Damage Control: Defense

It's no secret that the Colts have not played their best football through the first three weeks of the season. Now, they have a bye week to sort things out and get healthy. Brad Keller breaks down what has gone wrong so far on defense and how to fix it.

September has, historically, been Tony Dungy's best month during his tenure with the Colts, as he has gotten the team off to fast — often undefeated — starts in the first quarter of the season.  That's not the case right now, though, as Indianapolis ranks 31st in rushing offense, 20th in overall offense, 25th in scoring offense, 21st in scoring defense, 22nd in total defense, and 30th against the run. That last ranking is actually surprising that they're not 32nd, considering how porous the run defense has been thus far.

Injuries have played a factor, so the bye week gives everyone a chance to get healthy, but what else can the Colts staff and players do to right the ship?

Run Defense:

This has been a weakness of Ron Meeks' defense since he arrived.  Even when the Colts led the league in scoring defense in 2007, they ranked 15th against the rush, allowing over 100 yards per game on the ground.

Freddy Keiaho has been the leader of the defense so far this season
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So far in 2008, they have been even worse — by a considerable margin — allowing almost 200 yards per game.

The release of Ed Johnson obviously didn't help matters, but the Colts do have two excellent candidates to fill his massive shoes as the under tackle in Daniel Muir and LaJuan Ramsey.  The trouble is that, thus far, neither man seems to have assimilated the system and they have yet to spend significant time in the tackle rotation.

Johnson's role in last year's success against the run is underplayed and he certainly was a valuable asset to the team in that capacity, but he is by no means irreplaceable. 

During the bye, John Teerlinck needs to give these two players a crash course in how to play the under tackle position and let the cream rise to the top.  If neither one is up to the task, the Colts need to start looking in another direction, possibly by giving Anthony McFarland a call and bringing him in for a physical.

Linebackers Clint Session and Gary Brackett also need to step up their games — Brackett in particular, as the captain of the defense.  They have been flat-footed and slow to the ball on a number of occasions, forcing Freddy Keiaho to clean up far too often, as evidenced by his 31 tackles.

Tackling has also been a concern in the early going, but this is not a defense that has a track record of poor fundamentals.  The coaching staff will correct this issue and, and with the first man to the ball bringing the offensive player to the ground, the numbers will improve.

The schedule has not been kind, either, facing the Colts off against the fifth, eighth, and 13th best rushing offenses in the league.  It does get easier — though Baltimore, the Colts' opponent in Week Six, is currently the number two rushing team in the league. 

Injuries have played a factor as well, with the loss of Bob Sanders and Tyjuan Hagler in addition to the release of Johnson have left the unit shorthanded, but injuries cannot be used as an excuse.  Simply put, the players need to play better.

Also, an undersized defensive line has allowed itself to be pushed around and pushed off the ball.  Being a 260-pound defensive tackle or 235-pound end does not give a player an excuse to be overwhelmed at the point of attack.  Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are also coming along slowly and have resorted to playing to their strengths instead of using their hands and leverage to get off the blocker and to the ball. This is another item on a long list of things that Teerlinck needs to re-establish in his charges.

The time off to work on the fundamentals, get healthy, and get organized is a boon for the run defense, as is the fact that the Colts will meet a beleaguered Texans team when they come off their bye.

Those two factors will likely converge into a stronger effort in general, though it is unrealistic to expect this unit to make a quantum leap from worst-to-first, since physics still plays a factor in the running game.

If they do not improve, it is going to be a long season, since the best way to defend the Colts potent offense is to keep them off the field, which is exactly what an effective running game can do.

Pass Defense:

Against the pass, the Colts' defense has actually been very effective, ranking second overall at 141 yards per game.  However, that is a combination of the fact that they faced three weak passing teams, their opponents found little resistance when they ran the ball and eschewed the pass, and that the back seven is playing well so far in coverage.

Tim Jennings has struggled against bigger receivers like Randy Moss and Matt Jones
AP Photo/Tom Strattman

Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden have proven over the course of the last 19 games to be a much more formidable duo than were Jason David and Nick Harper as cornerbacks in the Cover 2 defense.  Tim Jennings is a respectable third cornerback and safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt have fared reasonably well in coverage.

However, offenses are finding ways to create favorable matchups by moving their best receivers into the slot or splitting their tight ends away from the formation.  This has left Jennings covering the opponent's best pass catcher, or at a severe disadvantage against a much larger receiver.

In order to remedy this, the Colts need to be more flexible with their coverage schemes, moving Jackson around when necessary, since he matches up against large targets better than any other defensive back on the roster.

Tackling has also been an issue, as has taking poor angles to the ball.  Again, this is a problem with fundamentals and should, if history is anything to shout about, be remedied during the break.  The Colts staff still ranks among the best in the business and their ability to adjust, scheme, and coach is one of the primary reasons for the sustained success of the organization thus far this century.

By far, though, the element missing in the pass defense is the pass rush.  With Freeney and Mathis still getting their sea legs and no established under tackle to fortify the middle, Raheem Brock has been a man without a position.

With another week to rest and get centered, Freeney and Mathis should come back strong.  If Muir or Ramsey can claim the spot opposite Brock, that will allow the Colts the ability to keep Freeney, Mathis, and Brock in the game at the same time without sacrificing the rush or the run defense and give them the flexibility to put the other team in third and long or known passing situations, giving them the freedom to rotate Keyunta Dawson and Eric Foster in, giving them free reign to rush the passer.

Additionally, they need to get creative, rotating rookies Curtis Johnson and Marcus Howard in at defensive tackle — or sliding Mathis or Freeney inside — to put their best upfield rushers in the game.

Also, it's time to start blitzing.  Philip Wheeler was drafted in the third round for a reason and both Jackson and Hayden have proven themselves to be effective blitzers. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, when overmatched and retreat is not an option, it's time to improvise.  That is exactly what the Colts need to do.

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