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Is the Colts defense as good as we think?

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Wild Card Round - Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Boy oh boy, I’m really gonna poke the bear with this one, huh? I know the Colts defense is the best it’s been in years, but are we applauding their efforts because they’re truly that good? Or is it because the scarcity of defensive success in Indy made us impulsively jump to conclusions? Or maybe it’s the fact that we played some awful QBs in 2018, thus making our defense look better than it truly is?

Let’s take a closer look.


First Glance

Also before we start, I divided the statistics to show the growth the Colts defense had. The first chunk is Week 1-6 (when we were 1-5) and the second chunk is Week 7-18 (our big push into the postseason).

After combining the notes I have from the season, my research, the numbers I ran, and what the outcome of the games were, I personally believe that the Colts defense is:

  • Above average
  • Had a hand in winning games
  • Does a really good job within the parameters of their scheme
  • More likely than not will take a step back next year in the rankings

That will be my argument throughout the article, in the which I explain how the numbers tell the story of how the Colts defense is efficiently doing its job.

Below is the basic chart that most fans bring up when talking about how the Colts defense improved throughout the season. I agree with it, as it portrays how the defense went from allowing 30 PPG from week 1-6 to 16.8 PPG from week 7-18.

Furthermore, the defense’s capability to lower the opponents’ red zone production was one of the primary factors that lead to that tremendous winning streak. How can I deduce this? Well, the offense went from scoring 25.3 PPG during the first 6 games to scoring 27.1 PPG during the last 11 games. That’s a +1.8 increase. The defense, as stated above, went from allowing 30 PPG to 16.8, a -14.2 decrease.


The Counterargument (YPG)

One of the main arguments some fans make to disprove the idea that the Colts defense improved as the season went along is talk about the amount of yards allowed versus the opponents average YPG.

As you can see in the chart, the Colts defense tended to give up more yards than the opponents’ season average, so one might think that the “doubters” have a point.

Well, let me show you how they don’t.

First, the Colts defensive scheme is designed around giving up yardage via short to intermediate passes in the hopes of slowing down the opponent as the field begins to shrink. It’s the “bend but don’t break” mindset. That is the first reason why the Colts gave up a lot of yards.

My second point would be that, during the 6 week span when the team was 1-5, the defense gave up an average of 404.5 YPG, while the opposition averaged 339 YPG. From Week 7-18, the Colts defense averaged 336 YPG allowed, while the opposition averaged 332.7 YPG. This illustrates how, as the season progressed, they became more and more capable of executing coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme.

My third and final argument is that during Weeks 1-6, the Defense held the opposition under their season average YPG 0% (0/6) of the time. From week 7-18, 42% (5/12) of the time, which is quite impressive considering their whole scheme revolves around giving up yards. Again, this further shows that, as the season progressed, they became more able at performing their roles within the parameters of the scheme.


The Counterargument (PPG)

So, if the Colts play a “bend but don’t break scheme” successfully, then they must’ve been extremely good in the end zone?

The answer is a little harder than a simple yes or no.

If you look at the chart below the first thing that one would assume is that the Colts defensive performances fluctuated quite a bit while the teams they played tended to score between the 18-22 PPG range on average. This might lead some of the “doubters” to believe that the Colts defense struggles with consistency and isn’t yet ready to make that jump to being elite.

However, after taking a closer look, you can notice some positive trends. Between Week 1-6, the range of inconsistency varied between 9-42 points, giving up an average of 30 PPG. From Week 7-18, the range was between 0-31 points, with an average of giving up 16.8 PPG.

So, what may have caused this drastic change? You could argue that it’s the fact that the Colts played significantly worst offenses down the stretch. This is simple untrue, as the Week 1-6 offenses had an average score of 22.5 PPG throughout the season and had an average rank of 17.5 in the league when it came to PPG.

On the other hand, the Week 7-18 group scored an average of 21 PPG throughout the season and their average rank was 21.8.

Worse, but only slightly.

Finally, my last argument to prove the Colts improved their red zone defense as the season progressed is the fact that from Week 1-6 they held the opponents under the season average twice (2/6). From Week 7-18? Eight times (8/12), showing how the “bend but don’t break” scheme was better executed by players as the season came to a close.


My Personal Concern (Rankings)

The only thing that truly worries me in regards to the Colts defense is the talent level they played against. I think I’ve made it blatantly clear that they improved throughout the season, but to be fully honest, you can’t stoop much lower than having the Jets put up 42 on you.

The concern is that the Colts defense tended to mirror the PPG of their opponent. Averaging out the whole season, the Colts defense allowed 21.2 PPG while their opponents averaged 21.5 PPG. Furthermore, the Colts opponents ranked, on average, 20th in the league in PPG and and 21st in YPG.

The teams that they are going to play in 2019 ranked, on average, 17th in PPG and 16th in YPG (Disclaimer: these are using 2018 numbers, many of the teams made significant changes to their roster, coaching staff and/or front office. Therefore, rankings are subject to change.)


Conclusion

To summarize, I believe that the Colts’ young core is trending upwards in the sense that they are learning to play within the parameters of their defensive scheme. However, I also think that they will never be a Top-5 defense.

Furthermore, even though the defensive talent is there and the Colts are trending upwards, I due think a big part of their 11th ranked DVOA ranking is the fact that they played NFL QBs that weren’t all that good. And while I think the arrow is pointing up on the Colts defense, I would expect for them to finish within the 10th-15th range in terms of DVOA rank.