Colts Still a Year Away from Breaking Through the AFC's Glass Ceiling

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 13, 2014

Kirk Irwin/Gett Images

The Indianapolis Colts will make the playoffs this year. It's the biggest lock this side of the Panama Canal.

Football Outsiders gives them a 98 percent chance of reaching the postseason, based on team quality (very good), upcoming schedule (mostly downhill sledding after Sunday night) and divisional opposition (stifled laugh). Statistically, the Colts are more of a playoff lock than the Broncos (95.9 percent), Patriots (79.3 percent) or the 8-1 Cardinals (93.7 percent). 

The Colts will almost certainly not win the Super Bowl this year. Our friends at Odds Shark post futures bets for Indianapolis in the range from 1,000 to 1,275. That is roughly on par with the Cardinals (1,200 to 1,400) and Eagles (1,200 to 1,400), but well below the Broncos (300 to 350), Patriots (625 to 750), Seahawks (750 to 850) and Packers (700 to 750).

A handicapper-to-English translation: Vegas is certain the Colts will reach the playoffs but gives them only a slightly better chance of winning the Super Bowl than teams led by Drew Stanton and Mark Sanchez.

The stats and spreads confirm what you already knew: The Colts are hitting a glass ceiling. They are good enough to beat the eternal rebuilders in their division and hold their own against other middleweight contenders, but they are not in the same category as the Broncos or Patriots.

AJ Mast/AP Images

They have been in this holding pattern for three years. A win against the Patriots on Sunday night could change this perception, but losses to the Broncos, Eagles and Steelers this season suggest the Colts still aren't ready to be more than a playoff warm-up act for Brady-Manning.

What you might not know is just what is holding the Colts back. No, it's not that they lack the mighty throbbing heart of a champion. It's not that they are just "inconsistent" in some vague sense. It's not even Trent Richardson. Well, it's partially Trent Richardson, but there is more to it than that.

The Colts are three missing pieces away from solving the championship contender puzzle. Without these pieces, they are forced to use scheme to compensate for their weaknesses, exposing other weaknesses that better opponents are able to exploit. For want of a few upgrades, the Colts are unlikely to beat the Patriots on Sunday and only have a tiny chance of running the playoff gauntlet in January.

Let's look at what those missing pieces are, how the Colts' efforts to compensate often burn them and what the team can do to get better before it hits yet another playoff dead end.

Manufacturing the Pass Rush

At first glance, the Colts' pass rush looks pretty effective. The team is tied for 10th in the NFL with 24 sacks, and three of the teams above them have played an extra game.

Unfortunately, the Colts' pass rush disappears when the team faces a quality opponent, then reappears against the many weaklings on the schedule. The table below shows a breakdown of the Colts' sacks based on the current records of their opponents:

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 03:   Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants shakes hands with Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts after their game at MetLife Stadium on November 3, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Indianapolis Colts defeated
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

There is even some fluff in the "winning record" totals: Three of the Colts' sacks against the Bengals came on end-of-half and end-of-game Hail Mary plays, plus a backfield stuff of receiver Mohamed Sanu on a trick play that was officially classified a "sack." The Colts recorded just one sack in the Broncos, Eagles and Steelers games combined.

Colts sacks' by opponent records
Opponents with winning records59
Opponents with losing records415
Source: NFLGSIS.com

With Robert Mathis on the non-football injury list for the year, the Colts lack a pass-rusher who can consistently win one-on-one matchups and allow the team to generate pressure with a standard four-man rush. That's the first missing puzzle piece for Indianapolis to become a championship contender: a true every-down pass-rush threat.

Chuck Pagano and coordinator Greg Manusky are creative when manufacturing pass pressure. Even when rushing four defenders, they use constant stunts and zone blitzes to disrupt blocking schemes and give defenders easy routes to the quarterback. They are also not shy about blitzing safeties or cornerbacks.

The tactics usually work, at least against weaker opponents. Three of the Colts' four sacks against the Jaguars came as a result of safety blitzes. The safeties did not record the sacks but were part of the pass-rush equation that allowed other defenders to break free. Two of the Colts' three sacks against the Titans came on stunts, with rushers looping behind each other to confuse the inexperienced Titans line.

But manufacturing pressure against strong opponents with experienced quarterbacks can backfire. Football Outsiders' Game Charting Project tracks the number of defenders who rush the quarterback on each pass play. The numbers have not been published yet, but I can provide a sneak peek. Here is a look at the results when the Colts have rushed five or six defenders against opponents with winning records this season:

The Colts' pass rush delivers when facing weaker foes.
The Colts' pass rush delivers when facing weaker foes.USA TODAY Sports

Every blitz is a risk-reward trade: The defense increases the risk of a big play in exchange for a sack, turnover or incompletion caused by pressure. Five- and six-man blitzes have resulted in 238 sacks and 303 passes of 20-plus yards league-wide this season, a ratio consistent with the results from past years in the Football Outsiders database. But when facing quality opponents, the Colts are four times more likely to give up a big play than to record a sack so far this year.

Colts' pass defense when rushing 5-6 defenders
AttCompComp%YardsTDIntSacks20+ Yard Passes
Football Outsiders

A Mathis-caliber pass-rusher would both decrease the Colts' dependence on the blitz and increase the effectiveness of their blitzes. But Mathis turns 34 in the offseason; even if he returns, he is unlikely to be the force that he was as recently as last year.

Second-year pass-rusher Bjoern Werner (four sacks) is starting to win one-on-one matchups with blockers. A native German who got a late start in American football, Werner has potential he is just starting to tap. Fifth-round pick Jonathan Newsome has also had his moments.

The best the Colts can hope for this season is increased consistency and pressure from these prospects, with the help of even more smart veteran play from Cory Redding (three sacks, lots of pressure). Otherwise, they will need to blitz and scheme to get pressure on the likes of Tom Brady. We all know how well that usually works.

Blown Coverage and Scientific Boxing

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 04:  Outside linebacker Robert Mathis #98 of the Indianapolis Colts forces a fumble by quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs during a Wild Card Playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 4, 2014 in Indianapolis,
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Think for a minute about what happens when a defense is forced to manufacture pass pressure.

Blitzing defenders typically leave the pass coverage shorthanded, putting extra one-on-one pressure on cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers in coverage. Stunts, overloads and zone blitzes force defenders to handle unusual assignments, creating a susceptibility to screens and other short passes. A short toss to a running back can suddenly become a 25-yard gain when a lineman has dropped into coverage.

The Colts defense has dealt with those exact problems this season. Beside Vontae Davis, who is having a Pro Bowl campaign, no Colts cornerback has played well this season. As for underneath coverage, the Colts rank dead last in the NFL in covering running backs and 29th in covering tight ends, according to Football Outsiders.

The second missing piece in the Colts' championship puzzle is cornerback depth. Davis gives them a rock-solid defender on one side, and both safeties are good enough to handle most of their assignments. But Indianapolis asks too much of second cornerback Greg Toler and (particularly) nickel defender Darius Butler.

Both Butler and Toler have negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus. The pair has combined to allow six touchdowns, and Toler has allowed twice as many receptions as Davis (38 to 19), albeit in a few more defensive snaps.

Davis missed much of the Steelers game, and as you might expect from Ben Roethlisberger's historic performance, his absence was felt. According to Football Outsiders, Roethlisberger was 12-of-12 for 158 yards when throwing to receivers covered by Toler or Butler. Even with Davis on the field, quarterbacks with good pass protection and a diversity of passing weapons can sit in the pocket and wait for opportunities to arise.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Many of the Colts' problems covering running backs and tight ends can be solved by fixing the pass rush.

Darren Sproles caught a 57-yard pass over the middle in Week 2 because a blitz left Josh McNary out of position and tasked with covering Sproles across the middle of the field. An overload blitz failed against the Jaguars, leaving pass-rusher Erik Walden standing around in zone coverage. Fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou, who is not exactly Roger Craig, slipped past the out-of-position defender for 26 yards.

Colts linebackers get low coverage grades from sources like Pro Football Focus, but film study shows that those linebackers spend an awful lot of time singled up against the likes of Sproles and Julius Thomas.

Every team gets caught in a mismatch during a blitz from time to time, but when the Colts face top contenders, they start to look like a boxer who alternates between throwing haymakers and guarding his face: It's enough to beat the soup cans, but tough opponents deliver constant counterpunches and body blows.

Add one more pass-rusher and cornerback, and the Colts can decrease both the time and options Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger and Brady can use to bludgeon them. Without those pieces (and no cornerback is suddenly going to materialize or develop in the next two months), the Colts must try to win shootouts at the top of the conference.

Running with Leverage

Andrew Luck can take care of himself in a shootout, but he would be much more effective if he could count on his running game, even a little bit.

Sep 15, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (25) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darius Butler (20) at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Trent Richardson has become the NFL's favorite non-quarterback criticism magnet. Watch Colts game tape, and you can confirm that Richardson has not been as bad this year as he was last year. He has been useful as a receiver in the flats, and even though Football Outsiders ranks him 33rd among running backs in their DYAR metric, he has demonstrated some burst and tackle-breaking ability.

Watch Colts film even more closely, however, and you discover that Richardson rarely gets the ball in high-leverage situations. He does not have a single third-down carry this season.

His 10 carries in goal-to-go situations have netted just two touchdowns; four of those carries came when the Colts were already leading by 17 points and could afford to grant their erstwhile featured back some extra opportunities. Forty-nine of Richardson's 108 carries have come with Indianapolis leading by 10 points or more.

Richardson, acquired to be the Colts' power back, gets a huge portion of his carries on first downs when the team is comfortably ahead against one of its weaker foes. It's the kind of role a Dan Herron could handle.

The Colts have an excellent passing attack, so they do not need 150 yards per game from Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw and their other running backs. What they need is good situational rushing: goal-line touchdowns, short-yardage conversions and productive rushing at the ends of close games.

Unfortunately, Richardson has been so ineffective and the aging Bradshaw is so vital in his roles as receiver and pass protector that the Colts have nearly abandoned situational power running. That's forced them to once again rely on compensation strategies, which top opponents can exploit.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 03:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts hands the ball off to Trent Richardson #34  in the in the first quarter against the New York Giants during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 3, 2014 in East Rutherford,
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The Colts pass twice as often as they run in goal-to-go situations: 34 passes, 17 runs this season. Three of those runs were Luck scrambles, so the Colts are even more pass-heavy than the numbers indicate.

NFL teams tend to run about 50 percent of the time in goal-to-go situations (counting 3rd-and-goal from the 19 after a holding penalty, and other situations that require more than a six-foot plunge), so Indianapolis is incredibly unbalanced when trying to convert a short touchdown. That imbalance plagued the team in the Broncos loss, when two pass-heavy sequences inside the 10-yard line yielded just three points.

The Colts are just 5-of-10 when running to convert 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-1 situations. Just as at the goal line, they often choose to pass in short-yardage situations. They are a solid 10-of-17 converting short-yardage situations through the air, but it's yet another imbalance that better opponents can exploit: The Broncos stopped two 3rd-and-1 passes in their season-opening win, and you can bet Bill Belichick has been briefed on their short-yardage tendencies.

Indy's greatest rushing problem reveals itself when the team tries to preserve a narrow lead. In the second half, with the score tied or the Colts leading by 10 points or less, their running backs have carried 34 times for 92 yards, averaging just 2.8 yards per rush while producing just three first downs.

This inability to run with a lead led directly to the Eagles loss and allowed the Ravens and Texans to mount comebacks that have contributed to the Colts' unpredictable/inconsistent reputation. In the Eagles game alone, bad rushing (by Bradshaw) led to a 3rd-and-9 interception with the Colts nursing a seven-point fourth-quarter lead, and attempts to run Richardson with the score tied led to a quick punt and a game-winning Eagles field goal.

This is really a job for a running back.
This is really a job for a running back.USA TODAY Sports

The third missing piece of the Colts' championship puzzle is the most obvious: They need a real power runner, not a make-believe because-we-traded-for-him power runner.

Again, the goal is not to give some rusher a DeMarco Murray workload; with Luck under center, the Colts should remain as pass-oriented as the Broncos and Patriots teams they hope to beat. But as long as they cannot cram the ball up the middle from the 2-yard line or on 3rd-and-1, and as long as they lack a mechanism to effectively slow games in the second half, the Colts are doomed to both come up short against their best opponents and risk comebacks at the hands of their fellow second-tier challengers.

Unfortunately, that real power runner is not on the roster. The best the Colts can do is upgrade their interior line and hope that creates more running room for Richardson and Bradshaw.

Newly promoted center Jonotthan Harrison has played like an undrafted rookie at times but has potential as a drive-blocker. Second-round pick Jack Mewhort looks like a keeper at guard. Second-year pro Hugh Thornton sometimes looks like 330 pounds of road-grading goodness, but injuries and disciplinary issues have forced him out of the lineup twice this season.

If Harrison, Mewhort and Thornton can grow up together, they may make the Colts a little more willing to pound the ball up the gut with someone come playoff time.

Watch That Last Step; It's a Doozy

A pass-rusher, a second or third cornerback and a situational running back...the Colts are three puzzle pieces away from true Super Bowl contention. That may mean that they are one draft away from breaking through the AFC's glass ceiling.

It's not hard to put together a draft board with an athletic pass-rusher at the top, a corner with starting potential in the second round and some new rushing legs in the later rounds who finally give the Colts everything they need to be more than January sparring partners in Foxborough or Denver.

The Colts have not gotten much from their last two drafts, thanks in part to the Richardson trade, but youngsters like Werner, Newhouse and Mewhort are starting to produce. General manager Ryan Grigson can fit what the Colts need in one grocery bag.

Don Wright/Associated Press

That's not meant to write off the Colts completely for this year—or for Sunday's Patriots game. It's just to affirm that they still have work to do if they really want to stand toe to toe with the league's powerhouses.

The AFC's top contenders did not get where they are by tossing Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the field and waiting for awesomeness to ensue. They aggressively stocked up for every possible need in the offseason, grabbing Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders and others to stack their rosters. The Colts still have some catch-up stacking to do. At least they are climbing away from most of the conference competition.

That's the problem with the AFC's glass ceiling: It's more a great glass elevator that keeps going up. Sunday may not provide a win for the Colts, but it will give them one more gauge of just how high they have to go.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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