Dec. 2, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98) celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Colts Training Camp Preview: The Defense


Last season, the Indianapolis Colts fielded one of the worst defense in the NFL. While they were better than in 2011, the Colts were still pretty bad.

They were 26th in terms of yards allowed per game and, more importantly, 21st in points allowed. The defense generated just 15 takeaways all year (while the offense coughed up the ball 27 times).

Chuck Pagano was the former defensive coordinator for the Ravens, a team that has generally been a top 10 defense for the past 13 years. While Pagano was battling leukemia last year, he wasn’t as involved in game planning or, more importantly, in-game adjustments.

Just having Pagano around every day, along with more talented roster, should improve the Colts defense in 2013.

Defensive Line

The Colts have been running a base 3-4 defense since Pagano took over in 2012. The 3-4 is a bit more versatile than the Colts old 4-3 cover-2 style, but it is a bit harder to find players who fit the system. Case in point, Dwight Freeney. He did not work as an outside, rushing linebacker (which makes you wonder why the Chargers, another 3-4 team, signed him).

The Colts ranked 29th in rushing yards allowed, surrendering 137.5 yards per game. The d-line has to be better at the point of attack. This is why Colts brought in Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin to help tighten up the line play. They also drafted Montori Hughes, a 6-foot-4 329-lbs defensive tackle who is exceptional at stopping the run. All of these players are currently listed as defensive ends, but their main goal will be to stop the run (or at least effectively take out a blocker). There is a lot of depth at the position: Cory Redding, Drake Nevis, and Fili Moala are all still on the roster.

There will be a generous rotation in the defensive line, with players filling a multitude of roles. At nose tackle, the Colts will finally get Josh Chapman on the field. Chapman sat out all of his rookie season with a knee injury. He’ll compete with 10-year veteran Aubrayo Franklin for the starting spot. The two have both seen snaps with the starters in OTAs. Chapman has more upside right now, and Franklin will be more effective if his snaps are limited.

Linebacker

Outside

The Colts have a nice depth of talent at both linebacker positions. Robert Mathis is the only firmly entrenched starter at the outside position right now. This will be the first time Mathis will play a season without Freeney, how he handles the pressure of being the primary rusher will be key for the Colts defense.

Rookie Bjoern Werner was drafted in the first round to add another pass rusher, but he isn’t just a one trick pony. He had 13 sacks his senior year to go along with 18 tackles for losses. He is a solid all around defender, but he might have trouble adjusting to the 3-4 defense. Expect a bit of a learning curve.

The Colts signed Erik Walden from the Packers to play outside LB as well, but not to rush the passer. He has just nine career sacks in six seasons, averaging three a year over the past three.  He’s much more suited to run support and coverage. If Werner picks up the system quickly, he’ll take over the starting spot.

Generating pressure on the quarterback is key, and right now it appears that only two players at this position are adept at pass rushing.

Inside

The Colts seem set with Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman as the starting inside linebackers. Angerer spent a lot of the past season battling injuries and his stats were way down despite playing in 11 games, but he appears to be healthy now and that should translate to more productive play on the field. Freeman emerged as a stud and led the team in tackles with 145 (45 more than the next closest player).

Indianapolis traded perpetual disappointment Jerry Hughes to Buffalo for Kelvin Sheppard. Sheppeard, an LSU product, struggled with consistency but came on strong towards the end of the season. He might compete for a starting spot, but will more likely be the third stringer.

The Colts also still have Kavell Conner. Conner saw limited use last season but was one of the Colts best run stoppers. He was also effective at generating pressure on the quarterback. His best chance of seeing snaps will either be on special teams or if someone is injured.

Cornerback

Vontae Davis appears to be the only cemented starter at the position. Greg Toler was signed from the Cardinals and has been impressive enough to be the defacto number two cornerback for the time being. Toler is a solid player, but hasn’t seen many snaps as a starter, couple that with injury issues and he might be a problem. If he stays healthy, the Colts will have a solid 1-2 at the position.

There is a log jam of solid corners fighting for the third and fourth spots on the Colts roster. Darius Butler has the edge since he just signed a new deal with the team. Butler was very good as a slot defender, but struggled when asked to step up to a starting spot. He was still head and shoulders above Cassius Vaughn, who started much of last season. Vaughn is still with the team despite being a train wreck last year. For some reason, the coaching staff has confidence in Vaughn as the nickel defender, but Butler was one of the top five slot defenders in the league last season.

Injuries have always plagued Colts corners, and depth will be key at the position. If they stay healthy, this will be a solid group.

Safety

Antoine Bethea is still one of the better safeties in the NFL. For the past few seasons, he has been asked to do a lot for the team and was second in tackles with 100 in 2012. He is much more useful as a roaming free safety deep in the back field, but due to the horrible rush defense he was forced to play up in the box more often to offer run support.

The Colts signed LeRon Landry to play strong safety and be the kind of hard hitting presence that fans haven’t seen since, dare I say it, Bob Sanders. Landry is a physical freak, and I mean that in a good way. His ability to smash through the line will let Bethea play his more natural position down field. Landry has had health issues in the past, but he was healthy all of 2012.

Behind these two, at least for the time being, is Joe Lefeged. Lefeged has shown flashes of being a good safety, and is even better on special teams. The problem is that he was arrested on gun-related charges in Washington DC. The case is ongoing and the Colts haven’t cut him just yet. The team would like to keep him in case either starter gets hurt and for his special teams abilities.

Rookie John Boyett was taken in the sixth round with the knowledge that he might not play in 2013. He was projected to be a last second, early third round pick last fall before tearing both patellar tendons in his knees. He is starting out on the non-football injury list (meaning his injury didn’t happen in the NFL). This is the same list the Chapman started the 2012 season on.

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