Season in Review:
Mathis and Freeney were as dynamic a duo as ever in 2009 and they were both voted to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, finishing with a combined 23 sacks and six forced fumbles. They were the two biggest playmakers for the Colts on defense in the regular and postseason and Freeney was sorely missed in the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.
Muir and Johnson survived early-season adjustments to Larry Coyer's new defense and a late-season hiccup to finish respectably against the run in the regular season and were actually ranked second behind the Baltimore Ravens in average rushing yards per game allowed. Granted, it was a team effort by the entire front seven that accounted for this huge improvement from the current and previous seasons, but Muir and Johnson were a big part of the turnaround and deserve their share of the credit.
Dawson and Brock continued to contribute as specialty pass rushers, with Brock spelling Freeney and Mathis when either went down with an injury and Dawson filling in wherever necessary. Baldwin, Gill, and Moala continued to be on the roster, which is good for them. Foster found a bit of a pass rushing groove late in the season, but tailed off in the postseason and, overall, didn't do much to refine his game.
The starting front four of Freeney, Muir, Johnson, and Mathis proved to be a formidable combination throughout the season. Mathis and Freeney took care of killing the quarterback and Muir and Johnson clogged up running lanes and made an historically soft middle of the defense a strength in 2009.
For all their pass rushing acumen, Mathis and Freeney still held up well enough against the run and helped occupy the attention of blockers and tight ends so that Clint Session and Philip Wheeler were free to flow to the football.
Brock and Dawson were versatile as always and their ability to line up as either defensive tackles or defensive ends in the Colts' 4-3 scheme gives Coyer a number of moving parts and different options on defense. For this system, switching up the tackles and ends is about exotic as things get in terms of different looks and varying personnel.
In 2008, Freeney and Mathis accounted for 22 of the 30 total sacks produced by the defense (73.3 percent). In 2009, those numbers fell to 23 and 34, which was an "improvement" to 67.7 percent, but still not kind of sack ratio that Indianapolis was looking for. It's true that the sack numbers would have been more evenly distributed had the Colts blitzed more.
It's true that Muir and Johnson were not brought on board to pressure the quarterback. But it's also true that, as the team discovered in the Super Bowl, the pass rush is crippled when one (or both) of the Pro Bowl ends are out of the line-up. Without a suitable replacement for Freeney or Mathis, the pass rush will continue to falter if either man misses any time.
Muir and Johnson finished the season with 1.5 sacks combined, which is less than the 2.5 that Foster had and the 3.5 that Brock had in limited action. Indianapolis will suffer too much of a dropoff in their run defense if they swap in Brock and Foster for Muir and Johnson, so those two men simply need to step up.
It's possible that Gill and Moala could make a quantum leap in their development over the course of the offseason, but that can't be counted upon. Baldwin adds further credence to the theory that this is a seven-man rotation that just happens to have ten players in it.
Depth is a concern, quality is a concern, and the fact that the front four are virtually irreplaceable at this point is a concern. All of these concerns add up to one major issue for the Colts as they head into 2010.
One of the few areas of free agency where the Colts seem to be open to signing people is along the defensive line. They traded for Anthony McFarland, they signed Baldwin, Johnson, and Muir, and they have an on-again, off-again relationship with Josh Thomas.
An intriguing player is Green Bay's Aaron Kampman. Kampman was an end in the 4-3 scheme the Packers used to deploy and did not make a smooth transition to the 3-4 defense when they switched over to it last offseason. It is unlikely that he will re-sign with the team, but it's also very likely that another 4-3/Cover 2 team will outbid Indianapolis for his services.
With the depth they have at end, they are one quality player away from having a solid outside pass rush and Kampman could be their guy if he remains unemployed for a little while after free agency opens.
At tackle, the Colts have a couple of guys that have a great deal of talent and upside in Gill and Moala, so they will probably spend another offseason trying to see if either one turns into the player they thought he'd be. If neither one shows much promise by the middle of next season, they will probably find themselves on the losing end of a position battle, much the way Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak found themselves during the 2009 season.
Since Moala was a second-round pick in last year's draft, Indianapolis may be hesitant to take another defensive lineman that high. But, history has also shown that they can be successful with first-round defensive line prospects, with Freeney being the most recent example.
They have a number of pieces in place to make this a great rotation, but it all depends on whether or not the players pan out the way the Colts hope they will. There's a lot of work yet to be done. Drafting another player in the first day might just be putting a bandage on the situation rather than doing the work necessary to fix the problem.
But, Freeney and Mathis are also not getting any younger, so it might be time to think about depth for now and a possible replacement for the future.
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Season in Review: Defensive Line
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