No matter how how you looked at it, the beginning of the Colts 2014 was going to be tough. In week one they play a primetime Sunday night game in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and then in week two they come home to host a primetime Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles and Nick Foles. Last season, in 33 combined games (including playoffs), the two completed 63.06% of their passes for 9,403 yards (8.27 yards per attempt), 89 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for a passer rating of 110. Then, in week three the Colts will travel to Jacksonville to play the division rival Jaguars and then the next week they will return home to play the division rival Tennessee Titans. It was already a tough start for the Colts, and it just got much tougher.
Team captain Robert Mathis was suspended by the NFL for violating the league's prohibited substances policy and will miss the first four games of the season as a result. The circumstances surrounding the use of the prohibited drug by Mathis are understandable, which you can read about here, but the blame must still lie with him because he failed to double check and make sure the substance was allowed or not - which it isn't. Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who has maintained a strong family-focus while with the Colts, reiterated Saturday that the Colts "love and respect" Robert Mathis and that "we've got his back."
The first question posed to Pagano after his opening statement to the media yesterday, however, was the question of how the Colts will replace Mathis. Said Pagano:
"Yeah, I mean we're so far away. That's why we've got a 90-man roster right now. We lost five starters I believe last year on offense, right? It was next man up in those situations. So somebody will take advantage of the opportunity to show up and play great football."
Next man up. That's been a theme that the Colts have held to for what seems like forever, and it was evident last year as well as the team was plagued with numerous injuries to the offense yet still made the won the division and won a playoff game. This year, they'll need that to be the theme right from the start, as they'll be without their best defensive player for the first four games. And let me first state that there's no way the Colts are going to replace Robert Mathis. He is a team captain and a tremendous inspiration and motivation for the team, as well as a dominant player on the field. Last year, he accounted for nearly half of his team's sack total by himself (easily the highest percentage of a team's sacks in the league) and led the league with a Colts franchise record 19.5 sacks. You could make a very legitimate and compelling argument that perhaps no defensive player was more important to his team than Mathis was to the Colts last season. He was a major factor in every game and he played a huge role in directly changing the outcome of several of them. There's no way the Colts can replace the production, disruption, or leadership of Robert Mathis. But that doesn't mean they won't try, and that doesn't mean that other guys aren't going to be expected to step up and play well.
I've lined out a three part method on how the Colts will need to try to replace Mathis, and it pretty much incorporates all of the other defenders stepping up.
First and foremost, the player who absolutely must step up is Bjoern Werner. Last year's first round draft pick notched just 2.5 sacks in his rookie campaign, though he really showed improvement as the season neared an end. He missed time due to injury last year which certainly slowed his development a bit, and also, the expectation many Colts fans had for a rookie pass rusher was ridiculous - largely created by the team not having any other legitimate pass rush options other than Mathis. That said, even by realistic expectations, his season was a disappointment and the Colts need him to step up in 2014 - now in an even bigger way. He'll be thrust into a starting role at the rush linebacker spot on primetime against Peyton Manning, and he will be counted on to perform. Basically, in 2014 Werner was ok against the run and was ok at setting the edge. Room to improve, certainly, but that's not why some people are already calling him a "bust" (which, by the way, is way too early, in my opinion). Where Werner needs to improve is the very area he was drafted to help with, and that's pass rush. I initially thought that he would contribute more in the pass rush area and then learn the other areas like run defense and coverage, but it turned out to be the opposite and I think the biggest area where he needs to improve this year is in his pass rush. Coming into the NFL a big knock on him was that he played too upright - meaning he stood up too high when rushing. That was true last season for Werner, and that alone contributed to much of Werner's ineffectiveness in the pass rush. In other words, I think a lot of it is technique for Werner, and hopefully head coach Chuck Pagano, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald can help him improve in that area. If he does, I think we'll see significant improvement from Werner on the field in terms of pass rush. And if he can step in and provide solid pass rush for the Colts defense (not even anything spectacular but just solid and consistent), that will be huge and will go a long ways to helping replace Mathis.
Another guy who might see more playing time early than most expected is fifth round draft pick Jonathan Newsome. He will be playing outside linebacker and is a guy that many, including former Colts general manager Bill Polian, compared to Mathis in terms of his skill set. Like Werner last year (but on a much bigger scale because of the fact that Werner was a first round choice and Newsome a fifth rounder), we need to be careful not to expect too much out of Newsome, but the suspension of Robert Mathis could thrust Newsome into a situational pass rush role that wasn't expected so early for the rookie.
Obviously, the pressure also increases on outside linebacker Erik Walden, though his role likely won't change a whole lot - it will just come with more pressure on him to play well. A guy some have suggested as to helping at outside linebacker as well is Josh McNary, an inside linebacker that the Colts really like (and with good reason). He played defensive end at Army, which led many to think he'd be an outside linebacker with the Colts, but they moved him inside and when he got the chance to play last year he looked good. In fact, I think if he had stayed healthy in camp he would have been starting - I thought he was impressive and the Colts did too. They signed D'Qwell Jackson to play at inside linebacker along with Jerrell Freeman, but make no mistake about it - the Colts still have plans for McNary. Some have suggested that maybe, with Mathis' suspension, McNary will be moved outside for a few games to play. It's certainly a possibility, as McNary does have decent pass rush skills, but he didn't play there much at all last year and I think they like him at inside linebacker. But, at the same time, next man up sometimes means moving guys around, so that's something to watch.
Oh, and another guy Colts fans will mention is Daniel Adongo. He's an absolutely monster physically and he is incredibly tough, and the Colts are developing him as an outside linebacker. I'm honestly not sure where he's at in that progress, but I can't wait to see him and camp and I wouldn't rule out seeing Adongo on a few snaps as a situational pass rusher. If you can't tell, it won't be just one guy who replaces Mathis but rather a committee of several. Other guys like Cam Johnson, Andy Studebaker, and especially Justin Hickman bear watching as well as guys who could help replace Mathis.
The Defensive Line
The Colts have a lot of money invested into the defensive line (though be very careful with using the money to determine talent) and it's time that the linemen start producing. In a 3-4 defense you really want your defensive linemen to take on as many offensive linemen as possible to allow your linebackers to make plays, and without the skills of Robert Mathis coming around the edge, this will be even more difficult and even more crucial. Cory Redding did a very good job last season at pressuring the quarterback from his defensive end spot (which is the most pass-rush heavy of the three defensive line spots in the Colts' 3-4) and they'll need him to keep that up this season. Arthur Jones has notched at least 4 sacks in each of the past two seasons, and the Colts will need him to provide that type of pass rush this year too. And Ricky Jean Francois? Well, he just needs to step up, period. The same with Josh Chapman, who seems to have the physical skills necessary but hasn't played much in his two seasons with the league so far. This is the year that Chapman needs to step up at nose tackle, and if he does it will be huge for the Colts defense, especially now that Robert Mathis won't be around for the first four games. While the Colts have defensive linemen who can provide pass rush help, the main thing the Colts need from them is to be able to take on the offensive line so that the linebackers can get by the offensive line to pressure the quarterback. We may not see it as much on the stat sheet, but the defensive line will need to step up to help the Colts replace Mathis as well.
Nothing makes the job of cornerbacks easier than playing on a team with a terrific pass rush (other than playing a terrible quarterback, I suppose). When a team gets pressure regularly, the corners need to cover the receivers for less time, which makes their job more easier and makes them more effective. Last year, the Colts pass rush wasn't great and the Colts corners certainly didn't enjoy that luxury. This year, for the first four games, it's likely that the pass rush will be even worse. As a result, the Colts desperately need their secondary to step up and cover receivers a bit longer, as the pass rush will need a bit longer as well to get to the quarterback. They re-signed Vontae Davis this offseason (which actually looks like a pretty good deal now after seeing the contracts Richard Sherman and Joe Haden recently received), and there's no doubt that Davis is a top-tier corner in the league and that he has all the skills needed to be a shutdown corner. He'll need to step up in Mathis' absence in 2014, and I have confidence he will. Greg Toler actually looked alright before getting injured last season and as long as he can stay healthy, I think he will do ok. There are still concerns, but I think it won't be as bad if he stays healthy. Darius Butler in the slot is a good slot corner, and he'll need to continue that in 2014. At safety, LaRon Landry simply must improve on his disappointing 2013 season, and even more so now that Robert Mathis will miss four games. The gap at free safety with Antoine Bethea leaving looks even bigger now, and Delano Howell will need to help even more than initially expected to start out the season. Most people won't think about the secondary helping to replace Robert Mathis, but often the secondary is either helped or hurt by the pass rush the most of anybody. Without Mathis, it's likely that they'll need to stay in coverage a bit longer in 2014,and the Colts need them to rise to the occasion.
The Colts won't replace Robert Mathis. He is such a dominant player and such a dynamic leader that you can't just replace that. But they'll do their best, and it will absolutely be a team effort in doing so - involving the linebackers, the defensive line, and the secondary. And, to a degree, it will involve the offense too - they'll likely need to score more points. Andrew Luck's offensive attack is the least of the Colts' worries right now, however. They need to find a way to hold their own and win games until their best defensive player, Robert Mathis, returns in week five at home against the Baltimore Ravens on October 5. It's certainly a tough situation, as Chuck Pagano alluded to, but the Colts will get through it. They have no other option. "As we've done many, many times before in our short stint here, we'll get through this," Pagano said Saturday. "We'll come together as a team. We'll come together as a family. We'll come together as an organization and we'll get through this." And hopefully, as Pagano said, "we'll get through this and at the end of the day, we'll all be better for it." The Colts, a team with Super Bowl hopes expectations but already facing adversity, certainly hope that to be true.