The Best Defense in Indianapolis History

Phil B. greets us this morning with a story about the #1 defense in the NFL.  The discussion yesterday got me wondering if the 2009 defense might be the best in Colts’ history. It’s important to gain some sense of context as we talk about these teams.  Understanding past Colts squads can help us avoid overstatements and prevent us from falling into the trap of “whatever is happening RIGHT NOW is the greatest, best, worst…”.  I’ve gone through the all the Colts’ teams since the move to find the five most worthy candidates.  My primary criteria was league ranking in points allowed, but no matter how you slice it, these five are really the only contenders.  The only other options would be the fraudulent 2002 team that gave up 41 points in the playoffs (they get on this list over my dead body) and the 2006 team, but only the playoff version.  That is obviously not a valid comparison.

Here are the 5 best Colts defenses in chronological order:

1987 Colts (15 Games):

Record 9-6
Points Allowed Per game 15.9
League Rank 1
Turnovers Forced 44 (2.9)
DVOA (negative is good) n/a
Games Under 10 Points 5
Games Over 20 7
Playoff PPG 38

1995 Colts

Record 9-7
Points Allowed per Game 19.8
League Rank 5
Turnovers Forced 26 (1.6)
DVOA (negative is good) 3.8%
Games Under 10 Points 1
Games over 20 8
Playoff PPG 15.7

2005 Colts

Record 14-2
Points Allowed per Game 15.4
League Rank 2
Turnovers Forced 31 (1.9)
DVOA (negative is good) -12.2%
Games Under 10 Points 6
Games over 20 6
Playoff PPG 21

2007 Colts

Record 13-3
Points Allowed per Game 16.4
League Rank 1
Turnovers Forced 37 (2.3)
DVOA (negative is good) -12.3%
Games Under 10 Points 2
Games over 20 6
Playoff PPG 28

2009 Colts (10 games)

Record 10-0
Points Allowed per Game 15.7
League Rank 1
Turnovers Forced 19 (1.9)
DVOA (negative is good) -8.5%
Games Under 10 Points 2
Games over 20 2
Playoff PPG n/a

Observations:

  • Note I’m not using yards to rank the defenses.  Yards are utterly irrelevant.  Defense is about points and turnovers.
  • The 1987 Colts forced an insane 44 turnovers in 15 games.  They were aided greatly by a 7 turnover game against Buffalo and a 5 turnover game against the Jets during the first two ‘scab’ games.  The ’87 team had a good D, but the numbers aren’t all that useful thanks to the bogus games.
  • The ’95 Colts had a solid D, but it was a cut below the rest.  Still, they were very strong in the playoffs, and I’m glad to have them represented.
  • The 2007 Colts managed to weather injuries throughout the year, but folded in the playoffs due to a lack of pass rush with Freeney being out. 
  • The 2009 Colts might not have as many dominant games (under 10 points) as the 2005 team, but it seems likely that they’ll allow fewer 20 point games than any Colts’ team since the franchise came to Indy.

The Verdict:

I’m going with the 2007 “Pre-Freeney Injury” Colts.  I know that’s cheating because you have to take the whole season, but they forced a few more turnovers than the 2005 and 2009 Colts.

It’s interesting to see how closely the 2005 and 2009 Colts mirror each other.  The 2009 team has been a bit more steady (3.9% variance to 6.6% for 2005 for the DVOA math nerds who care).  Both teams forced the same number of turnovers, and the PPG difference is negligible.  If we want to get down to ‘yards’ as a measure (just to differentiate a little more), the 2005 Colts were 11th over all (307 ypg), and the 2009 Colts are 15th (326 ypg).  Both teams had a ‘shoot out’ style game (2005 Colts won a wild one down in Cincinnati).

Truthfully, however, there is no reason the 2009 Colts can’t become the best defense in Indianapolis history.  They certainly merit inclusion in the discussion at this point, and need only a couple of more games at a high level to lay a serious claim to the title.  If they go out and shut teams down in the playoffs, it’ll be a moot point.

Everyone will remember 2009 as the Year of The Defense in Indianapolis.

UPDATE:

35er wrote to ask about some drive efficiency stats (like points per drive).  Fortunately, we have the footballoutsiders wealth of data to help us. Note that “Drive Success Rate” is: the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown. For a defense, the lower the number, the better.

2009:

yards/drive 29.23 20th
points/drive 1.45 7th
drive success rate .664 17th
TO/drive .165 6th

2007:

yards/drive 28.10 16th
points/drive 1.44 5th
drive success rate .686 22nd
TO/drive .222 2nd

2005:

yards/drive 28.27 22nd
points/drive 1.45 8th
drive success rate .658 14th
TO/drive .181 4th

The data doesn’t help much.  All three measured teams (data not available before 1998) are right about in the same spot.  Indy always plays a “bend, don’t break” defense which will lead to low rankings in yards/drive.  The 2009 team may just give up more yards due to longer kickoffs (the 2009 team has the best starting LoS of the three).  The one area that shows is that the 2007 team forced a turnover better than once every 5 drives.

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