In 2013, one of the most important players to the Colts and to any team period was outside linebacker Robert Mathis. Not only did he lead the NFL in sacks with 19.5, he also accounted for nearly half of his team's sacks - an insane number that easily led the league. He was the most crucial part to the defense and one of the most crucial parts to the team overall.
And then, last spring, he was suspended four games by the NFL for PED use. The Colts would have to play the first four games of the season without him - which, while it was a big blow, wouldn't be the end of the world, as Mathis would be up to full speed in time for the playoffs.
While working out away from the team, however, Mathis was injured. He suffered a torn Achilles that ended his season before he even stepped on the field for a regular season game. With the season just getting underway there was no time to try to address the position further. Instead, the Colts would have to play the entire 2014 season without one of their most important players.
The Colts actually had a few players step up to help fill the void left by Mathis, but they couldn't fully replace him. The player who was expected to step in and do just that? He didn't come close. The Colts were counting on last year's first round draft pick, Bjoern Werner, to really step up and embrace the bigger role as a chance to emerge as a pass rusher. He started 15 games in 2014, so he certainly got the chance, but he didn't do anything with it. On the season, he recorded 50 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Consider, however, that 11 tackles, 4 sacks, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble came in a three week span in weeks five through seven. Outside of that stretch early in the season, Werner recorded 39 tackles, no sacks, a pass defensed, and a fumble recovery combined in 12 games - all as a starter! That's not good whatsoever. Sure, credit him for those three games if you want to, but Werner was bad in 2014. The role the Colts drafted him for - as a pass rusher - was the role in which he was nearly invisible. He did do some good things as a run defender, but it wasn't enough to overshadow the negatives from the pass rush failures. How bad was it? He was inactive for the AFC Championship game. General manager Ryan Grigson said that the reason was because Werner was battling through injuries, but that's just an excuse. They wanted to get Werner rest in the AFC Championship game because he was dealing with some injuries that didn't even limit him in practice at all that week? I don't buy it, and rather it seems that Werner was simply a healthy inactive for the biggest game of the season. That's how bad things got for the former first round draft pick, and his role with the team must be questioned moving forward.
The player starting at the other outside linebacker spot opposite Werner, however, was one of the bright spots of the Colts' defense in 2014. Erik Walden entered the season after a 2013 year in which he was very average and at times much worse, but he improved noticeably this season. Not known for his pass rush, Walden actually managed six sacks this year, finishing second on the team and tying his total from his past two seasons combined. Starting 14 games in 2014, Walden's stats won't jump off the page at you, as he notched just 37 tackles, 6 sacks, and a forced fumble. Maybe it was just compared to expectations, but Walden impressed this year. He not only gave some solid pass rush help (for much of the season being the team's best pass rush threat) but he also got better at defending against the run. There are still some questions about his future with the Colts, but in 2014 he showed noticeable improvement and clearly stepped up his game.
Another player who exceeded expectations was rookie Jonathan Newsome. The fifth rounder received some high praise after the draft and drew comparisons to Robert Mathis, but he was projected to be more of a project player who needed some time to adjust to the NFL game. If that was true, it was a very quick adjustment. Newsome appeared in all 16 games (starting one) and notched 28 tackles, 6.5 sacks (leading the team), and three forced fumbles. He added another sack and forced fumble in the playoffs (playing in all three games and starting one). The Mathis comparisons were even more frequent as the season went on, and Newsome really stepped up. He still needs to become a bit more consistent as a pass rush threat, but for a rookie fifth round draft pick in his first year, he was incredibly impressive and a clear bright spot moving forward.
Another backup outside linebacker who continued to play well was Andy Studebaker, who flies under the radar but has an impact in the role the Colts ask him to play. He does a great job on special teams, which is his primary role, but he's also a backup linebacker, able to play both inside and outside. This year, he played most of the time at outside linebacker, and he did well as a role player. Stude notched 15 tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in limited time, but when he did play he did a solid job. He's best at run defense, and he does a good job in that area, though he can also provide a pass rush at times. Stude is a valuable guy to have around, as he is a part of the special teams unit and a good roleplaying backup linebacker.
The Colts signed outside linebacker Shaun Phillips mid-season in an effort to help improve their pass rush, as Phillips has 81.5 career sacks and 22 career forced fumbles to his name. In five games with the Colts this season, however, his impact was minimal, as he recorded five tackles. Other players, such as Victor Butler, Cam Johnson, and Chris Carter, all played for the Colts this season, though they did not play much whatsoever and did not have a noticeable impact. Butler and Carter were both waived during the season and Johnson was injured, being placed on injured reserve.
Moving forward, the Colts need to address the position by adding pass rush help, because that's what was lacking in 2014. They generated pressure almost always through blitzes, and while that's a credit to Greg Manusky it's something that has to change. They can't count on Mathis to reach the level he was at before the injury, considering he is soon-to-be 34-years old and coming off of a torn Achilles. His return will be big, but the Colts need other pass rush help too. Is that Jonathan Newsome? The rookie looked very promising in 2014, and we'll have to keep an eye on him moving forward. Is it Bjoern Werner? The answer is likely no, based on what we've seen in his first two seasons.
It's hard to move past just how big of an impact not having Mathis was in 2014 for the Colts, but for the players who did play, there were a few who really exceeded expectations (Erik Walden and Jonathan Newsome) and who did not live up to expectations (Bjoern Werner). While we know that the Colts could stand to upgrade the spot, let's also not forget to applaud some of the efforts by guys like Erik Walden and Jonathan Newsome to step up this year in the absence of one of the Colts' best and most important players.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2014 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: