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Colts 2016 season in review: Defensive line experiences mixed results in injury-plagued campaign

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest emphases for new Colts general manager Chris Ballard is to build up the trenches, as he’s talked repeatedly about how that’s incredibly important in building a successful football team.

Just like on the offensive line, the defensive line has talent to work with but isn’t quite there yet. The unit entered the 2016 season as one of the bright spots on the roster and one that had significant depth, but that depth was severely tested in an injury-plagued 2016 season for the defensive line.

The unit’s two best players both struggled with injuries during the season. Kendall Langford was injured in preseason and returned in time for the regular season opener, but it was clear that he was never quite the same. After seven games the Colts shut him down, and they eventually placed him on injured reserve. His season ended with just seven games played, ten tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit, two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. It was a far cry from the effectiveness he had displayed the year before, and the Colts seemed to realize it too - thus the reason they shut him down for the season.

Henry Anderson, meanwhile, was brought along slowly in his recovery from a torn ACL the year before, and even when he made his return to the field he was still limited somewhat. He wound up playing in eleven games this year but started only two of them, recording 12 tackles, five quarterback hits, two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. He started to pick it up as the season went on, but the hope is that he’ll regain his 2015 form next year when he’s two years removed from the ACL injury.

The one stable face up front all year long was nose tackle David Parry, who started all 16 games for the second straight season. He recorded 47 tackles, three sacks, eight quarterback hits, and four tackles for loss. Though he’s best labeled as “just a guy,” he’s far from the Colts’ biggest problem and at the very least provided a guy who could be there every game.

Besides Parry, however, the defensive line was filled with plenty of guys all trying to produce on a team that was trying to find the right mix to generate a solid defensive line. Art Jones wound up starting eight games (recording 30 tackles and a tackle for loss), but he too dealt with injury after being suspended for the first four games. Rookie Hassan Ridgeway played in all 16 games and started five, recording 21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and one pass defensed. Zach Kerr played in 12 games and started four, recording 16 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. And T.Y. McGill played in 13 games and recorded six tackles, two sacks, nine quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble.

Ultimately, the Colts were just trying to put together a bunch of guys to try to field a competent defensive line, but it was made difficult due to the injuries. There were some bright spots, however, as Hassan Ridgeway did a nice job in his rookie season, Zach Kerr stepped up as a depth guy and spot-starter, and T.Y. McGill was a very good rotational pass rusher - as despite limited snaps he finished second on the team in quarterback hits on the season. In fact, the Colts’ defensive linemen finished second (McGill), third (Parry), and fourth (Kerr) on the team in quarterback hits this season (Erik Walden was first), while Henry Anderson and Hassan Ridgeway tied with Robert Mathis and Akeem Ayers for fifth.

The defensive line was certainly not the worst part of the Colts’ defense in 2017, but it wasn’t as much of a strength as we thought it would be either. A lot of that can be attributed to injuries, as the team’s two best linemen struggled with injuries all season, so the hope is that both Kendall Langford and Henry Anderson will be fully healthy by the time the 2017 season comes around so they can hopefully regain their 2015 form. Beyond that, the Colts have some nice rotational pieces - like Parry, Kerr, Ridgeway, and McGill - but could still stand to upgrade. They have a bunch of guys, but considering Ballard’s emphasis on the trenches, he might be looking for a legitimate game-changer up front to add to that group of rotational pieces.