NFL Analysis: Colts Need to Address Secondary Problems

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Many experts continue to push the offensive line as the chief need for the Colts.  As I've stated before, I don't disagree that the line needs improvement, but at the same time, I don't consider it the primary need for the Colts. 

When one looks at the last several years of Super Bowl champions there are dominant themes, and a good running game is NOT among them, but the ability to defend the pass is.  Consider the following chart with the defensive passer rating listed for the Super Bowl participants

  DPR Rank
08 Steelers 63.4 2
08 Cardinals 96.9 30
09 Colts 80.6 12
09 Saints 68.6 3
10 Steelers 73.8 2
10 Packers 67.2 1

Over the last three years as running games become increasingly less important, the teams that go deep in the postseason tend to be good at pass defense.  Let's look at the last six conference finalists who lost.

  DPR Rank
08 Ravens 60.6 1
08 Eagles 72.9 5
09 Jets 58.8 1
09 Vikings 92.5 27
10 Jets 77.1 6
10 Bears 74.4 3

Stunning isn't it?  Of the last 12 teams to make a conference championship game, 7 were in the top 3, and 8 of them (67%) were ranked in the top five in Defensive Passer Rating.  9 of them were ranked in the top 6. 

Football is changing before our eyes. Stopping the pass is more important than ever, and if the Colts want to play for the chance to go to the Super Bowl, they have to get better on pass defense.  Here's Indy's DPR since 2002:

  Comp % Yards YPA TD INT DPR
2002 61.5 2917 6.2 19 10 84.0
2003 62.2 2809 6.3 18 15 79.7
2004 65.4 3892 7.0 26 19 87.0
2005 67.4 3151 6.2 17 18 80.4
2006 64.1 2548 6.1 16 15 78.9
2007 65.3 2764 5.6 16 22 71.9
2008 68.4 3009 6.3 6 15 76.3
2009 63.8 3403 5.8 19 16 79.0
2010 66.5 3433 6.4 22 10 82.9

There are some troubling trends on this chart.  Since playing so marvelously in the 2006 playoffs (61.3 DPR in the playoffs allowing just 3 TDs to 7 picks), the Colts defense peaked during the 2007 season.  That was when for a brief shining moment, it looked the Colts had the core components of a dominant secondary with Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden, Bob Sanders, and Antoine Bethea. That group wracked up 22 interceptions in 2007, good for second in the NFL. Injuries carved up that secondary and just four seasons later, only one of those four players took the field in the playoffs. 

By 2008, the Colts had become the ultimate Tampa 2 secondary, allowing an astounding 68.4% of passes to be completed, while only allowing 6 touchdown throws to 15 interceptions.  Larry Coyer came in and created a more aggressive style of defense, which dropped the completion percentage (at least for a year), but saw touchdowns skyrocket without creating more turnovers. Injuries to Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt caused the back end of the defense to collapse completely in 2010, as the Colts gave up 22 touchdowns and only intercepted 10 passes, 31st in the NFL (just ahead of the Saints, ironically enough).  In just a few seasons the Colts went from 2nd to 2nd to last in interceptions. Funny what happens when 3/4 of your secondary gets hurt.

In the second half of the Colts last two playoff losses the pass defense has completely imploded.  In the last two second halves, the Colts defense has allowed 22/26 passing for 203 yards and 2 TDs. That's a DPR of 124.8.  Against Drew Brees, the Indy secondary forced just ONE incomplete pass in the second half of the Super Bowl.

The Colts have to stop the pass.  Unfortunately the 2010 draft is reportedly light on safety help. It is without question, the top need for the Colts.  Indy could add the best offensive left tackle in football, and we'd barely see any real improvement in the offense.  An excellent safety would radically alter the look of the defense, however.

The Colts have some solid options at corner, but desperately need to keep those options healthy.  The Colts have lost one or both corners for significant time in each of the previous four seasons. Check out how many games Colts secondary starters have played since 2007:

  2007 2008 2009 2010
Sanders 15 6 2 1
Bethea 13 16 16 16
Hayden 16 10 9 11
Jackson 16 7 4 --
Powers -- -- 12 10
Bullitt 15 15 14 4

Is there any wonder the 2007 secondary was good?  The starters actually played 60 of 64 possible games.  The Colts have had depth in the secondary, but the starters have missed so many games that the defense has suffered.  Now that the Colts have lost Sanders and may well lose Bullitt, there can be no question that they have to find an answer at the safety position as their top priority.  That and a little good luck health wise, will go a long way to putting the Colts back on top.