Don’t Be Surprised Part II – What the 2012 Indianapolis Colts Gained on Defense

Yesterday, Colts Authority took a look at the ongoing rebuild in Indianapolis by focusing on the major pieces and contributors the team has lost leading up to the 2012 season. The names were all very familiar and their contributions were all extremely significant to past Colts teams but, in most cases, drop-offs in production, injuries, age, and a more objective analysis of each individual’s role and contributions hopefully provided some level of clarity for a fan base unsure about the team’s future.

The most important line in yesterday’s story is:

Are the Colts in a full-scale rebuild? The obvious answer is yes, but the ramifications of that rebuild may be different than what it has been for teams in the past.

One of the best ways to gauge where the Indianapolis Colts are as a franchise heading into the 2012 NFL Draft is to take a look at the players that remain from the 2011 team, their roles and how they fit into potential schemes the new coaching staff will likely employ, and the players that general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano have brought into the fray to replace departed pieces.

The defensive line will retain Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala, Drake Nevis, Jerry Hughes, Ollie Ogbu, and Ricardo Mathews. In the 2012 defensive system Chuch Pagano is working to implement, players like Freeney and Mathis should be on the field almost all of the time. Whether they put their hands down in a 4-3 look that will probably include defensive tackles like Nevis and Moala on the inside — and potentially Hughes as a rush linebacker — or stand up with a bigger defensive interior, they will get a lot of looks and have a lot of uses.

Fili Moala came onto the team having to make a transition from being more comfortable as a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 undertackle. There is a chance that the change to a 3-4 look will make a huge difference for his NFL future.

As already mentioned, Hughes is an undersized defensive end in a 4-3 scheme who former general manager Bill Polian hoped would develop into a Robert Mathis-like player. He has failed to succeed in the transition to a full-time hand in the dirt defensive end against NFL competition and will likely get a look as a rushing linebacker in Pagano’s more agressive scheme. His days harassing quarterbacks could resume under such a change as his college success was in that role.

Johnson could fill as a backup nose tackle in a pinch and Nevis could create matchup problems as a roaming defensive lineman in hybrid looks — he could play defensive end in the 3-4 but his lack of length could make that role challenging. Ogbu is in a very similar situation as Nevis and would likely be his primary backup. Mathews is another player with the size and measurables that suggest he could get a really close look as a 3-4 defensive end. At Cincinnati he was known for his quickness as a defensive tackle and at 6-foot 3-inches tall he has the right build to make a move possible.

Grigson and Pagano have added nose tackle Brandon McKinney and 3-4 defensive end Cory Redding to the roster via free agency. McKinney has played primarily in a backup role throughout his seven-year career but he is the only player on the roster that is built to be a true 3-4 nose tackle. During his career he has played behind some pretty tremendous players and there is little doubt that Pagano is familiar with what he brings to the table. A player that will be alongside him often when the Colts are in a 3-4 package is veteran end Redding. He will be able to help players like Moala and Mathews get comfortable in Pagano’s scheme and should be an impact player.

In all, a defensive line that consists of regular contributions from players like Freeney, Mathis, Nevis, Redding, Moala, and McKinney is not far off from a solid hybrid defensive line rotation that keeps a lot of talent on the field no matter what formation or look Pagano wants to use. Improving at nose tackle and potentially replacing Moala at defensive end in the 3-4 scheme are the biggest likely need areas for the defensive line heading into the draft.

The linebacking corps will retain starters Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner. They will be joined by outside rush linebackers converted from defensive end in Freeney, Mathis, and likely Hughes. Other candidates for spots in the rotation include A.J. Edds, Mario Harvey, Jerrell Freeman, Justin Hickman, and Brandon Pegeuse. The outside candidates are primarily young or under-experienced.

The question with the linebackers will be how successful Freeney and Mathis are making the transition to outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme and who will fill the inside linebacker spots. Angerer and Conner are both solid run defenders, while Angerer is decidedly superior to Conner defending against the pass. Finding another player out of what remains on the roster to fit in the inside linebacker rotation could be a key to the unit succeeding. One would expect that the Colts will try to target a linebacker in the draft at some point in the middle rounds — unless a can’t pass prospect is available at one of their early picks.

The Colts secondary will likely change in player type and temperament to facilitate a move to a more aggressive defensive style. Jerraud Powers, Terrence Johnson, Brandon King, Chris Rucker, and Kevin Thomas all remain at cornerback from 2011. Powers and one of Thomas and Rucker are the likely starters with this group. An emphasis on man-coverage will likely occur that players like Powers and Thomas should have the speed and athleticism to excel under. Finding another cornerback who can compete to start across from Powers will likely be on the Colts radar in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft.

The safety group returns Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged, David Caldwell, and Mike Newton. Lefeged and Caldwell are both young players who play with similar hard-nosed styles. They will be joined by former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski to compete for the starting spot at strong safety. Not unlike the 2011 draft, this class of strong safety prospects is not particularly attractive. Look for Zbikowski to train his teammates and potentially open the season as a starter.

Although there are some weak spots on the defensive side of the ball, the players already on the Colts roster offer a pretty dynamic group for a hybrid defensive scheme. A potential starting group prior to the draft is as follows:

DT – Brandon McKinney
DE – Cory Redding, Fili Moala
LB – Dwight Freeney, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Robert Mathis
CB – Jerraud Powers, Kevin Thomas
S – Antoine Bethea, Tom Zbikowski

Again, the biggest weaknesses on that list is room for improvement or at least some additional security at nose tackle, defensive end, inside linebacker, strong safety, and cornerback. However, the group taking the field without a promising draft pick or any further free agent additions would likely be a decent group.

The 4-3 hybrid lineup would likely be as follows:

DT – Fili Moala, Drake Nevis
DE – Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis
LB – Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Jerry Hughes?
CB – Jerraud Powers, Chris Rucker
S – Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged

The 2012 Indianapolis Colts defense will likely not have all of the pieces it needs to be the unit head coach Chuck Pagano envisions but it won’t be drastically far off from having the talent and personnel to be effective. The defensive monster will probably start to show its teeth more in 2013 but even this group should be talented enough to be competitive — so long as the players successfully make the transition into Pagano’s new defensive scheme.

Could this group be awful? Sure. Could it be better than most expect? Yes. As the title of this story suggests, “don’t be surprised.”

Monday we’ll take a look at the offensive side of the ball.