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The Colts Are Pressuring the Quarterback and It's Working

The Colts look like a different group on defense and that is thanks to an improved overall pass rush.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For years, the Indianapolis Colts relied on two players to generate their pass rush and apply pressure on the quarterback: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. For the past few seasons, it's only been one player and that player is Robert Mathis. His 19.5 sack season last year was by far the best of his career and made the Colts' pass rush respectable. When he went down with his Achilles Tendon injury (on top of being suspended for the first four games), many believed that this defense would crumble. They have done the exact opposite. The injury to Robert Mathis has forced the entire defense to step up their game and a lot of them have.

This season, several players have been able to apply pressure on a regular or semi-regular basis. The Colts are also doing something different: they are blitzing players from everywhere and disguising them more. The games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans best exemplify these new changes on defense.

Baltimore Ravens Game

Play #1: 2nd & 8 | 1st Quarter | 4:22 Remaining

As you can see in this photo, the Colts are in their base 3-4 package. They have two outside linebackers, two inside linebackers and three defensive linemen (one nose tackle and two five-technique defensive ends). The Ravens have a tight end and two running backs in the backfield on the play, so the numbers are in the Ravens' favour if they pass the ball.

As the play starts, we see the Colts are only blitzing four players. Erik Walden, the left outside linebacker, is in coverage versus Owen Daniels. Bjoern Werner and Cory Redding are setting the edge, with Ricky Jean Francois going up against the center. Montori Hughes, the nose tackle, is stunting behind Jean Francois and will engage against the left guard.

On this play, Cory Redding has gotten through the right tackle and is right next to Joe Flacco. Bjoern Werner beat the left tackle on the outside. What's weird here is that the right tackle (#71 of the Ravens) that was originally blocking Cory Redding is a few yards behind Redding. This indicates that there must have been a miscommunication and he expected someone else to pick up Redding. Either way, Redding and Werner are in the backfield. What needs to be noted here is that Werner is winning one on one.

Bjoern Werner is the one who finishes the play and gets the sack on Joe Flacco. He had a one on one matchup on the outside and won. As you'll see in the following pictures, getting pressure from the outside linebackers is a recurring theme in this article.

Result: 8 Yard Sack by Bjoern Werner

Key Points:
- Bjoern Werner getting pressure and the sack from a one on one matchup.

- Having 2 guys within a few feet of Flacco after only 5 seconds (from the start of the play).

Play #2: 2nd & 6 | 2nd Quarter | 12:22 Remaining

On this play, the Colts have five guys on the line, with four guys with their hand in the dirt. They have two inside linebackers behind them, meaning it's a 5-2 defensive formation. The Ravens are in a two tight end set with a single running back in the backfield.

As the play starts, four Colts make initial penetration off the line with Erik Walden (right outside linebacker) playing off in coverage. Both of the Ravens' tight ends and their running back are running patterns, meaning that only the five offensive linemen are protecting Flacco. What you must keep an eye on is Jerrell Freeman, who was disguised beautifully and delayed his rush. Now, he should have an open lane to rush the quarterback.

As the play continues to develop, the Ravens' offensive linemen have done a great job of taking out the four defensive linemen (who had their hands in the dirty at the beginning of the play), but they completely forgot about Jerrell Freeman. Freeman had an open lane to attack the quarterback, and that's exactly what he did. No one is blocking him and he'll have a clear shot at Joe Flacco.

Freemen gets within a couple of steps of Flacco, and Flacco is forced to throw the ball away (and before he has any time to scan the field). You can see by his body that he was forced to throw the ball away quickly as his technique is off. If he were making a throw to a receiver, he would not throw it like that; that is called "throwing it away quickly, so I don't get killed". Freeman's great pressure on him caused them the Ravens to lose a down.

Result: Incomplete Pass (Throw Away) from Joe Flacco

Key Points:

- Great Disguise blitz from Jerrell Freeman and it gives him a free lane to attack the quarterback.

- Freeman's pressure on Joe Flacco, causes Flacco to throw the ball away and lose a down.

Play #3: 3rd & 11 | 3rd Quarter | 13:35 Remaining

On this long third down, the Colts have 7 players on the line (or within a yard of it). They're showing an obvious blitz, but how many of these players will they actually blitz? The defensive backs are playing off as well.

Of the seven guys who were showing blitz, five of them are blitzing. D'Qwell Jackson (#52) and Colt Anderson (#32)  back off into coverage. The Colts have an advantage on the right side (the Ravens' left side) as they have Sergio Brown vs the running back. That's a good matchup that the Colts want.

As the play continues to develop, Sergio Brown stunts over the top of Jerrell Freeman and now goes inside. He is still against the running back. What is also worth noting is that Bjoern Werner is trying to get pressure at the top of the screenshot. Flacco is just planting his back foot and the play is still developing, meaning there is plenty of time for the Colts to get pressure on him.

Just as Flacco is about to throw the ball, Sergio Brown is right there to hit him. Flacco forces a throw to avoid the sack as it is 3rd down. Werner and Freeman are driven out of the play but Brown wins his matchup against the running back and successfully gets pressure on Flacco.

...and Vontae Davis intecepts the ball. The pressure causes Joe Flacco to force the ball and it turns into a turnover. Davis didn't have to do much, it was just a bad throw.

Result: Interception by Vontae Davis

Key Points:

- Great pressure on third down by bringing several players including a defensive back (Sergio Brown #38). They disguise it by bringing seven guys and then bring five guys, with three of them coming on the (Colts') right side.

- Brown gets a great matchup against the running back of the Ravens.

Houston Texans Game

Play #1 (#4 Overall): 3rd & 7 | 1st Quarter | 5:41 Remaining

On this play, you see the Colts have seven guys on the line with five of them lined up against the offensive line. Jerrell Freeman, who is lined up against Andre Johnson (#80 of the Texans), but is showing blitz. (Side Note: Notice the better resolution in the Thursday Night Game versus a regular Sunday afternoon game)

As the play starts, you see a lot of complex moves from the Colts. Freeman ends up blitzing against the right tackle. Cory Redding goes up against the right guard. Erik Walden, who was in an inside linebacker position, is blitzing up the middle. What's worth noting here is that there is a stunt from the Colts. Ricky Jean Francois (#99) who stunts over the top of D'Qwell Jackson and then Bjoern Werner (#92) is stunting over Ricky Jean Francois (Werner and Jean Francois switching roles with each other). A stunt is a change of direction where the players switch roles with each other, that is meant confuse the offensive linemen. If Werner and Walden get to the hole quick enough, the only person that will be there to block is their running back Arian Foster, meaning they should get a hit on Fitzpatrick. The Colts did not stunt a lot in the past, so seeing this is a nice change.

As the play continues to develop, the blitz by Erik Walden does not get there quick enough and Werner lays off in a "spy" type of role. However, what is worth looking at here is D'Qwell Jackson ripping through his block versus the left guard and Foster isn't in the right position to make the block. This is not good for the Texans as Jackson has a free lane at the quarterback.

This is a dream for D'Qwell Jackson; he is about to lay a big shot on Ryan Fitzpatrick. As you can see, Foster attempts to block him but is out of position and cannot get to him in time. What's also good to see is that Cory Redding handily wins his block (look at the body position of #71 of the Texans) and Walden (#93) is also hitting the whole. If for some reason D'Qwell Jackson misses (which he doesn't), Redding and Walden are right behind him to nail Fitzpatrick.

Result: 8 Yard Sack by D'Qwell Jackson

Key Points:

- Seven guys on the line with five of them showing blitz.

- The stunting is something not seen much in the past and if properly executed, can be very beneficial for the Colts' pass rush.

- There are 3 guys who have open lanes at the quarterback.

Play #2 (#5 Overall): 3rd & 5 | 2nd Quarter | 10:30 Remaining

The Colts have 6 guys on the line, with only 5 defensive backs behind them. The guys on the line include 2 defensive linemen, 2 inside linebackers and 2 outside linebackers. On third down, the Colts intend on bringing pressure.

This is a great example of the Colts perfectly disguising their blitz. Mike Adams (#29) and Sergio Brown (#38) who looked to be in coverage, end up blitzing up the middle. Jerrell Freeman who was showing blitz, ends up going in coverage versus Garrett Graham (TE #88 of the Texans). The Colts blitz 7 players in total and have 4 players in coverage. They have the numbers advantage meaning they should get pressure on the quarterback.

As the play continues to develop, there are a few positives on the pass rush. Erik Walden (#93) has leverage on the outside against the left tackle. Bjoern Werner (#92) is dead at the top of the screen and Zach Kerr (#94) is blocked well meaning their rushes are essentially over. Mike Adams (#29) and D'Qwell Jackson manage to get throw and both have good lanes to hit the quarterback. Remember, if you look at the first image on this play, Mike Adams isn't close to the line and is not looking like he's going to blitz on the play. In a matter of 4 seconds, he's in the backfield attacking the quarterback.

As Fitzpatrick is about to throw the football, Mike Adams (#29) is in his face with his arms up and Erik Walden is pressuring him from his left side. D'Qwell Jackson and Sergio Brown are following behind Mike Adams. Ryan Fitzpatrick is forced to throw the ball early. He does make a great pass but it is dropped by Andre Johnson and the Texans are forced to kick a football.

Result: Incomplete Pass by Ryan Fitzpatrick

Key Points:

- The Colts disguise the blitz from the two defensive backs (Adams and Brown) that enables them to surprise the Texans' offensive line.

- The Colts are able to have 2 players in Fitzpatrick's face and he forces the ball out earlier than he expected to throw it.

Overall Impression

Seeing the Colts disguise blitzes and bring extra players on obvious passing downs is refreshing to see. It's been a long time coming. It's nice to see a more aggressive mentality from the defense and that aggressive mentality has enabled them to have a good defense. They've allowed only 22 points per game this season which puts them in the top half of the NFL, and tied with the Seahawks and Bengals. Disguising blitzes has worked out well for the Colts and what works especially well is disguising defensive back blitzes, which, as exemplified with the plays shown earlier, have worked out well. The Colts have a new mentality on defense and that has caused them to force more turnovers. They are generating more pressure on the quarterback. Overall, this season they've hurried the quarterback 44 times, hit the quarterback 21 times, have 18 scaks and 6 interceptions. That puts them on pace for 117 hurries, 56 hits, 48 sacks, and 16 interceptions. That would put them on pace for similar (but slightly better numbers) than last year, but it must noted that this is all being done without Robert Mathis, who achieved a good amount of those numbers last season. This team is rallying around his injury and are putting together a great combined effort thanks to an improved overall effort and smart play calling and strategies from the coaches.

Note: Game Footage from NFL Game Rewind