Bye Week Progress Report: Defense

After a rocky start to the season, the Colts appear to have settled things down on defense. How are they really doing? Brad Keller takes a look.

Pass Defense:

The pass defense currently ranks ninth overall, which is impressive considering that the Colts have been way ahead in the second half of their last three games and faced two teams in a row —the Cardinals and Seahawks — that abandoned the running game early.

Even more impressive is that Indianapolis has faced the second most attempts per game — they are lower than a lot of teams in terms of total attempts faced because of the bye week — and are tied with the Buffalo Bills for yards per attempt given up. The only team that has faced more attempts than the Colts are the Tennessee Titans, who obviously have their fair share of issues in the secondary.

They also rank seventh in terms of passer rating allowed, with an opposing passer rating of 71.0 and have given up only two touchdown passes, which proves that last year's record-setting touchdown pass allowed mark was not a fluke.

The best news here is that Indianapolis has been ahead in games consistently since the Monday night contest against the Dolphins in Week 2 and the pass defense has not yielded.  Even when they needed to close out a game, as they did in Week 1 and Week 2, they were able to pressure the opposing quarterback and get the stop necessary to prevent a comeback.

So far they have proven that they can be trusted not only in crunch time, but in garbage time as well, as opponents have been unable to pass their way back into a game and haven't been able to pass their way to victory.

They have 13 sacks through the first five games, which is an average of 2.6 per game and would put them at 42 sacks for the season if they keep this pace up.  That would be a dramatic improvement over the past three seasons, but would also mean Dwight Freeney would finish with 19.5 sacks and Robert Mathis would finish with 13 sacks.  Freeney and Mathis have ten of the 13 sacks that the Colts have registered thus far (76.9 percent), which is actually ahead of the pace they were on last year (22 out of 30, or 73.3 percent). But someone other than Freeney and Mathis needs to step up and pressure the quarterback.

That could be Raheem Brock.  It could be Freddy Keiaho, or Gary Brackett.  It's possible that the mystery blitzer will be Bob Sanders when he returns from the PUP list.

Whoever it is, Larry Coyer needs to find another player that can get to the quarterback and a scheme that puts that player in the best position to succeed.  Freeney and Mathis will get to the quarterback regardless of scheme or situation, but they can not be solely depended upon to provide all the pressure and production for this defense.

One of the things that they can do in order to improve their passer rating against is to force more interceptions.  They currently have four interceptions on the season and have recovered four fumbles, two of which were coughed up by quarterbacks.

It could be that their turnover margin will improve once Sanders, Kelvin Hayden, and Marlin Jackson are back on a consistent basis, but, since they had only 15 interceptions in 2008, they're probably on pace for about as many turnovers as they're going to get.  If opponents are continually forced into passing situations, though, and the Colts continue to face a high volume of pass attempts, the best way to kill a drive and the spirits of the opposition is to force a turnover.

While it's true that turnovers can be fickle things and a lot of it depends on situations and bounces of the ball that are out of a defense's control, it's also true that a team can make their own luck.  Indianapolis should have plenty of opportunities in the next several weeks to do just that and they need to capitalize on those opportunities.

Run Defense:

The Colts are currently ranked 14th against the run, allowing an average of 103.2 yards per game on the ground.  This is a serious improvement over the 24th overall ranking and 122.9 yards per game they allowed in 2008, slight improvement over 2007 (16th and 106.9), and a tremendous improvement over 2006 (32nd and 173). It's also a major step forward when you take into consideration that they started out 2008 on pace to be one of the worst run defenses of all time.

Indianapolis has allowed 516 total yards on the ground through five games, but 353 of those yards came in the first two games, with the implosion at Miami being the worst showing by far of the young season.  One of the factors in the success of the run defense over the past three games — they're allowing only 54.3 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry — has been the fact that they haven't faced many attempts, so they opponents haven't had the chance to pile up a bunch of yards.

Coyer's defenses have a reputation for stopping the run — which is one of the reasons that Jim Caldwell brought him in — and Johnson is certainly a factor as well, but the biggest difference between the 2009 season so far, the last three games in particular, and the previous three seasons, has been the fact that Colts defenders are finally maintaining their lanes and gaps and have been attacking the line of scrimmage.

Against the Dolphins, the Colts were consistently blown off the ball and pushed around at the point of attack.  Since then, there has been an aggressive shift in their style of play on defense.

They are attacking.  They are swarming.  They are being aggressive.  But, they are also maintaining their rush lanes and gap assignments.

They basically shut down Chris Johnson, who is one of the best backs in the league.  They are playing with a level of intensity, enthusiasm, and discipline that I have not seen before.

They will continue to face stiff tests throughout the rest of the season, with Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, and Steve Slaton coming up in the next three weeks, but they also seem to be well positioned to handle those tests.  As of right now they are successful and are intimidating opposing tailbacks.  The interesting thing for the balance of the season will be to see how they react to that success.

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