An issue that has been evident for the Indianapolis Colts for the past several seasons came to the surface yet again on Sunday night as the Colts' defense struggled to stop the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns without an interception on Sunday, exposing the Colts' secondary but more so their pass rush. Save for a moment or two - like the second half against the Buccaneers - the Colts' pass rush has been nearly invisible this year. They have recorded 64 quarterback hits but only 19 sacks, the fifth-lowest total in the league.
"Yeah, our goal was obviously much more than that," head coach Chuck Pagano said on Wednesday about the 19 sacks his team has recoreded. "So we'll keep working, we're going to keep grinding, keep coaching, keep playing, keep teaching. That's all you can do."
Robert Mathis, the 34-year old pass rusher coming off of a torn Achilles a year ago, is tied for second on the team with 11 quarterback hits (Kendall Langford has 12 while Erik Walden also has 11) and is first on the team with four sacks (Langford and Walden are tied for second with three each). The Colts' big free agent signing, Trent Cole, has just six quarterback hits and one sack this year. Jonathan Newsome, who as a rookie last year impressed, has just two quarterback hits and one sack.
On Sunday night against the Steelers, the issue of the pass rush was incredibly glaring. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 40 times and the Colts recorded just one hit on him - and that was by cornerback Darius Butler. One of the biggest issues with the lack of a pass rush is that it leaves the secondary in a bad position, having to cover for longer periods of time.
"When they got to get the ball out in less than three seconds you got to cover for about two, two-and-a-half seconds, it's real easy, I could play to be honest with you," Pagano said. "If we can't get home and they max-protect, they do whatever and you got to cover three-and-a-half, four seconds sometimes five or six if the play gets extended, now it becomes difficult. Now it's a tall order so you generate pass rush and sometime the ball is going to come out by design based on down and distance and situational football. But other times, if we can't get home and you can't force them to get rid of the ball or move around, get him off the spot, make him throw off his back foot, get errant throws, get overthrows, get interceptions and things like that, then it is difficult.
"It goes hand-in-hand and then tight coverage, doing a great job of playing technique in the back end, got everything blanketed so once he goes through his reads and this one is taken away, that's taken away, that's taken away and now that buys time for the rush if they are because you notice they are going to put a tight end over here and if Rob (Mathis) is sitting there he's going to get chipped. You got to deal with the tackle, number one, tight end is going to chip him and then he's going to get out on a route and then you have a back on this side chipping the other rusher on the other side. So it's not like you got a bunch of one-on-ones on every single snap, so a lot of things go into it."
Pagano raises an interesting point regarding how the pass rush and the secondary go hand in hand. If you can't pressure the quarterback, you're going to leave your corners to cover for longer periods. On the flip side, even if you get pressure but can't cover at all, you leave your pass rush in a tougher spot. So the best defenses are the ones that can strike a nice balance between the two. It's popular to criticize the Colts' cornerbacks, and often it's deserved - but also consider that they are forced into coverage for longer periods of time and are put in hard situations by the lack of a pass rush.