Just one game into the 2014 campaign, the Indianapolis Colts have now hit a huge stumbling block. Yesterday, star linebacker Robert Mathis suffered a torn achilles during a workout session, and will miss the rest of the season.
Mathis, who led the NFL in sacks last season, is a huge part of the Colts’ veteran leadership. This season is his 14th year with the Colts, in which he had only missed 10 starts until Sunday night. He registered 19.5 sacks last year, leading the NFL, and Mathis had nearly half of the Colts’ season total of 42.
In addition to his injury, Mathis would have already missed the first four games of the season, after violating the league’s drug policy. He tested positive for Clomid, a fertility drug.
Now that Mathis is out, the Colts face a serious issue on defense. Who is going to rush the passer? While Arthur Jones and Corey Redding are solid pass rushers in the middle, the only other proven rusher on the outside is Erik Walden, who the Colts want to drop into coverage more.
Filling in for Mathis will likely be Bjoern Werner, who started in place of him Sunday night in Denver while Mathis was suspended. Werner, a 2013 first round pick out of Florida State, had a dormant rookie season, registering only 15 tackles in limited playing time. However, this year, he impressed a lot of people in training camp and preseason. Werner will have to be better at getting after the quarterback, if the Colts are to be successful defensively.
Other than Werner and Walden, the Colts do not have much at outside linebacker. The only other OLB on the Colts roster for now is Jonathan Newsome, a rookie out of Ball State, who will be a backup for the rest of the season.Therefore, it is pivotal that both Walden and Werner play well, and more importantly: stay healthy. Otherwise the Colts will be in even more trouble.
In addition to losing such a veteran leader, losing Mathis hurts the Colts defensive scheme. The Colts want to be able to bring 4, and play man behind it with a safety over the top. Yet, without Mathis, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky must adjust. Whether needs to dial up more complex blitz packages, or bring the house and play 1 on 1 across the board to generate pressure, Manusky needs to find a way to generate pressure.
The loss of Mathis puts even more pressure on a struggling secondary. As evidenced by their performance Sunday night, the Colts secondary was torn apart in the first half by Peyton Manning, who had all night to stand in the pocket comfortably. Vontae Davis played well, but the rest of the secondary, especially LaRon Landry and Jerell Freeman when in coverage, eventually were beaten because of a lack of pass rush.
The Colts could not get off the field on 3rd down, as Denver converted 7-14 when facing a 3rd down opportunity. This number was even better in the first half, as the Broncos scored on all of their first half possessions. This is almost the complete opposite of last year’s meeting, when Mathis played, and the Broncos were 5-16.
In life after Mathis, the Colts face a daunting task of replacing such a great talent and leader. Jerell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson need to be surer tacklers in the middle. Both of them struggled Sunday, despite having fantastic years last year. Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner need to do their best to get after the passer, and the secondary must tighten up and not allow as many 3rd down conversions.
If the Colts defense can step it up, there is no reason, with the talent level on offense, that Indianapolis should not be contending for a Super Bowl come January. However, if the defense does not improve, the Colts better get ready to see 24 point deficits in the first half, more often than they would prefer.