6 Areas the Colts Need to Improve Most to Become Contenders in 2013
It's no secret that the Colts overachieved this year. Pythagorean wins had the Colts at closer to seven wins than 11. The Colts had an easy schedule, a poor scoring differential and benefited from a poor AFC.
Don't get me wrong, they earned each and every one of their wins, but the Colts were not what one generally pictures as an 11-win team. Eleven-win teams are supposed to be contenders, teams that can challenge for a championship. The 2012 Colts were not that team.
While the 2012 season was not a "rebuilding" season by any means, the Colts are still, realistically, rebuilding. Rebuilding to get back to the level they were at in 2009, when they went to a Super Bowl. In their playoff loss to Baltimore, they reminded everyone exactly how far they have to go to get there.
However, the Colts did lay a foundation for a bright future, especially with their young roster and promising young players. It has been expected since last summer that the Colts should be back in contention by 2013 or 2014, depending on the development of Andrew Luck and the roster building of Ryan Grigson.
Well, Luck looks better than anybody hoped, and Ryan Grigson started his general manager career with a fantastic 2012 offseason.
With the development shown this season, the Colts very well could be contenders in 2013, and may already be favorites in the AFC South. If that is to happen, then there are some definite steps that need to be taken.
Gain a Dependable Second Wide Receiver
In order to improve efficiency on offense, the Colts need a real No. 2 wide receiver opposite of Reggie Wayne (or a No. 1 to eventually take over for Wayne). Donnie Avery was a failed experiment in Indianapolis, and should not be back in that role again, if back at all.
Let's start at the beginning: drops. Donnie Avery was one of the worst wide receivers in the league in terms of dropping catchable passes. According to ProFootballFocus, Avery was 79th out of 82 wide receivers in drops per catchable pass. In the playoff game against the Ravens, Avery was thrown four catchable balls and dropped two.
When teams lock in on Reggie Wayne, Luck needs a dependable target to throw to. If you can't catch the ball, you're not dependable. Colts fans like to criticize ex-Colt Pierre Garcon for drops, but he never had a drop rate as poor as Avery's was this season.
But even without the drops, Avery just didn't make enough plays. Avery, despite being extremely fast, didn't make the big plays his teammates did (namely T.Y. Hilton). Avery had just one game with more than five catches, and only two games with 100 yards or more.
Fix the Turnovers
If there was one area that hurt the Colts on both sides of the ball, it was turnovers. Not only did the Colts turn the ball over (23rd in the league in turnovers), but they failed to make big plays on defense (28th in the league). All that led up to the Colts having one of the worst turnover margins in the league (26th). It really is amazing that the Colts won 11 games while giving themselves such a disadvantage.
On offense, Andrew Luck is the biggest culprit. Obviously, the system the Colts ran was prone for turnovers, running a lot of vertical routes with deep throws. Nevertheless, Luck made some reckless decisions with the ball this season, although he was not helped by his offensive line.
The other area that Luck hurt the Colts was through fumbles. Luck never fumbled while running the ball, but the horrific offensive line and a rookie quarterback's pocket presence led to 10 fumbles.
On defense, the Colts need playmakers. The Colts' forced just 16 turnovers on the season, a big part of the reason why the Colts' offense was 30th in the league in average starting field position. It's all connected: without turnovers, the Colts' offense didn't get many short fields, meaning that the offense with the fourth-best yards per drive was just 18th in points per drive.
The Colts didn't have many playmakers in the defensive backfield, with journeymen Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler starting for a large part of the season. Starting strong safety Tom Zbikowski didn't help either, being one of the more disappointing signings of the 2012 offseason.
The other area that turnovers often come from is rushing the passer, where the Colts struggled this season. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney struggled with injuries and fitting in the scheme. The lackluster defensive line didn't help at all either, struggling to get pressure from the inside in all but one game.
Lessen the Critical Drops
We've already covered Donnie Avery's problems with drops, but let's not give him all of the responsibility. Rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton had the exact same drop rate as Avery this season. I do give Hilton a little more of a pass, considering his propensity for big plays, but the truth is he struggled with drops all throughout the season.
Not only were two of Luck's top two targets in the bottom five in the league in drops, but even Reggie Wayne struggled more than usual this season, with his worst drop rate in five years.
All of this combined led to the Colts having the most drops in the league, and the 6th worst drop percentage.
When you rewatch the Colts' loss to Baltimore in the playoffs, you immediately notice the critical drops in the fourth quarter that killed the Colts' chances of winning, including Vick Ballard's drop on 4th-and-2, the Colts' last offensive play.
Improve the Offensive Line
Arguably the Colts' biggest weakness all season, the offensive line struggled with injuries, but simply has a poor group in terms of talent.
The tackles are not world-beaters, but Anthony Castonzo finished with a nice season after an inconsistent start. He was the team's best run blocker, a decent pass protector and looks to be the team's sole dependable player. Winston Justice, on the other hand, had a very disappointing season, struggling in run blocking and falling off in pass protection as the season went along.
But the real struggles came in the interior. Left guard was a rotating door all season, as Joe Reitz struggled with injuries, and Seth Olsen and Jeff Linkenbach were subpar as his replacement.
Center Samson Satele was a failed experiment as a starter in Indy, as his replacement, A.Q. Shipley, played noticeably better when Satele was injured. Satele finished the season with the worst pressure per snap ratio for starting centers.
At right guard, veteran Mike McGlynn was brought in to be a leader in that starting lineup, but was the Colts' worst lineman all season. McGlynn was 69th among guards in pressures per snap and finished the season with ProFootballFocus' worst grade for a guard in the league.
If that dosn't convince you of the line's ineptitude, let's look at their overall performance. First, Andrew Luck was pressured far more than any other quarterback in the league (268 dropbacks, the next quarterback was 224). His pressure percentage was fifth in the league.
In terms of run game, the Colts' finished at 26th in Adjusted Line Yards (from Football Outsiders) and in overall run blocking grades (from Pro Football Focus).
This is arguably the biggest concern going into the 2013 offseason, and one that the Colts will need to put a premium on in free agency and the draft.
Increase the Depth
The Colts' lack of depth was apparent near the end of the season, as both the Colts' offensive and defensive lines were makeshift groups of journeymen.
By the end of the season, players like Ricardo Mathews, Lawrence Guy and Clifton Geathers were starting on the defensive line, while Seth Olsen, Jeff Linkenbach and Bradley Sowell were key players on the offensive side.
The story didn't change when moved into the backfields. On defense, starter Jerraud Powers finished the season on Injured Reserve, and Vontae Davis missed several games with injuries. This led to Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn starting, or at least getting substantial playing time throughout the second half of the season.
On offense, running backs Donald Brown and Delone Carter finished the season on injured reserve, leaving Vick Ballard as the sole running back and forcing the Colts to bring Mewelde Moore back into the fold. This left the Colts with limited options in the running game, losing their best big-play back in Brown and their best short yardage back in Carter.
Every team will have injuries, and the old adage of "next man up" is always applicable. With the Colts this season, too often that next man just couldn't get the job done. Add some depth, especially on the lines and in the defensive backfield, and the Colts will be able to withstand those injuries much better.
Stop the Run
The Colts preached being able to stop the run in the offseason, but it didn't pay off, with the Colts finishing with worst defensive DVOA against the run in the league.
A big part of that reason was injuries on the defensive line. Losing Fili Moala and Drake Nevis in the first half of the season really hurt this young team, especially with Cory Redding having a down season and nose tackle Antonio Johnson always being a shaky option in the middle. Having Nevis back next season should be a boost, but Moala is a free agent.
The linebackers often struggled to set the edge as Freeney and Mathis have never excelled against the run. Freeney will be gone next season, and the Colts will likely move Mathis over to the rush OLB spot. They desperately need an OLB on the other side who can set the edge against the run.
On the inside, all of the Colts' inside linebackers finished in the top half of the league in run stop percentage (Conner: first, Freeman: 14th, and Angerer: 19th out of 50). Problems tended to occur when those ILBs got stuck behind big offensive linemen.
The Colts don't need to fix the inside linebackers, at least not from a run perspective, but they do need to put them in a better position to succeed. In order to do that, the defensive line needs to do a better job of holding its position.