Inside Indy’s Pass Rush
In my notes on the Colts’ 44-20 preseason loss to the Bills, I wrote that the Colts struggled to get a pass rush due to Buffalo’s quick drops. Wanting to see whether my eyes were telling the truth, I finally caved and dropped $15 on NFL.com’s Preseason Live package.
I know, $15 is not that much money. I had held out mostly on principle. I don’t like the idea of paying to watch meaningless preseason games. But I also live in Pittsburgh and can’t DVR them since they’re not on TV, and it sure is difficult to write quality analysis without watching parts of the game more than once.
Anyway, in the first quarter, when the Colts’ starters were still playing, Buffalo had eight dropbacks, which included seven passes (four completions) and a 24-yard scramble by quarterback E.J. Manuel. I was able to watch the rush on seven of those plays to figure out what happened and why it happened.
(On two plays, the production crew was busy showing a replay when the play started. They did show a slow motion replay of one of them, but the other was an incomplete pass, and they didn’t bother showing it again. And since Preseason Live only gives you access to a replay of the broadcast, I am out of luck. That second play is therefore not factored in here, since I couldn’t even tell who was on the field, let alone what they were doing. Thanks, NFL. $15 well spent!)
What I saw from the Colts’ pass rush was not encouraging. I saw only one instance of a Colt defender beating a block, and that came when outside linebacker Erik Walden got singled up on Bills fullback Frank Summers. Every other block by a Bills player on a Colts rusher was at least mostly effective.
A few qualifiers are in order here. First, as I suspected, Manuel was getting the ball out fast. Really fast. I timed his snap-to-throw count on the six snaps I saw at full speed, and his times, in seconds, were 2.79, 2.16, 2.23 (before he tucked the ball and ran), 1.6, 2.16 and 2.93. That’s an average of 2.31 seconds. Even allowing for human error, that’s a tremendously fast release time; per Pro Football Focus, as of last November, Tom Brady was leading the league with an average of 2.49 seconds. It’s much easier for an offensive lineman to hold a block for 2.31 seconds than it is to hold it for 3.14 seconds, Russell Wilson’s league-high average. On Manuel’s longest snap, at 2.93 seconds, the Colts only rushed three, and on his second-longest, 2.79, they rushed five on the aforementioned play where Walden beat a block and almost got to him.
Also, an even bigger caveat: seven snaps is a tiny sample size. Particularly in a first preseason game, when the coaches have spent little time scheming for the opponent. I saw few genuine pass rush moves by anyone, as they mostly just ran into the blockers and pushed. We’ll get a much better idea of what these guys can do when they play a few more snaps, and my analysis here only represents initial impressions after a few plays. So take it with a big grain of salt.
And finally, Bjoern Werner, the Colts’ first round draft pick and best pass rushing prospect, was hurt and didn’t play. Pat Angerer, a decent blitzer, also sat out. Those two should help things when they return to action, though Angerer has struggled to overcome a foot injury suffered last year in a preseason game in Pittsburgh (I was up in the nosebleed seats, so it was probably my fault somehow) and no one has any idea about Werner yet.
Without further ado, here’s my player-by-player breakdown. This is every player who rushed the quarterback at least once during the first quarter. There were no cornerback or safety blitzes, which is not surprising since it was the first preseason game and the schemes were fairly vanilla.
Robert Mathis, OLB
Mathis was only on for two drop backs. He dropped into zone coverage on one play and came through unblocked on a stunt on the other. The latter was a screen pass (which took only 2.16 seconds), and Mathis couldn’t get to Manuel in time. At 32, Mathis is an elder statesman and has earned the right to sit on the bench and look cool during preseason games. Seriously, has anyone ever looked cooler and more intimidating sitting on the sideline than Robert Mathis does? Possibly James Harrison.
Erik Walden, OLB
Walden was in on all seven drop backs. He ran into the backfield on every play but often pulled up. I assume this was because of his edge-setting responsibilities, but on several plays it was clear Manuel was going to pass, yet Walden didn’t make much of an effort to get to him. Aside from the aforementioned defeat of Summers’ block, he never got around his man.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson signed Walden to a four-year, $16 million contract ($8 million guaranteed) on the first day of free agency, which caused a great deal of hand wringing from people who said he was violently overpaid. I’ve been defending him, since I wanted to get a good look first, but this first look did not fill me with warm fuzzies. He was brought in to be a run-stuffer and edge-setter, so it’s not like he has to be a pass rushing monster. But in the modern NFL, outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses need to be able to get to the quarterback on occasion. Walden did not show any hint of that capability on Sunday.
Kavell Conner, ILB
Conner, like Mathis, was in for the first two drop backs. He blitzed on the first, but running back Fred Jackson stood him up. He dropped into coverage on the other. It’s worth noting that on that second play, he sniffed out the screen, got around two offensive linemen and dropped Jackson for a six-yard loss.
Cory Redding, DE
Redding was also in for the first two drop backs. He was blocked out of the action by an offensive lineman on the first and backed up to play the run on the second. Not much of note here, as he’s also a veteran who doesn’t need much preseason time.
Aubrayo Franklin, NT
Franklin was in for one drop back and did exactly what a nose tackle should do: he drew a double team and pushed them into the backfield. He didn’t get too close to the passer, but he showed tremendous power in getting movement.
Ricky Jean Francois, DL
Jean Francois played all seven dropbacks, moving around to different defensive line positions. Among those seven snaps, he was double-teamed five times and triple-teamed once, drawing by far the most attention of any Colts defender. He got a decent push against a double team once and moved them back into the pocket, but otherwise he was effectively blocked on every play. As with Franklin on his one snap, Jean Francois did exactly what a defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense is supposed to do. It would be good to see him generate some more pass rush, but if he can consistently occupy double teams like this, he will be fulfilling his duties.
Lawrence Guy, DL
Guy is extremely slow, which makes him far more effective on running downs than on passing downs. He was in for two drop backs. On the first, Manuel’s scramble, it appeared that he was responsible for outside containment, but he wasn’t nearly fast enough to get in Manuel’s way and was left chugging down the field after him. On the second, he was simply engulfed by a double team. Guy is on the roster bubble and has a far lower ceiling than fellow lineman Drake Nevis, another bubble guy, but Nevis didn’t play with the top unit and it appears the coaching staff likes Guy against the run.
Kelvin Sheppard, ILB
Sheppard blitzed once, on the play that ended in Manuel’s scramble, but Jackson easily blocked him.
Lawrence Sidbury, OLB
Sidbury, another first-day free agent signing by Grigson, relieved Mathis and was in for four dropbacks. He dropped into coverage twice and rushed twice. On Manuel’s scramble, it appeared Sidbury was just about to get around the Buffalo right tackle with a speed rush when Manuel took off. Had it been a statue like, say, Kerry Collins at quarterback, Sidbury almost surely would have had a sack. On a later speed rush, Sidbury couldn’t get around the tackle and wound up chasing the play. He did look explosive in getting off the snap and putting pressure on the tackle. If he makes the roster and the Colts use him on the left side of their defense, as they did against Buffalo, he should be a matchup problem for right tackles on passing downs.
Ricardo Mathews, DL
One word for Mathews: oof. He was in for three dropbacks, and he did not look good. He was overwhelmed by a single blocker on all three plays and utterly whiffed a tackle on a screen pass. On another play, he was comically bad in trying to beat Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn. Glenn calmly stood in one place and held Mathews still as Mathews struggled to free his hands. It reminded me of when my older brother would put his hand on my forehead and hold me at bay as I flailed my arms.
The preseason is the preseason, and there’s no sense in getting worked up over a single game, much less a single quarter. But if the Colts want to make people forget about Dwight Freeney, their pass rush needs to show a lot more than this.
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