By now, Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis has had his story told, examined, supported and torn apart a thousand times over.
The 33-year-old veteran was suspended four games for violating the NFL's banned substance policy last week, and the saga that has unfolded since has rocked the Colts facility. Mathis released a statement claiming that the banned substance in question (reported to be Clomid, by NFL.com's Ian Rapoport) was taken for fertility issues between he and his wife.
After going through all appeal channels with the league, backed by the NFLPA, Mathis was still suspended.
This isn't the place to debate the plausibility of Mathis' story or the merits of his suspension. The NFL had every right to suspend Mathis, who admitted taking the substance without checking with the league, team or his agent. Whether your opinion of Mathis changed because of the suspension, whether you believe his story or not, has little bearing on the situation.
Our predispositions toward Mathis, and athletes in general, will likely determine our faith in his story. In the end, it doesn't matter who believes him and who doesn't. He's suspended for four games, and the Colts will have to deal with the adjustment. The Colts themselves have already taken this stance. Per Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star, quarterback Andrew Luck said:
It's unfortunate, obviously. From what I understand, it's all set in stone. There's nothing we can say about it that's going to change anything. I know we're not wasting our breath talking about it a whole bunch.
We realize we're going to be without our best player for the first four games, so guys are going to have to step up. But stepping up has been a theme of guys on this team since I've been here whether it's coaches going down or players going down for various reasons.
Sure, the Colts will manage, but how? Mathis had 19.5 sacks last season, the next-best Colt was ILB Jerrell Freeman with 5.5. Defensive end Cory Redding had 4.5, and no other Colt had more than three.
The Colts secondary is one that needs an effective pass rush in order to work, especially with safety Antoine Bethea now in San Francisco. The secondary would be hard-pressed to be better with Bethea gone, LaRon Landry's coverage struggles and Greg Toler's inconsistencies.
No, if the Colts are going to survive Mathis' absence, it will be through manufacturing pass rush elsewhere.
|Comparing the Colts' Edge-Rushers (2013 stats)|
|Player||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||Pass-Rush Grade||Pass-Rush Productivity|
|Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference|
Obviously, the Colts' stable of edge-rushers is unproven, which isn't necessarily an encouraging sign. Along with the above outside linebackers, the Colts also have rookie Jonathan Newsome and former rugby player Daniel Adongo waiting in the wings, but neither has taken a defensive snap in the NFL.
Erik Walden is the most accomplished of the group, having amassed over 1,400 pass-rushing snaps over the last four years. He's averaged over 421 snaps per year in the last three years as a full-time starter. But during that time he's rarely been successful, notching three sacks in each of the past three seasons.
On the pseudo-bright side, however, Walden did have his most efficient pass-rushing season in the Colts' scheme last year, with an 8.3 Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) score from Pro Football Focus. That still puts Walden in the bottom 10 among starting 3-4 OLBs, but it's not the abysmal 5.1 PRP that was the worst in the league in 2012.
Walden knows that he has to be a better pass-rusher in order for the defense to succeed, telling Kevin Bowen of Colts.com that it was his No. 1 goal for this offseason. Walden has even specifically targeted areas of improvement for the summer:
There’s no doubt, sacks have got to go up...It’s something simple as far as my footwork.
We all know if you can get off that ball, it makes it a lot easier. If I can do that consistently, it will take me to that upper echelon...Like (Pagano) says, take care of the little things and the big things will happen.
That’s what I’m emphasizing on, footwork and technique.
Sure, Walden needs to improve his jump, but he also struggles to beat offensive linemen one-on-one. None of his sacks last year came because he beat an offensive lineman: Two came when he chased down a scrambling quarterback, and the third came when he got by a horrific cut block attempt by a running back in a one-on-one matchup.
To beat offensive linemen, Walden needs to improve his hand usage and timing, although a quicker get-off will certainly help. Teams also blocked Walden one-on-one with tight ends and running backs often last year, and he needs to make them pay when that occurs, using a quick get-off and a bull rush to collapse the pocket.
Walden has the physical ability, with impressive quickness and agility at his size (6'2", 250 pounds). But he's turning 29 in August, so there is little time left for him to improve.
On the opposite side of that spectrum is Bjoern Werner, who turns 24 in August. Werner was known to be a bit of a project coming into the league, so there is a hope for improvement.
Unfortunately, the base ability shown in his rookie year doesn't leave one with much confidence. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus did a review of the notable rookie edge-rushers in April, and his words on Werner were not flattering:
There wasn’t much to get excited about as Werner notched only 13 pressures on his 162 rushes. The three sacks don’t look bad in his limited time, but one came against RT Tyson Clabo amidst his early-season struggles and the other two came in unblocked and clean up situations respectively. For the season, six of his 13 pressures were of the unblocked variety. With five games in the red and none in the green, Werner has a lot to prove moving forward.
Watch Werner's sack against Alex Smith in Week 16, for example.
It's Werner's best pass rush of the season arguably, and it's still a slow, largely ineffective barrage of hand movements. If Smith had any kind of pocket awareness at all, it wouldn't have been a sack.
That's not to say that Werner can't improve, he certainly can. If players were all judged on their rookie years, there'd be a lot of really bad football being played. But a more effective speed rush needs to be developed by Werner if he's going to be a real pass-rush threat for Indianapolis. He's simply too slow in a lot of his rushes to get to the quarterback before the ball is supposed to come out of the pocket, making his only effective plays ones where the secondary shuts down the quarterback's options.
The other edge-rushers have potential, but have yet to show it on the field. Adongo has all the athletic abilities, size and speed, while Newsome has a Mathis-like pedigree and playing style coming out of Ball State. The team also has Cam Johnson on the roster, who struggled to get on the field last season. He did flash a little bit of a speed rush against Jacksonville in Week 4, but was too soft in his rushes and was easy for tackles to knock off balance and outside.
It's still in flux who makes the roster out of those three, but it's no question that the team will need one of them to step into a sub-rusher role and have some success.
To Blitz or Not To Blitz
While traditional edge rushing is generally where most of the pass rush comes from, the Colts have also been able to generate pressure through blitzing. The defensive line doesn't have any strong pass-rushers on it, although Arthur Jones did have a decent 2013 in that regard, so manufacturing complicated looks to confuse the defense is the next best thing.
The Colts blitzed on exactly one-third of their passing snaps last season, the ninth-highest blitz rate in the league. They were, however, just average when they did blitz, getting a 35.4 PRP as a team when blitzing, good for the 15th-best team score in 2013.
When the Colts blitz, they often didn't just send an extra guy, they sent an extra guy, stunted two linemen and delayed a rusher. It's all part of Greg Manusky's goal to confuse an offense and cause them to pause for just a moment, throwing off the play.
Take this example against Kansas City. Bethea is the blitzing from his strong safety role, as is Josh McNary, who has slid over as an inside linebacker to overload the left side of the offensive line.
But in addition to sending two extra blitzers, the Colts also stunt Werner inside and have Bethea just slightly delay a rush that crosses over the top of Werner's path. The goal is to get Bethea a free run at the quarterback, and it works perfectly here:
The problem with blitzing is that it can leave your secondary vulnerable. This is especially true today with more mobile quarterbacks in the league. If a quarterback escapes the pocket on a blitz, chances are he'll find a receiver who's worked his way open downfield. This was the case against Terrelle Pryor in Week 1 last season. Pryor completed eight of 10 passes against the blitz for 116 yards and a touchdown.
If you can blitz and keep the quarterback contained, then you're in business.
So who are the prime candidates for blitzing?
Well, it won't be the secondary. The Colts rarely blitzed their cornerbacks, and Bethea and Landry both blitzed just over 4 percent of the time, which was in the bottom half of the league. Bethea was the most effective with seven total pressures, while Landry earned just one.
No, the most effective non-traditional pass-rushers will have to come from the inside linebackers. Jerrell Freeman and Josh McNary are the most likely. McNary really grew a role for himself at the end of last season as a nickel linebacker, and he ended up rushing the passer on over 25 percent of his passing snaps, double any other linebacker on the Colts roster.
Freeman was the most effective as a blitzer last year with a 21.7 PRP, the second-best PRP among starting ILBs in the league. D'Qwell Jackson may also have some use, blitzing more, percentage wise, than Freeman did. But Jackson wasn't as successful as either Freeman or McNary. It will be very interesting to see if the Colts can scheme up better looks for him than Cleveland was able to.
In the end, it's really going to come down to the coaches. Sure, there is hope that one of the outside linebackers will step up, but the likelihood of that occurring seems slim. There's a much better chance of success by scheming creative looks for the inside linebackers, although it must be disguised. If the Colts can do that, they may be able to get through the first month without a complete defensive collapse.
Kyle is an NFL and Indianapolis Colts analyst for Bleacher Report and Draft Mecca as well as being the head editor for Colts Authority. Follow Kyle on Twitter for more stats, analysis and general NFL analysis.
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