The Colts defense finished 2008 ranked 24th against the rush and 16th in average yards allowed per rush.
Inside the Numbers:
Given that they faced the seventh most attempts in the NFL last season, it's actually fairly impressive that Indianapolis didn't give up more rushing yards in 2008.
Obviously, they were on pace to be historically bad when the 2008 season opened and rebounded nicely to finish with only slightly embarrassing numbers, but they still obviously struggled to stop the run.
Their biggest struggles came up the middle, where teams ran the ball 174 times for a 4.22 yard average. The second most vulnerable part of the defense was off right tackle and around right end — in the direction of left end Robert Mathis — where attempts off right tackle gained 4.7 yards per carry and attempts around the right end of the offensive formation gained 4.48 yards per carry.
The Colts faced the most attempts up the middle in the NFL and the fifth-most attempts off right tackle, so it is apparent that offenses were readily able to find the weaknesses in the Indianapolis defense and exploit them.
Where they were strong was on the right side of the defense, where they had exceptional averages: 3.29 yards off left guard, 3.86 yards off left tackle, and a league best 3.07 yards off left end.
Mathis is no run-stopper, but sitting him down isn't the solution
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
Apparently, the alleged weaknesses against the run of Eric Foster, Antonio Johnson, and Dwight Freeney were overstated, although Foster and Johnson must admit some culpability for the issues up the middle.
Also, it is fairly reasonable to assume that offenses understood that they could gain all the yards they wanted to by running up the middle and to the right and didn't bother to probe the left side of the offensive formation any more than necessary.
These stats do offer some absolution for Freeney, though, as the number of attempts off left tackle ranked 17th and the attempts off left end ranked 24th.
Mathis is obviously undersized to play the end position in the NFL at 245 pounds, but his issues with stopping the run are well documented, as are the injury troubles the Colts had at the strongside linebacker position in 2008.
Taking Mathis out of the lineup on first and second down is not the answer and, if the linebacker on his side of the field is able to stay healthy, that will certainly help production.
The unsettled nature of the defensive tackle position was a severe problem for the Colts defense throughout the 2008 season, starting with the release of Ed Johnson and culminating with Foster's and Antonio Johnson's respective inabilities to establish themselves as the starters.
And, since the nose tackle position was never set, the under tackle position suffered to stop the run, which would contribute to the gaudy numbers posted by the opposition up the middle and off right guard and tackle.
It is quite evident that, for the defense as a whole to prosper, the fix for one problem is not to remove a Pro Bowl player for two out of three downs. Although Mathis would be — and has been — dangerous as a situational pass rusher, he is too vital to the overall defensive scheme to simply replace him with a better run defender.
Adding players like Moala and Taylor should help the problems "up the middle"
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For a unit that has historically lacked "beef" in the middle of the defense, the Colts defensive tackles now boast four players out of seven that tip the scales at over 300 pounds. If they are looking for a quick fix, they may just want to go big on first and second down, inserting two of the four 300+ pound players into the lineup, and daring teams to run at them.
But, that runs counter to the defensive philosophy that Indianapolis has used for the past decade, so such a paradigm shift seems unlikely — even with new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer calling the plays. The better solution would be to switch Foster — already established as a capable, if overwhelmed, run defender — to the under tackle position and using one of their bigger tackles at the nose tackle slot.
This would minimize any drain on the pass rush, still keep the defensive line relatively small, and maximize the effectiveness of the run defense.
As for Mathis, the hope is that the strongside linebacker position will be stabilized in 2009, given the fact that everyone should be returning healthy, and that Sanders may be able to shade over to his side and give assistance under the assumption that the infusion of talent at defensive tackle will fortify the middle.
After all, the defense will naturally adjust if the only weak spot is off right tackle and right end. Even if they don't, there were 174 attempts "up the middle," which is a vague term, versus 120 attempts to the right edge in general.
Ultimately, the Colts cannot fix everything that is wrong with their run defense in one offseason, but they appear to have patched a number of areas that will significantly improve their effectiveness on the run defense in 2009.
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