Season in Review: Defensive Line

In the first of ColtPower.com's unit-by-unit reviews, we take a look at the defensive line, a unit that was bound to suffer once Dwight Freeney got placed on injured reserve. But no one had any idea it would suffer as much as it did throughout the rest of the season.

Starters: LE Robert Mathis, LT Raheem Brock, RT Ed Johnson, RE Dwight Freeney.

Backups: DT Anthony McFarland, DE Josh Thomas, DT Darrell Reid, DT Keyunta Dawson, DT Quinn Pitcock, DE Jeff Charleston, DT Dan Klecko, DT Joe Bradley, DE Ben Ishola, DE J.J. Milan.

Season In Review:

Freeney and McFarland finished the season on injured reserve, with McFarland missing all of 2007 with a knee injury.  Though Johnson filled in admirably for McFarland and was the only Colts defensive lineman to start every game this season, he is not as dynamic.


DE Josh Thomas
Al Messershmidt/Getty

Sack production was way down in general, as Indianapolis registered only 28 sacks for the season and the defensive line accounted for only 22 of those — in past years, all but one or two quarterback takedowns have been by the front four.

In the eight games after Freeney's injury, the defense recorded only 11 total sacks, which includes a zero sack effort in the playoff game against the Chargers.

In order for the defense as a whole to be effective, the four down linemen need to be able to pressure the quarterback.  The inability to find a suitable replacement for Freeney — Josh Thomas held up against the run but disappeared in the passing game, though he was more successful than the Simeon Rice experiment — forced Ron Meeks to blitz more often than he was comfortable with, and that blitzing resulted in holes in the zone on the back end.

The good news is at the tackle positions, where Johnson gained a full season of experience and played well and Brock proved that he is an excellent two-way defender by plugging the middle on first and second down and moving to end on some third downs.

Strengths:

Indianapolis' biggest asset on defense heading into next season is their depth at defensive tackle.  With McFarland coming back, Brock coming into his own this season, and Johnson with starting experience, the Colts have the best three-man tackle rotation this side of the Minnesota Vikings.  When you add young, talented players like Pitcock and Reed into the mix, the Colts are actually five deep at the position, which would make them the envy of the league.

At this point, it would be foolish to make an attempt to keep pending free agent Dan Klecko, as he saw only limited action this season, even with McFarland on IR and Brock in and out of the lineup with a rib injury.


DT Ed Johnson
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Though this season was disappointing for the defensive line on many levels, the starting four for Indianapolis is still among the best in the league when healthy.  If Freeney and McFarland can make full recoveries, Johnson can accept a lesser role, and Mathis and Brock come back strong as well, the struggles of 2007 will be a distant memory.  When the line is playing at a high level, it can mask a number of deficiencies in the back seven.

Also, with a number of young players joining the unit this year, they will all have a full season of experience with the system as well as a full off-season of OTAs, minicamps, and training camp.

Defensive line coach John Teerlinck will be able to work with his young talent on some of the finer points of their responsibilities in this defense, instead of just simply telling them where they're supposed to be.

Needs Improvement:

Depth at defensive end is obviously the biggest concern for this unit and the defense as a whole heading into next season.

Although any team that lost two of its stars to injured reserve would struggle mightily, there was simply too much of a drop off in production this season.  While the defense did record 11 sacks in the second half of the season, those numbers came against the likes of the Falcons, Texans, Chiefs, and Raiders, and lack of pressure from the edges equals lack of pressure in general when it comes to this defense.

Building quality depth, not just quantity depth, should be a priority this offseason.  The Colts don't have too many high-profile players set to hit the market this offseason, so it is possible that they will be players in free agency.

What's Next?:

Since Indianapolis does not have a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, they would best fill their depth needs in free agency.  Though the pickings are slim at the end position, there are some diamonds in the rough that could improve quality as well as quantity at the position.

Oakland's Chris Clemons, who was used the past two seasons mainly as a situational pass rusher, should be available and fits what the Colts are looking for from a size, speed, and pass rush perspective.

Nick Eason of the Steelers may be a stretch, since he is probably too big and not explosive enough in the passing game, but he is accustomed to a backup role, is not likely to be retained by Pittsburgh, and would present a better alternative than Thomas.  The same holds true for Arizona's Bo Schobel.  The possibility always exists for accomplished starters such as Tennessee's Travis LaBoy or Jacksonville's Bobby McCray, but both of those men have a low probability of being available.

As far as Colts free agents along the defensive line, only Thomas and Klecko will be eligible to hit the unrestricted market and Reid will be a restricted free agent.  Reid will almost certainly be tendered a qualifying offer.

Thomas may be re-signed to a one or two year offer, but Indianapolis will most likely take their chances that a better player will become available to them in free agency — additionally, they'll almost certainly win the gamble that Thomas will still be available after the first two weeks of free agency at a lower price if they are unable to sign a replacement.

It would be a tremendous surprise if Klecko was brought back, considering that he was unable to win playing time this season and the Colts look to be five deep at tackle without him next season.

Looking ahead to the draft, it is very top-heavy on both the offensive and defensive lines.  Since Indianapolis doesn't have a pick in the top 32, they should be able to find quality in the later rounds, since there appears to be little separating a second-round prospect and a fifth-round prospect at this point.


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