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Colts 2016 season in review: Pass rush proves to be a huge weakness once again

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason emphasis of pass rush for the Indianapolis Colts this year is nothing new. In fact, it’s been one of the top priorities for them for years.

In 2012, Chuck Pagano’s first year, the pass rush wasn’t great. Then the Colts cut Dwight Freeney, which shouldn’t have been as big of an issue... except for the fact that the Colts still have failed to find a competent replacement. Robert Mathis bailed the unit out in 2013 with his league-leading 19.5 sacks, but even then it was just a one-man show getting after the quarterback. Then with Mathis out for 2014 the unit struggled, and it’s been a huge struggle ever since. Now, not even Mathis is around, as he’s retired.

If you want to try to identify why the Colts’ defense has been so bad recently, you have to start with the lack of a pass rush. The Colts’ constant inability to get after the opposing quarterback has huge ramifications on the defense as a whole, and it’s been a glaring issue for a while. That was once again the case in 2016, when the Colts’ best pass rusher was their strongside linebacker who was signed a few years ago to stop the run.

We should give Erik Walden credit, though: he produced in 2016. He led the team in sacks (11), quarterback hits (17), tackles for loss (10), and was tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (3). He recorded six more sacks, eight more quarterback hits, and five more tackles for loss than any other player on the team. He was tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks in 2016 - tied with Ryan Kerrigan, Chandler Jones, Nick Perry, and Khalil Mack (who was named Defensive Player of the Year). I’m not suggesting that Walden belongs in the same category as those guys nor am I suggesting that he’s a great player, but he deserves a lot of credit for stepping it up in 2016 when no one else on the team did.

Robert Mathis also had some moments, as he recorded five sacks, five quarterback hits, five tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles, but it was a far cry from the Mathis Colts fans were used to. The highlight of Mathis’ season came in week 17, his final game, when he got a huge ovation from the crowd and then proceeded to notch a big strip-sack in the victory. It was an awesome moment, but it was a sub-par season for the Colts’ all-time sack leader.

Trent Cole missed a significant portion of the season with a back injury but did return late, though he really wasn’t effective either: he recorded just two sacks, four quarterback hits, and three tackles for loss.

Akeem Ayers, who played far less than any of the three players already mentioned, actually recorded two sacks and five quarterback hits in limited playing time, which was encouraging, while Curt Maggitt played in nine games as a rookie before getting injured.

The outside linebackers could be summed up like this: they couldn’t generate any consistent pass rush and couldn’t set the edge with any consistency against the run. And that’s not a good combination at all.

There’s a reason why the outside linebacker position is at the very top of the Colts’ needs this offseason, and it’s because it was an incredibly ineffective position in 2016. Give Walden credit for stepping up when no one else did, but even he wasn’t great, is set to become a free agent, and will be 32 years old when next season starts. The Colts need an infusion of talent on defense, and that starts with the linebackers. If Chris Ballard is serious about improving this defense, he need only look at the tape from the 2016 season (or the 2015 one, or the 2014 one, etc.) and realize that addressing the pass rush is a must. Fortunately for the Colts, I think Ballard knows it, too.