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Colts pass rush on pace to crush Indy-era sack record

Colt pass rushers are feasting this year. With five games to play, the defense needs just four sacks to tie the team record.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers seem illogical when you tally them, but it’s true. Through just 12 games, the 2023 Indianapolis Colts defense has collectively totaled 42 sacks, only four sacks short of the team record of 46 (2005) in the Indianapolis era.

This seems impossible. After all, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the franchise’s two greatest pass rushers by a mile, played together for 10 seasons (2003-2012) and together registered 230.5 sacks in their Colt careers. Both players were recently announced as semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024.

Despite the old guard’s gaudy individual numbers and accolades, the 2023 Colts’ pass rush is approaching and will soon pass the two most productive seasons in the Freeney-Mathis era - 2005 (46 sacks) and 2004 (45 sacks).

The question is how?

Last year’s Colts defense made a run at the team record as well, finishing just short with 44 sacks. As we see now with any league or team record, it certainly helps to play 17 regular season games instead of 16. Additionally, NFL teams simply throw the ball a lot more than they did 20 years ago. The passing and receiving yards and touchdowns continue to rise, but so too do the opportunities to rush the passer.

More specific to the 2023 Colts, this pass rush is a deep one. It’s truly a group effort with a long line of contributors. Through 12 games, 13 Colt defenders have recorded at least one sack. By comparison, the 2005 Colts had 10 players make the sack list after a full 16 games.

This group has been led by four players with five or more sacks each - Samson Ebukam (8.0), Kwity Paye (7.5), Dayo Odeyingbo (6.5) and DeForest Buckner (5.5). Ebukam, Paye and Odeyingbo have all already set single-season career highs with still five games to go.

All part of the plan

According to Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley, Chris Ballard had this rush-by-committee approach in mind when preparing for the year in the offseason.

“We were looking at free agency and things, and (Ballard) mentioned to me, ‘to get pressure, it might be the whole group,’” Bradley recalled earlier this week. “He had the vision. ‘Hey, Samson could get eight-plus, and Kwity gets his seven or eight and everybody gets in there.’ Rather than maybe the one guy that has 17 or 18 or something like that. He kind of had that vision for what it could look like this year.”

Ballard’s pass rush plan has unfolded beautifully this season. As with any position group, the roster building is always an ongoing process, but the pieces seem to be coalescing at the right time in 2023 with Paye and Odeyingbo continuing to develop and improve in their third seasons plus the addition of Ebukam in the offseason. And, of course, for this current group, everything started with the trade to get Buckner in 2020.

Bradley and his staff deserve credit also. They have done an excellent job with the personnel at their disposal, helping deliver 3.5 sacks per game this year without relying heavily on blitzes.

“It’s huge, it’s exciting,” said Head Coach Shane Steichen said. “As a coach on the sideline watching our defense, especially in pass situations, just knowing that you have a chance to get a sack almost every time. Our guys have been great up front. Nate Ollie (defensive line coach) has done a great job with those guys. They’re rushing hard. They have a good plan every week going into these games.”

Riding a four-game hot streak

The Colts carry a four-game winning streak into Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. A huge part of the recent success has been an explosion of sacks from the Colts’ defensive unit.

Through the first eight games of the year, the Colts recorded 21 total sacks, a pedestrian 2.6 sacks per game average. Over the past four contests, Indianapolis has doubled its season total. Starting with a four sacks against a struggling Carolina Panthers offensive line in Week 9, the Colts then tallied five sacks in Germany against the Patriots followed by back-to-back six-sack performances. And, notably, a strip-sack by Ebukam recovered by Odeyingbo sealed the Week 12 win over Tampa Bay - a play very reminiscent of the old Freeney-Mathis days.

In total, the defense has produced a staggering 21 sacks in four games.

Now averaging 3.5 sacks per game, the Colts are on pace to finish the season with a team record 59.5 sacks and could set the new franchise mark as early as tomorrow against the Bengals.

“Those guys have done a great job affecting the quarterback and getting pressure, so hopefully it continues,” Bradley said. “This will be a great challenge for us because (the Bengals) get rid of the ball so quick, and they’re a very patient team and they have a lot of weapons on the outside.”

As always, the pass rush will be key as the Colts look to extend their current win streak to five games.