelming statistic, but it does remind of two double-digit losses without any, including Sunday night’s 45-10 embarrassment at Pittsburgh.

But, as mentioned, pressure isn’t just about sacks. NFL coaches remind quarterback hurries/hits are equally important, if not more. Are the Colts getting consistent pressure on the pocket? The answer, obviously, is no. They have 61 quarterback hits, 12 fewer than their opponents.

Defensive end Kendall Langford leads the team with 12 quarterback hits. Mathis and outside linebacker Erik Walden have 11. Cole has six, Newsome two.

So back to those cornerbacks. It’s true, they’ve all had their share of humbling moments. After making the first Pro Bowl of his six-year career last season, when he didn’t allow a touchdown pass, Davis has been scored on seven times this season, according to

That’s the Colts’ best cover guy. What happened?

While it’s fair to make an argument that Davis is good but not great, his precipitous drop-off is another example of what’s not working. He’s assigned the NFL’s No. 1 receivers. The Colts wanted him to take the next step this season, which meant shadowing Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall, among others.

But those guys don’t need extra time to get open. They’re going to make their share of plays. And when the Colts’ pass rush isn’t getting to Ben Roethlisberger, well, we saw what happened Sunday night, when Brown had a couple of touchdowns and finished with eight catches for 118 yards.

Colts head coach Chuck Pagano admitted the obvious Wednesday, that the pass rush hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“Yeah, our goal was obviously much more than that,” he said. “So we’ll keep working, we’re going to keep grinding, keep coaching, keep playing, keep teaching. That’s all you can do.”

At this point in the season, as the weather turns cold in December and everyone starts thinking of the playoffs in January, and if the Colts will make their fourth consecutive postseason appearance, the reality is we know what this team has with its pass rush.

Not all the amount of coaching can fix the problem. Timely blitzes help, sure, but also expose that secondary when they don’t work. So unless defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and Pagano can dial up near-perfect game plans, this flaw will continually be exposed.

Moving forward, perhaps the most pressing question that needs an answer is how and who will fix this in the offseason? If owner Jim Irsay retains general manager Ryan Grigson for the final year of a contract, can he cut his losses with guys like Cole and bring in enough guys to make a difference, especially when considering the team’s No. 1 priority should be bolstering the offensive line, as it has been for four years now.

A new GM would have the same predicament. Toler is in a contract year, by the way, and it’s doubtful he’s re-signed. So the Colts will be tinkering with their secondary, too.

Until the pass rush is fixed, sorry to say, don’t expect this defense to show much improvement.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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