In 2011, fans of the Indianapolis Colts had to get used to losing for the first time in more than a decade. While everyone knows that Peyton Manning left town, the Colts have also gone through more than the typical amount of change. There is no doubt about the fact that they are a team in transition. While almost everything hinges on the development of Andrew Luck in his rookie year, there are plenty of other factors as to why the Colts could win some games even if he is slow to develop. There are also plenty of reasons why the team could hold back Luck’s rookie year.
As always, here are the five reasons for the Colts to be optimistic about their future, as well as five reasons why Indianapolis is unlikely to be playing far into January.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) A Little Luck
It’s been talked about for a long time, but just how good will Andrew Luck be in the pros? All last year we anxiously waited to find what team would get him. We’ve made it through the draft, and now it’s finally about time to see how Luck will fair in his rookie year. Not only did the Colts add the rookie quarterback, they also drafted tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. While we can’t predict how well Luck will do, chances are he will fare better than the combination of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins from last year. Combined they had a PFF rating of -34.9. Most first-round rookie quarterbacks have played better than that in recent years, and the Colts have put the weapons around Luck to play and grow with him.
2) The Baltimore Infusion
Even when the Colts were Super Bowl champions they had their fair share of problems on defense. To help fix this, the Colts hired former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. With that, the Colts are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, and to help the transition Pagano has brought in a few former Ravens defenders. What fans should be most excited about is defensive end Cory Redding who had a 10.2 Run Stop rating, which was third best among defensive ends. Defensive tackle Brandon McKinney saw limited time while he was buried on the Ravens depth chart, but posted a +2.9 run defense rating. Both players should be a big help in the transition to a 3-4 defensive line. Safety Tom Zbikowski has had a few starts each year over the last few seasons with the Ravens, and the jury is still out on how good of a player he can be. He should play better than David Caldwell who allowed three receiving touchdowns. A new defensive philosophy, as well as three different upgrades are definitely a step in the right direction for the Colts defense.
3) Return of the Pass Rushers
Over the past several seasons, the one bright spot for the Colts’ defense was the outside pass rushers. There were offseason questions about whether Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis would be returning, but both are back in the starting 11. The transition from 4-3 defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers might affect their run defense and coverage, but chances are they will continue to be effective pass rushers. Last year, the pair had a combined 18 sacks, 16 hits and 63 hurries. The rest of the team combined for 11 sacks, 17 hits and 41 hurries. The Colts need these two players to succeed, and even though they weren’t as dynamic in 2011 as they have been in the past, they were still effective players. While there is so much changing for Indianapolis, it will be nice for Colts fans to have one thing remain the same.
4) Familiar Face on Offense
The Colts have let most of the weapons on offense go to other teams, but the one player who is returning is Reggie Wayne. His name might not be mentioned often among talk of elite receivers, but he has consistently helped the Colts offense be successful. He has caught at least three passes in every regular season game over the past three seasons. While the loss of Manning meant significant changes in all of the stats for Colts players, the only major change that Wayne had was a significantly lower number of balls thrown his way. He had 172 balls thrown his way in 2010 and 121 in 2011. His rate stats stayed very consistent, and will hopefully remain the same in 2012. While Wayne won’t have many years left, he will stay a huge asset in the Colts’ passing game.
5) Young Rising Stars
The Colts have a few young high draft picks who showed improvement as the 2011 season progressed. Former second-round pick Pat Angerer started his career as both a 4-3 outside and middle linebacker, and now will transition into a 3-4 inside linebacker. Combining his 2010rookie season with the first nine games of 2011, he had a -9.9 run defense rating. He showed a bit of improvement late in the season, when his run defense rating was up to +3.5. Assuming Angerer can successfully transition to his new position, he should continue to grow as a player and become one of the better inside linebackers in the league.
Along with Angerer, the Colts have a rising player in Anthony Castonzo. He started 12 games in his rookie season at left tackle, and never allowed more than five pressures in a game. Over the season he allowed an average of just 2.25 pressures per game. Typically, rookie tackles that aren’t top five draft picks struggle much more than Castonzo did in his first year in the league. Chances are Castonzo should improve in his sophomore season, which will help leave Luck protected.
Five Reasons for Concern
1) Defensive Backfield Unfixed
One of the many problems the Colts had in 2011 was their coverage. All 11 players to take a snap at cornerback or safety had negative coverage ratings last year. While they added a few players at the position, only Zbikowski looks to be an upgrade. Former Bronco Cassius Vaughn and former Ram Justin King were both added at CB, but quarterbacks had a rating of 114.4 when throwing at Vaughn and a rating of 118.9 when throwing at King in 2011. No matter who the Colts end up lining up at CB, it’s unlikely they will find much more success in 2012 than they have in the past few years. At safety, opposite of Zbikowski, we should see Antonie Bethea. While he has been solid when it comes to stopping the run, he also allowed quarterbacks have a 114.4 rating when throwing his way. Even if the offense puts points up on the board, the defense will allow a lot of points as well.
2) Big Free Agent Losses
There were very few players that played well for the Colts in 2011. While one might think Indianapolis would want to keep as many of the good players as they could, a few of the better players are now on different rosters. Over the past few years, Jeff Saturday has been the leader of the offensive line. His PFF rating of +14.2 was significantly higher than the rest of the linemen on the roster in 2011. While his replacement, Samson Satele, is certainly not a bad player and was in fact our Secret Superstar for the team, you don’t want to be downgrading at many positions when you’ve lost as many games as the Colts did last season.
While the Colts run defense wasn’t as bad as their coverage, it still wasn’t a unit to brag much about. The shining star of the run defense was Phillip Wheeler. While he wasn’t versatile enough to be an every down linebacker, he played very well for what the Colts asked from him. He had eight games with three or more stops, and just five games with two or less. It’s unfortunate the Colts didn’t have a place for Wheeler in their 3-4 defense, which led him to move to the Oakland Raiders.
3) One-Dimensional Offense
Throughout the Manning era in Indianapolis, the Colts were best known for their passing but had very good players in Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai to help out in the run game. Now the main man in Indianapolis is Donald Brown. While his rushing average of 4.8 yards per carry in 2011 suggests he has what it takes to be the lead back in 2012, a big game against the Titans skewed the data. Taking out his 16 attempts in that game, he averaged just 4.1 yards in the other games. While that is still respectable, he has never had more than 17 attempts in a game. There isn’t much behind him on the depth chart, so Brown could be asked to do a lot more than he has in past years. The Colts added Mewelde Moore, who will likely be used in passing situations. Behind that is Delone Carter, who didn’t impress in his first year, and rookie Vick Ballard. If the Colts don’t have a run game that opponents can respect, it will make Luck’s rookie year a lot harder.
4) Problems on the OL
The Colts line wasn’t that great in 2011, so they gave the line a complete makeover. While they should be fine at left tackle and center, the other three positions should leave fans concerned. Jeff Linkenbach played tackle last year, but will likely play guard this year. His -18.6 run defense rating last year doesn’t bode well for his transition back to guard. Mike McGlynn will be in his third home over the past three years. He is slated to play right guard, but has had games in succession where he has played well, and then consecutive groups of games where he plays poorly. The Colts added another former Eagle in Winston Justice to play right tackle. He played just 84 snaps in 2011. We last saw him in major action in 2010, and he started to flounder as the season went on, which ended with his four penalty performance against the Packers in the playoffs. The offensive line will look very different in 2012 than it was in 2011, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be much better.
5) Problems on the DL
As the Colts transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4, their best two defensive linemen are now linebackers. While their two additions from the Ravens should help the unit, the rest of the returning players have struggled in the past. Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala are projected to be the starters, but they had a combined -26.7 rating in 2011. Most of the rating came from their poor play in run defense, but their combined 14 pressures in 2011 aren’t impressive. The rest of the players on the roster aren’t all that experienced, and will need to make the transition to the 3-4. Overall, there won’t be much of a pass rush down the middle, and if a team decides to run they should find success in a few different directions.
What to Expect
In 2012, we can expect Colts fans to be more excited than they were in 2011. They have started building toward a future, but most of their future is built on players that we haven’t really seen before. Their best players now won’t be on the team in a few years, as they are all on the wrong side of 30. The sky is the limit for Andrew Luck, but even Peyton Manning struggled in his rookie year and he had Marshall Faulk running behind him. The playoffs are highly unlikely, but the Colts should at least be more respectable than they were last year.