Earlier this week I took a look at the Colts' positional offensive strength and weaknesses. Today we do the same for the defense.
The defense potentially has six different starters in 2013, and should look very different from the unit that finished 31st in defensive DVOA in 2012. The Colts have the potential to be an above average squad in 2013, but will still have some weaknesses to work out.
Each position has additions and improvements, but no position looks perfect on paper for 2013. Let's take a look at why.
Last season, the Colts' defensive line went through a rash of injuries that resulted in Lawrence Guy, Clifton Geathers, and Kellen Heard all playing significant snaps near the end of the season. Part of the reason why the Colts lost in the wild card round against Baltimore was the fact that the Colts could not stop Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice. The two combined to run for 171 yards on 28 carries, an average of over six yards per carry, as Guy and Geathers played significant time.
Going into the offseason, the Colts' front office knew the depth issues they faced, and did everything they could to rectify the situation. The Colts re-signed Fili Moala, signed Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean-Francois, and drafted Montori Hughes. Add that to Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney getting healthy, and you have depth that goes three-men deep at each position.
Weakness: Lack of top-end talent
The Colts have nine guys who can play on the defensive line (Redding, Chapman, Jean-Francois, Hughes, McKinney, Franklin, Nevis, Moala, Mathews), but none of them are the top-end stars to build around. Most are average or below average, having the potential to play at above-average levels for short periods of time. The depth is great, but the lack of talent will keep the line from being one of the better ones in the league. Chapman has the potential to be a long-term star, but he has never played a game in the NFL as of yet, even if reports out of OTAs are positive.
The linebacker crew has potential across the board going into 2013. The most obvious candidate based on 2012 is Jerrell Freeman, Ryan Grigson's big CFL find from his first year as a GM. Freeman had a surprisingly impressive season in 2012, and should get better in his second season in the NFL. In addition to Freeman, Pat Angerer has high potential at inside linebacker. Angerer struggled during 2012, but was fighting through injury, and has the potential to be the tackling machine he was in 2011.
At outside linebacker, potential exists in Bjoern Werner, the Colts' first round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Werner has the potential to be a pass-rushing demon, as well as a strong edge-setter in the run game. With the three of them combined with Robert Mathis, the Colts' starting linebacker crew has the potential to be the best it's been in this millennium.
Weaknesses: Pass Rush
With the Colts' defense relying so much on pass rush coming from the the linebacking crew, the lack of pass rush ability in the crew is a considerable concern going into the season. Robert Mathis did a decent job last season, when healthy, and should be better in the ROLB position, but it will also be without Dwight Freeney drawing attention across from him.
The projected starting inside linebackers Angerer and Freeman both got negative pass rush grades from PFF last season, and projected starting OLB Erik Walden was PFF"s worst pass-rushing OLB in 2012 with a grade of -25.5. Kelvin Sheppard and Kavell Conner both finished with positive pass rush grades, but were rarely used, combining for just 42 snaps in pass rush last season.
Rookie Bjoern Werner was brought in order to address these concerns, but Werner himself has limitations that will hinder his ability to be a primary pass rusher.
Strengths: Nickel Coverage
The Colts' top three corner rotation of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler all covered well last season, combining for a +21.5 grade in coverage from PFF. Davis and Toler both finished in the top 15 among corners in coverage grade, despite playing less than 1000 snaps combined.
Butler, meanwhile, was one of the most effective slot corners in 2012; opposing quarterbacks finished the season with a passer rating of 43.1 when throwing at Butler lined up in the slot, the third lowest number in the league. Butler was in good company, checkout the top four in opposing passer rating as slot corners in 2012:
If the Colts' top three corners stay healthy and aren't completely hung out to dry by pass rush, they should perform well in coverage in 2013.
Weakness: Run Support
We could talk about the lack of talent at the fourth and fifth cornerback spots, but more interesting to me is that all of the Colts' corners have struggled in run support. The Colts top four corners: Davis, Toler, Butler, and Cassius Vaughn, combined for a combined run defense grade of -11.8 in 2012.
The biggest problem for Davis and Butler was their tendency to miss tackles in run support: both finished in the bottom ten among 114 qualifying cornerbacks for tackling efficiency in run support in 2012. Toler was actually a very good tackler, being the only player out of those 114 corners to not miss a single tackle in 2012. But, he simply didn't naturally get to the runner quickly, and only managed two run stops in 100 run snaps.
Strength: Starting Experience
Between Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry, the Colts' has a lot of starting experience at the safety position, and productive experience at that. The two have combined to start 185 games, but both are only 28, and still in their respective primes. On top of that, both players have strong resumes, Landry as a hard-hitting enforcer and Bethea as a versatile safety that uses good instincts and sound fundamentals to play both the run and pass well. The two should be able to play off each other well in 2013, whereas Bethea struggled to cover for Tom Zbikowski last season.
Weakness: A down 2012
While both Landry and Bethea have played very well in recent years (Combined +33.7 from 2008-2011 from PFF), both players struggled mightily in 2012. Landry struggled more in the beginning of the season, recovering to play well near the end, while Bethea's inconsistencies showed throughout the year.
You have to like each player's potential to bounce back in 2013, with Landry putting it together by the end of the season and Bethea no longer having to cover for Zbikowski and a weak cornerback group. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while the two safeties should still be in their prime, each had one of their worst seasons of their career last year. Hopefully they'll prove this year that the down play was a circumstantial fluke, and not a career-altering trend.