Evaluating the Line: Will the Defensive Line Improve in 2011?

The Indianapolis Colts have the same problem every year. Every year this problem is harped on by the talking heads on four letter networks, and it always ticks me off. The Colts cannot stop the run. Every year, we watch the Colts get gashed in the playoffs by some team, and it's immeasurably frustrating.

The Colts defensive line was the Colts biggest weakness after the 2010 season (the DB's performed the worst, but that was due to an injury bug that devastated the defensive backfield). While the defensive backfield is still somewhat of an unknown for 2011, especially if injuries pile up (a la 2010), the Colts' defensive weaknesses last year could largely be attributed to below average linemen play.

Although people like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were their normal, All-Pro selves, the play at defensive tackle was still below average. The lack of productivity directly led to the two biggest problems with the Colts' defense in 2010: stopping the run, and a lack of turnovers.

The Colts surrendered 4.6 yards per carry on defense in 2010, tied for 25th in the league. The defensive line often failed to get a good push on the line of scrimmage, and if they did, often failed to finish the play by making the tackle. On pass plays, the defensive ends would get good pressure, but the quarterback would often have a pocket to step up into due to the defensive tackles being handled fairly easily. Freeney and Mathis weren't able to sit on as many plays as they should have, being backed up by Eric Foster and fan whipping boy Keyunta Dawson, and weren't as fresh by the end of the season.

Again, like the offensive line, the Colts looked in the off-season to fix these needs, drafting Drake Nevis in the third round of the draft, their usual avenue of team-building. But, the Colts also looked to free agency to help fix this void, signing former All-Pro DT Tommie Harris and former first round draft pick Jamaal Anderson to cheap, one year contracts.

The Colts also lost a few 2010 players to free agency, namely Keyunta Dawson and 2010 starting defensive tackle Daniel Muir. But will this defensive line overhaul produce results for the 2011 Colts? Or will this be a rired rerun of the same old show?

Last year, the defensive line consisted of a primary rotation containing: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Fili Moala, Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, Keyunta Dawson, Mitch King, and Eric Foster. This year, the Colts' rotation will likely consist of Freeney, Mathis, Moala, Johnson, Foster, Jerry Hughes, Tommie Harris, and Drake Nevis.

Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson were the primary nose tackles in the 2010 version of the defensive line, and did not play well. Muir had played the under tackle in 2009, and was much more effective in that role, but Mookie Johnson's injury problems caused Muir to need to play the one-tech in 2010. With Mookie's injury problem's hampering his play, and Muir not fully adjusting to the role, the ability of the three techs (namely Moala) was severely limited.

In 2011, Antonio Johnson will once again man the one tech defensive tackle position, with Drake Nevis backing him up, according to Bill Polian. Johnson has shown before that he can be an effective nose tackle, such as in 2009, and Drake Nevis has been impressing everybody at training camp with an impressive burst and a never-ending motor. It's also likely that Ricardo Matthews or Ollie Ogbu makes the cut as a reserve NT.

The under tackle spot will likely be manned by Fili Moala and Tommie Harris. Moala showed a lot of promise last year, especially when paired with a true NT. The only problem was that he would get in the backfield, causing disruption, but then fail to finish the play. Hopefully in 2011 he can improve on his tackling in the backfield/on the line of scrimmage.

Tommie Harris has impressed so far at camp, and should be a very good penetrating tackle in nickel situations. While Drake Nevis will apparently be able to man the one tech effectively, I still am a little…oh, let's say concerned, that the Colts won't be able to use his talents as well as they would by placing him in the three tech position. Nevis was touted as a quick, penetrating tackle coming out of the draft, perfect for that three-tech role.

If Polian says that Nevis can play the one-tech, I certainly believe him, but I think that he could possibly be a great three-tech, as opposed to a good or very good one-tech. But, who knows with Nevis playing in the first pre-season game as a three-tech.

Still, I'm very happy with the tackles going into the season. While some fans are clamoring for another signing, such as Pat Williams, I think the Colts are pretty set with what they've got. Signing somebody like Williams would severely limit the playing time of either Nevis or Harris, two young players who have great potential for the Colts. I'd like to see both of them play well for us this year.

The defensive ends played well in 2010, as long as we're sticking to the starters anyway. Foster and Dawson were laughable, and the Colts needed #93 and #98 on the field if the defense wanted to get the job done. This year, a rotation of Freeney, Mathis, Jamaal Anderson, and second year player Jerry Hughes has a much higher potential.

Jamaal Anderson is one of the league's best DTs at stopping the run, and Hughes has had very good reports coming out of this year's training camp, although his performance against the Rams left more to be desired. If Hughes can validate his 2009 draft selection with a decent sophomore season, it will allow the Colts to rest Freeney and Mathis more often in 2011, keeping them fresh for a hopeful Super Bowl run.

No matter how you spin it, the Colts have more talent on this season's defensive line than in a long time. In fact, I would say the most during the Peyton Manning era. As long as they can put that talent to work, and have it pay off with production, the Colts' defense is in for a much improved season.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.