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The Colts May Have A Big Problem With Pass Rush

Without Dwight Freeney in the lineup, the Colts will have to rely on several less-established players to rush the quarterback. Can they really do it?

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

I tried to be optimistic about the Colts' pass rush for this upcoming season when they drafted Bjoern Werner. I really did.

Once Werner was brought in and Jerry Hughes was traded, the Colts officially completed their pass rush transition. They had replaced the best defensive player in franchise history (Dwight Freeney) and a draft bust with a first-round draft pick, an unproven backup in Lawrence Sidbury and a run-stopping 'specialist' in Erik Walden.

Fair trade-off? I didn't think it was close. I just decided to continually tell myself that Ryan Grigson knew more about football than I did. That usually helped me fall asleep at night.

But after three long months of using that method, I know I can't keep lying to myself.

I think the Colts will struggle to rush the quarterback this season. There's just too much evidence supporting that theory to ignore it.

Just think about how much production the Colts are going to have to replace not only from losing Freeney, but from losing Hughes as well.

Yes, this Jerry Hughes.

As much as most of us like to criticize Hughes for his crappy attitude and his on-field demeanor, the hard truth is that he still contributed more to the Colts' pass rush last season than every player on the team outside of Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Freeney and Hughes actually combined for nine of 32 sacks, 15 of 44 quarterbacks hits and 50 of 122 pressures during 2012 year, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, the Colts will be without 43 percent of their total pass rushing productivity (Sacks + Hits + Pressures) due to several players leaving for other teams.

So where does that leave them?

Unfortunately, it leaves them with a lot of uncertainties.

Let's first look at Mathis. In his now decade-long career with the Colts, Mathis has never started a season without Dwight Freeney playing opposite of him. That will end this year.

The Colts are counting on Mathis to be their best pass rushing threat on the field for the first time since Freeney was lost for the 2007 season with a Lisfranc injury. To no surprise, Mathis is determined to meet those expectations.

I'm more skeptical of him. In the eight games during 2007 when Dwight Freeney was on injured reserve, Mathis only registered two sacks. That's tied with a stretch in 2011 as the least amount of sacks by Mathis in an eight-game period since he was a rookie.

Admittedly, sacks only play a part in defining a pass rusher. Pressures and hits should be taken into account, too. But Mathis' minuscule amount of sacks without Freeney is still enough to make me question how he'll fare.

It doesn't help that Mathis is coming off a bad year by his standards. PFF gave him a -2.4 overall grade and a 9.7 pass rushing grade for his 2012 campaign, both his lowest marks since 2008.

Knowing Mathis, he'll find a way to prove me wrong and play at an outstanding level. But right now, I just don't expect him to go beyond a decent season. And that's not good enough for a player that should be the top pass-rushing threat on a team.

That's where Werner is supposed to come in. And if recent history becomes a trend, then it's fair to expect Werner to be productive for the Colts. After all, seven first-round draft picks from the 2012 NFL Draft registered at least four sacks last year.

Unfortunately, Werner has had an up-and-down training camp and hasn't given fans much reason so far to think he can be a reliable pass rusher this season It's definitely a wait-and-see situation to monitor, as that could quickly change depending on how much time Werner needs to develop. It's all up to him, considering the opportunity is there.

Finally, we come to the free agent signings in Walden and Sidbury.

While the Colts may have signed both players under the 3-4 OLB (also known as pass rusher) label, neither has ever shown the ability to pressure the quarterback throughout their career.

For Walden, that's based almost entirely on simply not having pass-rushing skills. He was terrible when asked to do that with Green Bay, playing much better (or just not as bad) when he was deployed as a run stopper and someone who could "set the edge." That's what the Colts have sold Walden as, and that's what he'll be. There is little chance that he'll record more than a few sacks this year.

Meanwhile, Sidbury never had much of an opportunity with his former team, the Atlanta Falcons. He's only played 362 snaps in his four-year career and hasn't created a large enough sample size to judge him on the field.

For what we know, Sidbury is a wild card and can't be relied on when it comes to placing expectations on the Colts pass rush. Not yet, at least. It's similar to Werner's situation, especially when you read comments like these by Falcons fans on Sidbury's departure.

Other players like Ricky Jean-FrancoisCory Redding, Fili Moala, Ricardo Mathews and Drake Nevis may be expected to give more support to the Colts pass rush, but all of them either have injury questions or a history of being better against the run than the pass.

That leaves the Colts with two goals if they hope to prevent the team's pass rush from declining:

1) Improve on the blitzing from last season.

The Colts went from blitzing on defensive plays 15.30 percent of the time in 2010 and 17.80 percent in 2011 to a whopping 42.30 percent in 2012, per Pro Football Focus. That made them one of only seven teams in the league that blitzed more than 40 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the Colts were still poor at getting to the quarterback, ranking 20th in the league by PFF's pass rushing grades.

There's reason for hope, though. In the second year under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky,  the Colts have more players that fit the 3-4 mindset. Think of Walden, Sidbury, Jean-Francois,  Aubrayo Franklin, Josh Chapman and maybe even LaRon Landry. While I don't think these players will benefit the Colts' pass rush with their individual efforts, they could help create a defense that fits the goal of blitzing more.

Sidbury in particular could be useful in that role. He played in a 'joker' stand-up role several times throughout training camp, roaming the defensive line until the snap when he blitzed the quarterback. I'm interested to see if that translates into the regular season.

2) Hope and pray that Werner becomes a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

This is a more simple goal than the first one, but it doesn't mean they both couldn't both happen. As I said before, Werner will have an opportunity to be on the field often since the Colts only see Walden as a two-down player. When Werner gets on the field during third downs, he has to take advantage. Otherwise, teams will get their big-play opportunities. Mathis can't hurry the quarterback every time.

Please keep in mind that I don't intend to downplay what any of these players are capable of doing on the field. I only want to create realistic expectations for a defense that has had so much money poured into it.

The Colts can certainly field a winning defense this year. It just depends on the coaching staff and many players proving me wrong on many of the questions listed above. Otherwise, the entire defense could suffer because of it.