If Colts fans think back to spring 2017, I suspect they will have a very different version of this year’s team in their minds. The 2016 defense was historically bad and there was a ton of defensive turnover that made it relatively likely that side of the ball would be a work in progress. The team was unable to land a marquee pass rusher in free agency or throughout the draft and it seemed like every defensive addition was modest other than a relatively big splash in signing defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
While it is true that Andrew Luck just had shoulder surgery, there was relative confidence that he would return to the field at some point, either prior to or relatively early in the season. Rookie running back Marlon Mack represented a new weapon in the backfield to pair with Robert Turbin and Frank Gore. The wide receiver corps was considered one of the deepest units on the team early on with T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief entering a contract year, free agent addition Kamar Aiken who was two seasons removed from being the primary receiver in Baltimore, a former first-round speedster in Phillip Dorsett, and a promising second-year undrafted receiver in Chester Rogers who showed flashes of production last season. Throw in that Jack Doyle was returning on a nice contract and that Erik Swoope had started showing signs of being a mismatch problem and it was apparent that the offense was weapon strong.
While the offensive line was still a work in progress, the team added a veteran interior lineman in Brian Schwenke from the Titans and drafted Zach Banner from USC who was a massive prospect to compete on the outside. Second-year tackle Le’Raven Clark showed signs of talent at right tackle last season, which represented an impressive level of progress from an air raid style offense at Texas Tech to a pro-style offense against NFL-level competition. Even looking back now, the starting unit of Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Ryan Kelly, Joe Haeg and Clark sounded relatively appealing.
Unfortunately, none of those things played out in the way the Colts or fans had hoped. At this point in the season, Hilton is a hit or miss prospect who disappears for entire games. Aiken has lost his opportunity in Indianapolis and is playing behind Moncrief and Rogers. Moncrief has five catches total in the last five games and has had an entirely uninspiring season. Rogers has missed nearly half of the season with a nagging hamstring injury. Dorsett didn’t even make it to the roster as he was traded to the Patriots for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. At this point in the season, the group has one proven but inconsistent veteran and one second-year prospect who needs to take advantage of the final five games.
Swoope required a knee scope prior to the start of the season that landed him on injured reserve. We hoped that he would return to action this week but the odds of that seem to be shrinking. If the team does not activate him for Sunday’s game, he will be unable to play for the rest of the season. Doyle has a rough start to his campaign but continues to be the most reliable offensive receiving option for Brissett. No other tight end on the roster at any point in the season has done anything to inspire a great deal of confidence moving forward.
The offensive line lost Mewhort to a nagging knee issue that he may never completely get over, Clark seemingly hit the reset button and forgot everything he did late last year, and Kelly has battled injuries throughout the season to his foot, hamstring and recently suffered a concussion. Somehow, Jeremy Vujnovich has managed to start all year for the unit, which may be the best illustration of where the offensive line is at this point. Denzelle Good had to be designated for return from injured reserve and missed a significant portion of the season.
Look, it’s fair to expect that the offense will flounder without Andrew Luck. In fact, before anyone in Indianapolis even heard of Brissett, it would have likely been assumed that Scott Tolzien would start in Luck’s place and that the team wouldn’t win a single game under that scenario. However, if the offense truly was the team’s relative strength heading into the off-season, it has been nothing more than a drag on the team through 11 games.
On the other side of the ball, after all of the turnover, with a rookie safety who likely would have some growing pains; with a veteran nickel corner moving to safety full time for the first time in his career; with a fifth-round rookie nickel corner; a second-round rookie corner; a veteran number one corner who hasn’t been the same player for a couple of seasons; with a failed attempt to bring in significant upgrades through free agency at inside linebacker; with a former second-round draft pick at safety or corner or wherever the team could put him to find a role; there were plenty of reasons to feel that the defense would continue to struggle. Most fans didn’t think much about Al Woods or Margus Hunt joined the team. Hunt was a guy most thought would simply be playing for a bottom roster spot and Woods might offer an upgrade to David Parry from 2016 but he was a relatively “older” veteran who no one expected to be anything special.
If fans knew the second-round rookie corner would be active in only a handful of games and would only play in two of those games. If fans knew that the veteran number one corner would get benched and subsequently released in the middle of the year. If fans knew that the first-round rookie safety would suffer a season-ending knee injury prior to the halfway point in the season. If fans knew that Hunt would be a key factor in the rotation on the defensive line. No one would have legitimately expected the Colts defense to keep the team in games.
Despite all of the reasons why the defense should have been a huge weakness, including injuries to key players and limited contributions from three defensive rookies for various reasons, this group has kept the Indianapolis Colts in games. The secondary has held Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green in check with Rashaan Melvin and Pierre Desir. The defensive line has stifled running games, particularly in the first half. Le’Veon Bell had one of his most pedestrian games against the Colts. The Titans have DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and managed 11 net yards rushing through three quarters last week. “Exotic smashmouth” is contingent upon pounding the ball on the ground and it could do nothing with the Colts starting group.
Somehow, the script has been flipped on its head. The Colts are a team led by a young defense that is starting to put some pieces together. There are holes yet to be filled and the group still needs more at inside linebacker and needs a more consistent pass rushing threat but it has to be considered a relative strength. Remember, last year it was historically bad. Statistically, this group may not be impressive, but Chris Ballard has had one spring and summer to tinker with the group and through the last four games in particular, it has the makings of a bright future.