This offseason (and in the last several offseasons too), fans and analysts correctly pointed out that the biggest need for the Colts was as pass rusher. It is pretty easy to see why when watching the Colts, but if you needed more confirmation, here it is.
According to Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar, the Colts generated pressure on just 19% of opposing quarterbacks’ throws - a mark that is the lowest of any defense in the NFL over the last four years.
Erik Walden had by far the most sacks (11) and quarterback hits (17) of any player on the Colts’ roster, but even he didn’t generate a ton of pressure. Wrote Kacsmar:
This was the final straw in general manager Ryan Grigson's tenure. Grigson notoriously ignored defense in the draft for years, opting for old free agents that rarely performed. Erik Walden had the oddest pass-rushing seasons in our data this year. Walden was one of 16 players charted with double-digit sacks, but he only had 13 additional hurries. The other 15 ten-sack players averaged 31.5 hurries, and Minnesota's Danielle Hunter (19) was the only other player with fewer than 20. Out of 44 players with at least 7.0 sacks, only Walden had fewer than 18 hurries. When Walden, now a free agent, actually got pressure, he finished it with a lot of sacks, but he generated very little pass rush otherwise for the Colts. In fact, two of his 13 hurries still led to touchdown passes for the opponent. The Colts project to only start three defensive players they drafted, including rookie safety Malik Hooker.
That fits into what Colts fans already noticed: that Erik Walden performed admirably last year by stepping up when no one else did, but he still wasn’t that great of a pass rusher. In many ways, Walden being far and away the most productive pass rusher is an indictment on just how bad the unit was in 2016.
It’s hard to win consistently when you can’t get after the quarterback, and that’s what the Colts have been finding out. A good pass rush can help make up for some other deficiencies on defense, particularly in coverage, but the Colts’ lack of pass rush has wound up exposing other flaws on the roster too. That’s why it’s so crucial for them to find someone - anyone - who can get after opposing quarterbacks consistently.
They’re hoping that they did find some people who can, as they remade their linebacking corps this offseason with new GM Chris Ballard. They’re returning only 11.5 of their 33 sacks in 2017, with the leading returning player being David Parry (who had three last year). They signed Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo in free agency, while they also added Tarell Basham in the draft. They haven’t ‘fixed’ the issues, but the hope is that they’ve at least stabilized them so that they’ll actually be able to generate pressure.
If that happens, then I think we could see this defense take some steps forward. But if the Colts continue to be incapable of pressuring opposing passers, it could be another long year for Indy’s defense.