The Colts’ story from a year ago makes for great football. This was a team that went 2-14 and hit the reset button. Then, their first-year head coach announces out of nowhere that he must miss an undefined amount of time to literally fight for his life. Bruce Arians steps in and leads the team to the playoffs, and Chuck Pagano beats cancer.
As great of a story as it is, in the world of wins and losses (also known as the NFL), that doesn’t mean much now. This season will be Pagano’s first complete year, and his team is very young and in transition. The team has a franchise quarterback and a few weapons on offense. Still, there’s one group of players that could slow the Colts down to a grinding halt.
That group, ironically enough, could be the Colts’ pass rushers. A few years ago, the Colts featured one of the best pass rushes in the game, but as is often the case in the NFL, that quickly changed when the new regime arrived.
One of the reasons the Colts’ pass rush has decayed is simply a byproduct of changing defensive schemes. Under the old regime, the Colts featured a 4-3 defense in which the defensive ends (usually Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney) would fly up field and beat the offensive tackles outside. The strategy relied on playing with the lead. When teams were able to keep the games close, it didn’t work as well, but the pass rush was never the issue.
Now, it’s a completely different landscape in Indianapolis. Gone is the time when the Colts featured the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. Robert Mathis remains, but he’s now an outside linebacker. Freeney is gone altogether.
The Colts will now have to find ways to pressure the quarterback with more than four rushing players. In their 3-4 system, it’s not uncommon to see an additional rusher attack the line of scrimmage beyond the normal three down linemen. With only one headline pass rusher, we may see the Colts get more creative with how they attack the quarterback.
When the Colts featured multiple high quality pass rushers, it was difficult for opponents to shut down one or the other because if they focused on one, it left the other on an island with an offensive tackle, and the opposing quarterback was the big loser in that equation most of the time.
This time around, teams will be able to focus on shutting Robert Mathis down without worrying about another great pass rusher to block. If Chuck Pagano and the Colts recognize this, they may be able to develop a scheme that takes advantage of overzealous blocking on Mathis’ side of the field. At this point, that has yet to be seen, but that’s not something Pagano and the Colts would be putting on tape in preseason action.
The old Colts relied on their pass rush to set up the rest of the defense. This version of the team is built in the opposite manner. The Colts have a solid group of players on the defensive side of the ball, but when they don’t get a pass rush, it will be tough to hold coverage. That’s the Colts’ biggest challenge heading into 2013, in my not-very humble opinion. Can the Colts still generate a pass rush with only one star sack machine?