Yesterday, the Colts lost starting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson to a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy.
That means that the Colts will be without their leading tackler for the rest of the regular season, and it also means that they’ll be without a starting inside linebacker. Over the past couple of years a number of Colts fans have (rightly) realized that Jackson isn’t great any more and is somewhat limited in what he’s able to do, but he’s still proven to be productive. And while some may suggest that losing Jackson isn’t that big of a deal because he’s not nearly as good as he once was, I’d suggest that it will actually be a bigger loss than many realize.
Firstly, Jackson has been productive and reliable. He’s started all 12 games this year and recorded 78 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, three passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries. And in each of the past five seasons, he’s racked up well over 100 tackles and has started every game. You can’t just replace that kind of production easily, regardless of how good Jackson has looked making those tackles. Sure, in a system like the one the Colts run the inside linebackers will always end up with inflated tackle numbers, but Jackson has been a productive player. More than that, he’s also been incredibly reliable. He’s started 92 games in a row, the second-longest such streak for an active linebacker. He hasn’t missed a single game since the 2010 season, when he missed the entire year. Again, you can’t just replace that kind of reliability easily. The Colts thought they could simply count on Jackson every single week, but now he’ll miss the next four games.
Secondly, the teams the Colts face coming up are teams against whom Jackson probably would have done well against. With the exception of the Raiders, the Colts will face three teams in the final four games that are ranked 22nd or worse in the league in passing. Contrast that with Jackson’s strength, which is in run defense and definitely not in pass defense. The Colts’ run defense has been improved in recent weeks, with the defensive line doing a solid job as guys like Henry Anderson start to get back in the swing of things, while the linebackers have made plays too. So while every team can expose Indy’s defensive weaknesses, their remaining opponents aren’t particularly strong at throwing the football, which would have benefitted Jackson, a run defender.
Thirdly, Jackson was the defensive playcaller on the field, basically serving as the quarterback of the defense. Jackson was the guy helping to get guys in position, make sure the right play was conveyed and called, and things like that. That role will now go to linebackers Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison, who are both young and inexperienced and don’t have anywhere near the experience of D’Qwell Jackson.
And fourth, just look at the options the Colts have to replace Jackson and it’s really hard to think they won’t miss him. It will likely be Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison as the two starting inside linebackers, and both guys are inexperienced. Jackson has flashed this season, but he’s still somewhat inconsistent and will have a learning curve. Morrison is a rookie and hasn’t played much on defense whatsoever in a number of weeks. And they’re the two best options the Colts have, as Josh McNary has really struggled this year. So the team’s options at inside linebacker aren’t very good right now, and that’s perhaps the biggest reason they’ll miss D’Qwell Jackson. While it could win up being a good thing in the long run if guys like Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison get valuable playing time, in the short-term it likely won’t do them any favors. The Colts now have a group of incredibly inexperienced players and a group of guys you can’t really count on yet to hold down the middle of the defense.
So no, D’Qwell Jackson is not a great player, and he’s got his limitations. But the notion from some Colts fans that he won’t be missed is misguided, because I’m not sure they’ll be able to replace him easily whatsoever. Just hopefully for the Colts, it’s not something that winds up costing them in their playoff push.