Not to nitpick, but the Indianapolis Colts realize they didn’t do much in the NFL draft to impact their pass rush.
Put simply, they thought the guys they wanted came off the board too soon and the Colts weren’t going to reach for a player if unconvinced he could help.
“We know that’s a need,” owner Jim Irsay said. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to solve every need.”
While Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano gushed about the eight players they did select, including four offensive linemen, they also acknowledged the need that wasn’t addressed with an impact player.
“No, there were some players that we looked at, but we felt as a group that those players came off early,” Grigson said. “We weren’t just going to take a guy to take a guy if we didn’t feel like they could come in and actually contribute in some way. If they weren’t going to be able to rush the passer or set an edge or both or even contribute on special teams, then we really had no need for them.
“There are no utopias. You can’t address every single need in the draft. We got more picks to try to help address more, but again, you saw that we took more than some people would think we needed O-line. I think the line on both sides of the ball, you can never have enough of those guys, so we tried to stock the shelves and we’re going to create some competition.”
The Colts did use a seventh-round pick on Maine defensive end Trevor Bates, who will shift to outside linebacker. He had 19 career sacks, including 1.5 against NCAA Division I competition, during his small college career. But it’s fair to say Bates likely must earn a roster spot on special teams.
That means new Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino is going to have to count on franchise all-time sack leader Robert Mathis, who has 118 career sacks but is 35 and entering a contract year. If Mathis is disruptive, though, he'll often draw double teams. He and defensive end Kendall Langford tied for the team lead with seven sacks last season. More production is needed from outside linebacker Trent Cole, who is 33 and had just three sacks in his first Colts season then took a pay cut to return.
The Colts tied for 22nd with just 35 sacks last season. Their 3-4 defense is built on blitzing and pressuring the pocket. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was among the several assistants who took the fall for shortcomings in not being retained.
Especially after the recent release of outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, who led the team in sacks as a rookie in 2014 but was cut after a February marijuana possession arrest, the Colts realize they need new blood in the edge-rushing department. For now, finding players to help will require more time, and possibly another draft a year from now.
“I think it’s something where we knew kind of coming into this draft,” Irsay said, “we weren’t going to frustrate ourselves about pretending that we were going to be able to solve every need, for the rest of this decade, just with this draft.”
Pagano said the scheme will rely upon strong back-end coverage as well as being more effective on first and second down to force opponents into predictable third-and-long situations.
“Yeah, obviously we still have some guys on the roster currently that have a lot of sack production. We still feel good about those guys,” Pagano said. “With Ted (Monachino) coming in, he’ll do a great job. Our defensive staff will do a great job. We’ll find ways to generate pressure.
“It’s got to be a combination. The back end gets an interception because of pressure on the quarterback. The defensive line gets sacks because of tight coverage. It all goes hand in hand and works together. We’ll find ways to generate pass rush. I know the emphasis was on the offensive line and pass rush and so forth. Like Ryan said, there were guys there. Everybody’s coveting the same guys. Then they go off the board and then you’re not going to go reach to reach to try to manufacture something that isn’t there.”
Pagano is predictably positive, sometimes to a fault, about the faith he has in his players. The reality is, the Colts’ pass rush is older and will likely rely more on blitzing, which can expose defenders in pass coverage. The Colts ranked 24th in passing defense at 257.1 yards allowed per game last season. They tied for 19th in 29 passing touchdowns allowed.
Anyone who recalls how Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shredded the Colts secondary in each of the past two seasons for a combined 886 yards and 10 touchdowns in two blowouts is well aware of how quickly it can fall apart. The Steelers used an extra blocker to neutralize the Colts’ blitzes and pass rush, giving “Big” Ben all day to throw in 45-10 and 51-34 regular-season routs at Heinz Field. The Steelers visit the Colts on Thanksgiving Night Nov. 24 this season.
“I feel great about the guys that we have currently on our roster on our defensive side of the football,” Pagano said. “I feel great about our staff and our ability to put together schemes to be able to get after the quarterback. We’ve got to play great defense on first and second down and get people in third-down-and-long situations to be able to do that and get after the quarterback.
“We’ll be fine.”
Time will tell if that's misplaced optimism in 2016.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.