On January 25, 2012, the Indianapolis Colts introduced Chuck Pagano as their new head coach. Pagano, Jim Irsay said, would bring the "toughness" the team needed. Considered a very smart defensive backs coach throughout the league, Pagano had spent the 2011 season as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. Shortly after their AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, Pagano was hired by the Colts.
He was bringing his tough, physical 3-4 defense to Indianapolis, and everybody knew that it would take time to implement, especially given the fact that the players he inherited were both not very good and not suited to play in a 3-4 defense.
And, in 2012, it was rough defensively. The team gave up 24.2 points per game and four times they allowed over 30 points, and one game they even allowed 59 to the Patriots. But the defense improved down the stretch (allowing 23, 29, 13, 16, and 24 points, respectively) in the final five games of the 2012 season, including the playoff game against the Ravens. Also, Chuck Pagano missed most of the season while battling leukemia, which obviously hindered the adjustment. The defensive failures of 2012 were ok because they were expected and actually, as a whole and as the season went on, the defense exceeded expectations. But entering 2013, we expected drastic improvement from the unit in the second official season under Pagano - who we still didn't know much about as a coach. We knew a ton about Pagano the person, and it's very hard not to really like him. But Pagano the coach? We still didn't know entering this year.
I wish that were still the way things were.
Instead, the Colts' defense has fallen apart and it has gotten worse from where it was a year ago. Despite spending big money on free agents such as safety LaRon Landry, outside linebacker Erik Walden, defensive linemen Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin, and cornerback Greg Toler, plus spending their first round draft pick on outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the Colts' defense just hasn't been very good.
Yeah, the first six weeks of the season they absolutely were. They were playing as one of the best defenses (and especially one of the best secondaries) in the entire NFL. Seriously. And then even in week seven against the Broncos, they played relatively well - despite giving up 33 points and 429 yards.
But in the second half of the season, the defense has collapsed. They have completely fallen apart at the seams. Here's a statistical representation of the disparity between the first six games for the Colts and the last seven games:
|First 6 Games||Last 7 Games|
|Yards Allowed Per Game||337.67||401.57|
|Plays Per Game||62.50||66.43|
|Yards Allowed Per Play||5.40||6.05|
|Turnovers Forced Per Game||1.67||1.29|
|Sacks Per Game||2.83||1.86|
|Points Per Game Allowed||16.33||31.14|
There are many things that I find very interesting in this table, and I'll elaborate on some of them. First of all is that in the last seven games the Colts have given up 63.9 yards per game more than they did in the first six games, and in the last seven games they have given up 14.81 points per game more than they did in the first six games. That's incredible. This defense has gotten worse by over two touchdowns in the second half of this season.
For comparison, the Colts currently average for the entire season (13 games) giving up 24.3 points per game, which ranks 16th in the league. Ok, that's not terrible - not great, but not terrible either. But consider this: in the first six games, the Colts gave up just 16.33 points per game, which would currently rank as the third best defense in the NFL behind only the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks and just ahead of the San Francisco 49ers. But in the last seven games, the Colts gave up 31.14 points per game, which would rank 31st out of 32 teams, with the only team allowing more points than that on the season being the Washington Redskins, who are giving up 31.3 points per game on the season. In essence, the drop-off from the first six games to the past seven games has been a drop from the third best defense in the NFL to the second worst defense in the NFL. Now, I get that it's a lot more complex than that, but you get the point nonetheless.
So that begs the question: what the heck happened? What could possibly have caused such a dramatic drop-off and decline that has resulted in the defense falling apart at the seams?
Many people will just hear people (like myself) talk about the Colts' injury issues and assume that applies to the defense. It really doesn't. The offense has been nearly devastated by injuries, but not the defense. The defense is honestly as healthy as you could possibly expect to get at this point in the season. I mean, just look at the injured reserve list for the defense:
Only two defensive players on IR even saw the field for the Colts this year, and one of them was primarily a special teams player (and a good one, at that). The other was a good backup player who stepped in and started a few games.
But what about the other injuries? LaRon Landry missed a few games, Bjoern Werner missed a while, Erik Walden missed one game due to a suspension, Ricky Jean Francois is currently out and will be out a few weeks, and Greg Toler has been out for the past six games, and possibly more coming too.
The only injury you could possibly point to as being a cause for the defensive collapse is Greg Toler, because he is the only one whose injury coincides with the drop-off (he was injured in the seventh game, which would be the start of the second half of the season I have referred to). So is that the reason why? A reason, yes. But I won't say that's the main reason.
Why? Well, for starters, he never was great when playing anyways. He was solid but unspectacular, and we actually were talking about how he got burned too often. When he wasn't getting burned, he was playing well, but overall he was just ok. Cassius Vaughn has actually stepped in rather nicely for Toler, although Vaughn hasn't really been that good either.
No, if you want to trace the defensive issues back to a cornerback, you have to start first and foremost with Vontae Davis. Playing like a shutdown corner and Pro Bowl player early in the season, in the past six games he has been atrocious. Andre Johnson manhandled him in week nine - and he hasn't been the only one. In fact, pretty much every week since the Texans game, Davis has been bad and has been getting beat. What happened? I'm going to give you my expert analysis and say this: I have no idea. I honestly don't know what has happened to Vontae Davis, but it's impossible to ignore - he has been bad. He's one of the places you need to start when identifying the defensive failures.
Additionally, you can trace the issues from the cornerback position to the rest of the secondary, too. Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry have both been bad. Like, really bad. In fact, I think that LaRon Landry might be playing the worst football of anyone on the defense, and that was Ryan Grigson's big name signing. I even advocated starting Delano Howell over a healthy Landry a few weeks ago, but Howell was promptly then placed on IR, ending that idea. But Landry has been terrible, and Bethea hasn't been much better either.
Contributing to the issues in the secondary though is the pass rush - or lack thereof. If it weren't for Robert Mathis, I am scared to even think about where this team would be. He has 15.5 of the Colts' 30 sacks this year, or 51.67%, which would be the second highest percentage of a team's sacks by an individual player since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. As a team, though, the Colts notched 17 sacks in the first six games but only 13 in the past seven games, and 4 of those came against the Denver Broncos in the game that kind of joins these two together (though I count it amongst the last seven games). In other words, my point is this - the Colts are averaging a sack per game less in the past seven games than in the first six. That absolutely contributes to a worse secondary and, as a result, a worse defense. We knew coming into the season that the pass rush was a major issue, and while Robert Mathis has stepped up to the task in a HUGE way, nobody else has. Nobody. The first round draft pick, Bjoern Werner, who was supposed to be a pass rushing threat, has 0.5 sacks - on the entire season. Erik Walden - who has been among the worst pass rushing outside linebackers in recent years - has more sacks than Werner (Walden has 2).
There is no way around it - the defense, in the past seven games, has been terrible. They have given up 33, 24, 38, 27, 40, 14, and 42 points, respectively. Look at how those numbers compare to earlier in the year:
|First Six Games||16.33||2||33.33%||0||0.00%||0||0.00%|
|Last Seven Games||31.14||6||85.71%||4||57.14||2||28.57%|
The Colts have given up 40+ points in the past seven games nearly as often as they gave up 20+ in the first six games. That's bad. Additionally, let's look at how those numbers compare to the defense in 2012:
|2012 Season (16 Games)||24.2||10||62.50%||4||25.00%||2||12.50%|
The Colts defense has gotten worse this year - not only compared to last year, but probably more significantly, in the middle of the season. The drop-off has been stunning. The play has been atrocious. There were positives from the offense last week against the Bengals. Not so with the defense. They were terrible, giving up 42 to the Bengals. [Disclaimer: I admit that the defense played well in the first half, but in the second half they were terrible. Just terrible.] And the most concerning thing is that it wasn't just one game, and there doesn't seem to be any fix to it either.
Ryan Grigson's defensive additions have been mostly big failures, with a few exceptions. Chuck Pagano's coaching so far this year has been a big failure, because he is ultimately being judged by this defense. This isn't Greg Manusky's defense, and we all know that. This is Chuck Pagano's defense - and his defense is playing really bad in recent weeks.
I'm not saying to fire Chuck Pagano. But I am saying that the defense is what is holding the Colts back right now, as the Colts lost despite scoring 28 points Sunday. In fact, it was the first time in Colts history that they lost when their quarterback threw 4+ touchdown passes (previously having been 20-0), and it was also the first time in Andrew Luck's career - both collegiate and pro - that he lost when throwing 4 touchdowns (previously having been 8-0).
I'm not saying the Colts should fire Chuck Pagano this offseason. But what I am saying is that the defensive simply must improve, and that is on Chuck Pagano. The Colts need to have a better offseason this year, signing players that help their team and who can play, and then Pagano needs to get them playing better. Will they get better before this season is over? I don't know, but my guess is no. Either way, I'm more than willing to give Chuck Pagano another shot. I'm more than willing to let the Colts go out and try to improve their team once again and bring in some players who will improve the defense. But if next year the defensive issues continue - or, like this year, get worse - then, well, let's just say it's not going to be good for Pagano.
That is still a long way away, and right now the Colts have to focus on the playoffs. The defense needs to get better by then, or else this will be a one and done team. If when Greg Toler eventually comes back the defense turns it around and begins playing great again, then we should give him the MVP award. But I don't see that happening - no, the issues go much deeper than that. The defense has collapsed. We'll see if Chuck Pagano is able to salvage any of it for the playoffs, but after seeing the defense in the past seven weeks, I'm not too optimistic about it improving much.