In Week 4 of the 2019 season, the 2-1 Colts were entering their match-up at home against the 1-2 Raiders with a 74.3% win chance (according to ESPN). Some writers at Stampede Blue mentioned the possibility of it being a trap game, as even though the Raiders were one of the worst teams in the NFL, the match-up was not very good for the Colts.
The primary concern was that Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus bases his defensive scheme on smaller defensive linemen and more rangy linebackers, rather than going for heavy sets. The only Colts player above 300 pounds last season was Grover Stewart, who was not even starting at the time. Conversely, he Raiders had the biggest offensive line in the NFL by a mile, with behemoths like Trent Brown and Richie Incognito in there.
The Raiders dominated the Colts that game, which left me wondering: How will the Colts fare against “bigger” teams for the rest of the season? With all data available, and with plenty of time on my hands for obvious reasons, I was able to chart how the Colts defense performed relative to the opposing team’s average offensive line weight.
Colts Defense 2019/20
|VS. AB. AVG.||316.5 <||3.80||0.33||1.33||2-4|
|VS. BE. AVG||316.5 >||4.15||0.60||3.30||5-5|
The Raiders average looks like it severely shifts the outcome, but I calculated the average again without taking it into account and the only change in below/above were the Houston Texans.
What the data shows is that while the Colts did somewhat better defending the run versus “bigger” teams, they struggled mightily rushing the passer against them. The sack differential against teams with bigger linemen is huge, and it must have been taken into account while trading for DeForest Buckner, who is as big, and explosive as it gets for a 3-technique (6’7’’, 300 pounds). The Colts’ record against teams with “smaller” lines, .500, is also considerably better than when facing bigger teams, .333.
Taking a deeper look into the sack numbers, the Colts had five games with 4+ sacks last season, and all five of them came against opponents below the average on opposing linemen average weight (OLAW). The Colts smaller defensive personnel clearly leaves them at a disadvantage in the pass-rushing department against mauler offensive lines.
Now let’s take a look at the OLAW for the top threats in the AFC next season.
OLAW AFC Contenders
Of course, every team is different. One can compare creating a pass-rush plan against Lamar Jackson versus creating one for Baker Mayfield, but in order to create pressure you need to beat, or confuse, the opposing line, and the Colts did a much better job last year at creating pressure against smaller offensive lines, which is worrisome, considering 3 of the top 5 contenders (contenders are subjective) have an OLAW above the average the Colts faced last season. The Titans got considerably bigger with the selection of right tackle Isaiah Wilson, who is 350 pounds. Dennis Kelly is penciled in as the starter right now, but I don’t expect the situation to be the same come October. The Bills have big guys all around the line. The Ravens lost Marshal Yanda to retirement, but Lamar and the type of offense they run makes it really hard to get to the quarterback. The Chiefs offense also works like a machine, but Patrick Mahomes is vulnerable at times. Finally, the Browns addressed their tackle issue in the off-season, but now they have to focus on Mayfield’s terrible pocket awareness.
Ballard did a very good job of improving the depth on the interior of the defensive line, which was the Colts biggest weakness last season. Indy added All-Pro DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Day, and Robert Windsor to help solve this issues, while also cutting Margus Hunt who was unproductive last season. With Buckner in the fold, Grover Stewart’s emergence as a serviceable starter, and players like Autry and Day in the rotation, the Colts main weakness last season is now starting to look like a strength.
Overall, the Colts look much better prepared now to avoid being bullied by bigger offensive linemen, which is key considering the personnel of the rest of the AFC contenders for the following season.