Indianapolis’ ignominious end to their season showed that the team clearly has significant issues it needs to fix if they are to finally fulfil their ambition of winning the AFC South and going deep into the playoffs. One of the areas Chris Ballard and his team are going to have to give serious consideration is the pass rush.
The Colts pass rush simply wasn’t nearly good enough for a team with their ambitions. They racked up 33 sacks last year, the same as the number of turnovers they forced. That sack number was 25th in the league and significantly worse than their total for each of the previous three seasons. Compare that to the 43 regular season sacks the Tennessee Titans had. Not to mention the nine times they sacked Joe Burrow in their defeat on Saturday.
It’s not entirely surprising the Colts defensive line was worse this year given they let Autry and Houston walk last offseason. Chris Ballard did use a lot of draft capital to take Paye and Odeyingbo last year, but it was always unrealistic to expect them to make a big impact in their first season. Especially given the serious injury Odeyingbo spent half the season recovering from.
A full, healthy offseason will make the world of difference to both players. The Colts need them both to take a big second year leap, but there were some really encouraging signs this season to suggest they are capable of making that jump. Paye secured 4 sacks and forced one fumble last year. That all of those happened after week nine shows how Paye improved in the second half of the season. Paye should probably be looking to double his sacks and forced fumbles next season, although breaking the 10 sack mark would be the mark of a really successful season. If Paye and Odeyingbo can develop the way they should next season, the Colts pass rush should be more effective even without bringing anyone new into the building.
However, I do think there is merit to pursuing an established pass rusher in free agency without breaking the bank. Many Colts fans were calling for the team to sign Hasson Reddick last year and given his performance this season, it’s easy to see why. For only a $6m one year contract, the Panthers got 11 sacks from Reddick. In the event Reddick is available for a similar price this offseason, the Colts should absolutely pursue him. Although given the Colts had the chance to get him last year and chose not to, there may be reasons why Ballard doesn’t think he’d be a good addition for the team.
One edge rusher I’d love to see Indianapolis pursue is Emmanuel Ogbah. Ogbah has secured nine sacks in each of his past two seasons playing for Miami, which is more than any Colt got last year. Ogbah will be 29 next season, so would be well-suited for the three year contracts Ballard likes to give out. Ogbah was only paid $7.5m last year and Over the Cap expects him to earn just shy of $13m a year with a new contract. That would put him in the same kind of league as Judon, Sweat, Ngakoue and Pierre-Paul, which seems like a reasonable price for a good player at a premium position.
Signing Ogbah would potentially give the Colts a dangerous defensive line. He’s certainly capable of winning one-on-one matchups with tackles and having him and Paye at either side of the defensive line would force teams to dramatically decrease the extent to which DeForest Buckner gets double and tripled teamed. Given the potential for Buckner to blow up offensive plays from the interior and the attention he received from offensive lines this season, that has to be a priority for the Colts. In the event Indianapolis do sign Ogbah, I’d envisage Ogbah and Paye as the two starting Defensive Ends, with Buckner and Stewart in the Interior. I’d expect Odeyingbo to get a significant number of snaps at either DE position and in the interior for third downs.
Chris Ballard emphasised the importance of having eight players on the defensive front who can get the job done. With a number of the Colts pass rushers hitting free agency this Spring, who else should make up that eight? Judging by Ballard’s end of season press conference, it seems likely Tyquan Lewis will be back. Ballard spoke of Lewis having a pretty good year before he suffered a season ending knee injury, “Lewis was a big loss for us. He was really coming on and playing good football for us.” The Colts also like his versatility, in the same way they liked Autry’s and hope will be a feature of Odeyingbo’s game.
Fellow 2018 second round pick Kemoko Turay should also be resigned. Turay has struggled to fulfil the potential he showed before his 2019 injury, but had a career high 5.5 sacks in 13 games last season. I don’t expect Lewis or Turay to get particularly big or long contracts, but I think they can both make an important contribution and be a useful part of the Colts defensive front.
Ben Banogu was a 2019 second round draft pick and still has another year on his rookie contract. But given how little he’s played and how little he’s produced, I’m not convinced he’ll make the squad next year.
Al-Quadin Muhammad was a starter for the first time this season and had the second most sacks on the team with six. However, too often he was unable to pressure the Quarterback even when offensive lines were focusing on stopping DeForest Buckner. In my proposed signing of Emmanuel Ogbah in free agency, it is AQM’s spot Ogbah takes. AQM’s contract is still cheap at just under $3m, so he could be bought back as a depth player on a contract that isn’t too much more generous than his current one. But if he does want a significantly bigger contract and a starting spot, I expect the Colts would let him walk.
A final soon to be free agent on the defensive line is DT Taylor Stalllworth. Stallworth was a surprise hit last year, picking up three sacks as a rotation player. He’ll be worth bringing back as a depth player on a fairly cheap contract, but has shown he can be a part of those eight defensive line players Ballard spoke about.
An eight of Buckner, Paye, Ogbah, Stewart, Odeyingbo, Turay, Lewis and Stallworth has the potential to be a strong unit capable of a much improved sack total in 2022. Indianapolis’ defence was pretty strong this year. However, there was also a sense that areas where they were outstanding like takeaways masked their vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities like pass rush and defending the pass. Both of which were particularly vulnerable in the fourth quarter, costing the Colts too many close games. If Eberflus does get a head coaching job this offseason, then fixing those vulnerabilities will have to be a priority for his successor.
The good news is that if the Colts can improve their pass rush, it will help address their weaknesses and improve their strengths. A pass rush that is in the top 15 in the league rather than bottom ten will make the secondary’s job much easier defending the pass. The increased pressure on the Quarterback should provide the Colts promising young secondary of Moore, Blackmon, Ya-Sin, Rodgers and Willis more opportunities to snatch interceptions.
If Indianapolis do want to go deep into the playoffs next year, they are going to have to be significantly better at getting to the Quarterback. I expect the AFC teams in the playoff hunt next year to include Kansas City, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore and the LA Chargers. You simply cannot expect to beat Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Herbert and Jackson if you can’t get to the Quarterback. Fortunately, with the addition of the right free agent I think the Colts defensive line next year can be capable of doing that.