The Indianapolis Colts will have an interesting problem for the first four games of the 2014 season. Coach Chuck Pagano and his staff will have to find a way to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks without their best defensive player: Robert Mathis.
Mathis will serve the suspension after failing a drug test for using performance enhancing drugs. There are differing opinions on the suspension, but the fact of the matter is that Mathis didn’t do his due diligence and the Colts will suffer for it.
So how do the Colts respond? What can they do to up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
The good news is that this is hardly the first time this team has had to overcome adversity. Whether is has been in a game, like the 2013 Wild Card rally, or losing a new head coach for most of the season, this team had perservered. This will just be another test to their character.
My co-editor suggested that Bjoern Werner needed to step up to fill the void Mathis leaves, but its not just on Werner. Yes, he will likely get the start for those four games, but he is still a work in progress. There are long time veterans who will have to step up their game in Mathis’ absence
The good news is that this suspension wasn’t handed down right before the season began. The Colts have time to come up with new plans and four preseason games to test those adjustments.
The bad news is that those four games won’t be a walk in the park. They open the season facing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. I’m sure you’ve heard of the guy once or twice. Mathis nearly won last season’s meeting with the Broncos single handedly. He had two sacks, four QB hits, and a forced fumble that resulted in a safety.
The Colts also face the Philadelphia Eagles, who had the fourth best scoring offense in the league last season. They’ll also face two divisional opponents in the Jacksonville Jaguars (featuring a rookie QB) and the Tennessee Titans.
Who else needs to step up for the Colts?
For one, Erik Walden finally living up to his absurd contract would be nice. Walden simply hasn’t played well for the Colts. He is completely ineffective when rushing the passer, Pro Football Focus gave him a -8.4 grade for the season in this category. He had just three sacks last year, so hoping for Walden to start producing is a pipe dream.
Werner was drafted specifically to rush the passer. He missed a few games due to injury, but really wasn’t that effective when he did play. He always seemed a step slow, or ended up out of place to make a play. Werner was right there with Walden when rushing, at -8.0 for the season.
Newly signed defensive end Arthur Jones could help with the rush as well. He is more of a run stopper, but just having improved talent across the line should generate more pressure on opposing QBs. While he finished with a positive pass rush grade, his numbers are skewed by two big games against the Browns last season.
Jones does do a good job of collapsing the pocket and making quarterbacks uncomfortable. Just that ability would help other players either get to the QB or force him into a bad decision.
The next best pass rusher on the roster after Mathis was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Freeman struggled in run support and pass coverage for most of the season, but when asked to provide inside pressure he was exceptional. He finished the season with 5.5 sacks, second on the team behind Mathis’ 19.5.
In reality, the front seven of this Colts team isn’t very good. Hopefully the new additions will make a difference, but without Mathis providing a pass rush coupled with this questionable secondary it doesn’t look good. Based on the current makeup of the defense, I predict Manning’s over/under on touchdowns in Week One to be 5.5.
The Colts will be leaning on the team’s two worst pass rushers to get to opposing quarterbacks for four week. This is the definition of trial by fire. If Werner can get 2-3 sacks in that time frame, then we’ll know he wasn’t a complete bust.
With so much time until that first game (111 days) the Colts staff have plenty of time to prep their players and get creative with the game plan. The Colts already had enough problems with the defense without having to lose their best player for a few weeks. This is just another opportunity for the team to overcome adversity, and be bailed out by Andrew Luck and the offense.