5 Biggest Areas of Concern for the Indianapolis Colts Heading into Training Camp
The Indianapolis Colts have made tremendous strides over the last two seasons. From 2-14 to 11-5, from Curtis Painter to Andrew Luck, the Colts of 2014 look nothing like the the woeful group that took the field in 2011.
It was supposed to take time to rebuild, to get back to the AFC South-dominating ways of the past. Even with Andrew Luck coming in and solidifying the quarterback position, a two or three-year rebuild was expected. But Luck was even better than expected, and the Colts have been to the playoffs in each of the past two years. In 2013, the Colts returned to the top of the AFC South and earned the first playoff win of the new era.
In 2014, the Colts are the easy favorites to win the division again, a position the franchise has grown accustomed to.
But all is not perfect.
The Colts have plenty of issues across the board, evidenced by their 20th ranking in ESPN's recent "Futures" Power Rankings (subscription required). While the Colts have proved that they have the quarterback to lead the team, the rest of the roster, coaching staff and front office have legitimate questions and concerns. Even Luck has had his inconsistencies in his first two seasons.
So today we look at those concerns as we break down the five biggest issues that need to be addressed in training camp.
Run Defense from Inside Linebackers
The Colts linebackers (not counting edge-rushers in a 3-4) have never been a strength. There have been a few good and/or passable players pass through, but the position has never been one that the Colts have had much stability at. These past two seasons have not been much different.
Jerrell Freeman has been a relatively dependable starter in each season, but the other inside linebacker spot has been a rotating mess. Pat Angerer (501 snaps in 2013) is the only other linebacker to play over 400 snaps in a season over the last two years, and he racked up a negative-8.3 grade from Pro Football Focus in the effort.
To make matters worse, the Colts allowed Kavell Conner, who has arguably been their most efficient rotational linebacker over the last two years (positive-12.0 grade), leave in free agency.
The Colts did bring in former Cleveland veteran D'Qwell Jackson in free agency, but Jackson has struggled to defend the run in a 3-4 defense and his impact in the running game will likely be minimal. For a defense that allowed 384 rushing yards in the postseason, the most of any team in last year's postseason despite playing just two games, there is more than just cosmetic work to be done.
While bringing in Arthur Jones on the defensive line will help, the lack of run-stopping linebackers is still going to be an issue. The Colts hope that sixth-round draft pick Andrew Jackson can develop quickly and work into the rotation, but if that doesn't happen, the Colts will be left with Kelvin Sheppard and Mario Harvey as the "run-stuffers."
That's not a favorable situation.
Running the Ball
On the other side of the ball, the Colts have a bit of a confused identity (more on this later). But no matter how good Andrew Luck is, Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton want the running game to be more than just an occasional distraction to set up the pass.
No, the running game will be a key part of the plan, a plan to be flexible and to wear out defenses by being physical up front. The Colts used a varied mix of run-blocking schemes in 2013, and look to do the same in 2014, but key improvements need to be made at the point of attack to see the Colts be able to lean on the run game the way they wish too.
First, the blocking needs to improve. The Colts ranked 24th in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades in 2013.
The interior was the biggest problem, especially Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn. Both of those players will be gone in 2014, but will Khaled Holmes be an upgrade at center? Can the Colts find somebody to stick at left guard? Hopefully the answer to the latter is Donald Thomas, but his season-ending injury last season will complicate things.
The competition for the two guard spots (Donald Thomas, Jack Mewhort, Hugh Thornton, Joe Reitz) will be one of the most critical come camp time for exactly this reason.
But the backs have to step up as well, namely Trent Richardson. Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard have both shown that they can produce behind a poor offensive line, but neither have the natural talent that Richardson does. If Richardson reaches even part of his potential, the running game can become efficient and the Colts offense will be propelled to new heights.
Inconsistency in the Secondary
It's not that the Colts don't have talent in the secondary.
Vontae Davis put up a Pro Bowl-type season last year, LaRon Landry has actually been to the Pro Bowl and Greg Toler has the size, length and ball skills to be a top press corner. Delano Howell, who is competing for the starting strong safety job, turned in some key games last season in place of Landry. Howell's game against San Francisco was particularly impressive.
The issue with the secondary, rather, is that talent seems to disappear too often throughout of the year.
Landry's talent hasn't shown itself in years, while Toler hasn't even been able to stay on the field. Davis had a great season last year, but hasn't been able to put together consecutive seasons. Then you have the depth around those three players, all of which includes players with too little experience.
If you thought that the Colts secondary was inconsistent in 2013, just wait until the group tries to function without Antoine Bethea holding the unit together.
The team has to find some stability in training camp, and it starts with getting everybody involved and working on the same (or similar) projects. The Colts secondary hasn't been able to work together much yet this offseason, with injuries and Landry's solo workouts keeping the starting group fractured at team facilities. That must change at training camp.
Replacing Robert Mathis
No matter how good the secondary is, without a pass rush it will all be for naught.
Last season, the Colts struggled to find a pass rush outside of Robert Mathis, who racked up 21.5 sacks (playoffs included). The difference with Mathis wasn't how many sacks he got, it was how often he got them. There were just four games last season where Mathis didn't pick up at least a sack.
That kind of consistency makes it extremely difficult to put responsibility on anybody else to pick up sacks, or at least the confidence in anybody else.
The Colts have to get outside help in this year's pass rush. Even with some extra coaching and new philosophies, the team simply didn't have the personnel to make up the difference with scheme alone. Mathis was a constant factor on opposing game plans; Erik Walden, Ricky Jean Francois and Josh Chapman were not.
It's probably not going to be the most promising training camp battle, but it's a key one for the development of the defense and the beginning of the 2014 season.
Bjoern Werner, Jonathan Newsome and Daniel Adongo are the Colts' best chance at an individual taking some of the burden from Robert Mathis.
As alluded to earlier, the Colts have a bit of an identity crisis.
Are they a power-running team? Are they a drop-it-back and spread-it-out team? Are they going to focus on passing the ball or winning in the trenches?
While the Colts have the personnel to open up a strong passing team, the coaches (both Pagano and Hamilton) have both pushed a power-running game and flexibility with the offense. Both have been very open about that, although not necessarily as clear as one may want.
But this past offseason Hamilton began talking about a "score-first offense" and preached that versatility and short passing game much more. Not that the Colts don't still want to run the ball, but it seems that they also want to be able to pass in all situations.
The Colts, above all else, want the ability to keep defenses on their toes, to surprise them with any play call from any formation.
While this is an admirable desire, and fooling defenses is a great goal, it should not come at the cost of execution. The Colts need to master offense, one way or the other, before they should begin throwing the kitchen sink at their young roster. Master one element of offense (considering Andrew Luck, I'd go with a downfield passing attack) and then go forward from there.
Of course, my words don't matter to an NFL coaching staff. But the Colts can't afford the large chunks of stagnancy that pervaded the Colts offense last season, not if they want to win a championship. They need something to rely on should things get dicey, and I'd rather lean on Andrew Luck than an inconsistent run game.