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Can Colts’ secondary become a strength the remainder of season?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24: Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano on the sidelines during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts on November 24, 2016, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

As the Indianapolis Colts prepare for the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, after some much-needed time off, the issues surrounding this team – especially their defense – are becoming ever-present. The offensive line continues to struggle, there is little to no pass rush to speak of, and the coverage on the back end continually leaves a lot to be desired.

Now, there could be slight upticks in performance in protection and in getting to the passer, but the lack of consistency is the most notable problem. Is there any hope for the secondary, though, to become a strength for this defense instead of being a constant issue week in and week out? Let’s take a look and see what we can come up with.

Without making this about all head coach Chuck Pagano, because it’s actually hard to avoid that conversation when talking about any Colts’ defense, it is necessary to touch on the obvious. Pagano is supposed to be a defensive guy. More specifically, a secondary specialist. Yet the results from his defenses continually churn out massive disappointment.

His ‘old school’ linebackers can’t cover and his defensive backfield continually comes up short and often has been in the bottom third of the league in almost every category aside from tackling. As far as passing yards allowed per game, from 2012 through 2014 there was an uptick in where they compared to the rest of the league – starting 21st in 2012 and climbing to 13th in 2013, then 12th in 2014.

Don’t get excited, though, we’re literally talking a difference of 112 yards in yards given up in a season from 2012 to 2014. Naturally this speaks more towards how bad other team’s pass coverage was as opposed to how much better the Colts’ was. The one actual improvement could be that they dropped from allowing a 62 percent completion rate in 2012 to a significantly better 58.9 percentage in 2014. In that time frame they allowed 1.48 touchdowns per game.

Then last season, the massive decline began to really become noticeable. The Colts pass defense allowed 257 yards per game, 29 touchdowns (1.81 per game) and went back up to their 2013 form allowing a completion rate of 60.5 percent. Sadly, this year is even worse – like, a lot worse. The Colts are currently 30th in the league allowing 278 yards per game, giving up a 66 percent completion rate and are giving up 2 touchdowns per game – on pace for 32. Only the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns have allowed more touchdowns.

Additionally, an area where the Colts have typically either gotten better or stayed the same from year to year is in the category of passes defensed. Not so with this year’s bunch. Thus far, the Colts have defensed 41 passes through 11 games, which puts them on pace to get somewhere near 60 for the season and would, again, be another low point in the last five seasons.

This not only shows that the Colts are allowing eye-popping completion numbers but proves that they aren’t even in the picture when the ball is caught a large portion of the time. What else does this elude to you ask? You already know. Yep, you guessed it, another result of this whole pitiful process results in the Colts being 31st in the league in yards allowed after the catch (YAC) at an astounding 138.4 yards per game.

All of this isn’t a discussion about recent teams versus this year’s group, rather it’s more of a huge red flag of what’s still yet to come. Whether the secondary can solely be to blame is a conversation for another day, but it’s worth noting that three of the top four tacklers on the team are two safeties (Mike Adams and Clayton Geathers) and a cornerback (Rashaan Melvin). In fact, the next two linebackers combined don’t have as many tackles as Melvin – in a defense designed to open up gaps for linebackers to tackle the ball carrier.

As the Colts sit at 5-6, and only a game and a half out of first place of the AFC South, the importance of the secondary becoming worlds better immediately, and consistently over the next five games cannot be understated.

Vontae Davis is struggling mightily this season, can’t seem to stay completely healthy and can’t cover deep against even marginal receiver talent. Patrick Robinson suffers similar nagging injuries, yet struggles laterally and is often overpowered and beaten off the line of scrimmage. Melvin, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise considering he’s gotten half of his NFL experience this season, yet isn’t a No. 3 cornerback on very many teams.

Then you have the safeties. Adams is solid, T.J. Green is awful in coverage and Geathers is primarily used as a dime linebacker where he flourishes. Darius Butler, however, has been used at safety lately and has done well in that role, but the health of the other cornerbacks is paramount to his being able to play there. Otherwise he’s forced into a CB2, or nickel corner role in which he’s lost a step similarly to Davis.

I’d love to say that this fairly talented group could have a breakout set of games where they play their best football in the midst of a playoff run, however, there’s very little that leads me to suggest such a thing. They don’t seem to have the chemistry, health or coaching necessary to turn things around in such a small time span.

If there’s anything that could help this group, it may just be that they will be facing a very blah group of quarterbacks in these final five games. The likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sam Bradford, Brock Osweiler and Blake Bortles with the lone stud being Derek Carr in Week 16. Aside from Carr, the Colts will be facing signal callers with a combined 1.29 to 1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, with Bradford being the only one of those four to not be carrying a double-digit interception total.

Carr and Bradford have a combined 8 interceptions, while Fitz, Osweiler and Bortles have combined for 39.  So, there is some hope, and the fact that Bradford doesn’t throw downfield within the Vikings offense very often allows for some wiggle room for the secondary as well.

Despite attempting to stay away from past teams, which have absolutely zero effect on what this year’s group has, or will do, the trend of Pagano-coached defenses in Indianapolis is making it difficult to give them this benefit of the doubt. So, can the Colts’ secondary become a strength? I think the better question, at this point, would be to ask if they could simply maintain respectability through the remainder of the season.

Matt Danely (@MDanely_NFL) is an Indianapolis Colts Analyst for FanRag Sports (@FanRagSports), and host of the Locked On Colts Podcast (@LockedOnColts).

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