Saturday, January 31, 2009

Know Your Colts: Defensive Ends

93 Dwight Freeney
Numbers: 6007/266/4.43pd in 02
2008 stats: 14 GP/14 GS (10-4 RDE), 23 TK, 7 AT, 10.5-78.5 SK, 33 QBH, 3-9 TFL, 4 FF, 1-5 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 1 GP/1 GS, 1 TK, 1 AT
Status: Signed through 2012

Freeney’s another of those players about whom there is little I can say that Colts fans don’t already know. He’s an awesome pass-rusher, he’s been nicked up a lot over the past couple of years, but has played through the pain and been generally effective. He’s improved against the run, no longer getting shoved away as often; so he can be considered a more complete end than he was earlier in his career. He’s a tough guy, a leader and he’s signed for a long time, so the only thing Colts fans have to worry about with Freeney would appear to be injuries.

79 Raheem Brock
Numbers: 6035/287/4.86pd in 02
2008 stats: 15 GP/15 GS (12-2 LDE, 0-1 LDT), 34 TK, 20 AT, 3.5-28 SK, 8 QBH, 2 FF, 1 FR, 3-20 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/3 GS, 1 TK, 1 AT, 0.5-0.5 SK
Status: Signed through 2010

I consider Brock to be perhaps the most underrated of all Colts. He can start at any of the four line positions (and has). He’s the best run stopper of the linemen (and the only one who understands how to contain the old off-tackle properly). He’s not Freeney or Mathis when it comes to rushing the passer, but he’s not bad, combining speed with some pretty decent moves. The Colts often move Brock inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs, and he has been there most effective pass rusher inside for some years. When disaster hit the Colts’ defensive tackle corps last season, many fans wondered why Brock wasn’t moved inside on all downs. It’s simple — they needed him outside. It was no coincidence that the Colts were 12-2 with Brock at LDE, and 0-2 with Mathis.

Note: Brock started one game at LDT in the regular season

98 Robert Mathis
Numbers: 6027/235/4.67pd in 03
2008 stats: 13 GP/2 GS (0-2 LDE), 42 TK, 14 AT, 11.5-66.5 SK, 16 QBH, 2-4.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 5 FF, 3 FR, 3-15 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 1 TK
Status: Signed through 2011

Mathis was born to rush the passer plain and simple. He’s got it all: an explosive first step, deadly closing speed, powerful hands and arms, a figure skater’s balance and a contortionist’s agility. Too bad it all comes in a 235-pound package. For years, people have been trying to figure out ways to keep him on the field. It became apparent early in his career he’s not a linebacker — he’s just no good going backwards. So the Colts played him as a full-time end and he suffered. He tried hard and made a few big plays, but he got run over with alarming consistency. Regaining their senses, the Colts coaches started Brock at left end, keeping Mathis free to do what he was designed to do.

91 Josh Thomas
Numbers: 6060/282/4.83pd in 04
2008 stats: 13 GP/3 GS (2-0 RDE, 1-0 RDT), 26 TK, 9 AT, 5 QBH, 1 PBU, 1-0 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 4 GP/3 GS, 2 TK, 3 AT, 1.5-13.4 SK, 2 QBH
Status: Unrestricted free agent

Colts fans misunderstand Thomas, and his value. He is bigger than your average Colts lineman, but that doesn’t mean he’s a blocker absorber. He plays the one-gap penetrator game just like the rest of them, and is pretty darn good at it. But he lacks one essential trait to make him a star — he lacks closing speed. He’ll get behind the lineman, but once he’s back there, a passer can take a step up, or the runner can make a quick cut and Thomas can be grasping air. He makes some plays, but not as many as it looks like he should.

Like Brock, Thomas plays about as well at any position on the line, and often moves inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs.

Note: Thomas started one game at RDT in the regular season and another at the same position in the preseason

92 Marcus Howard
Numbers: 6004/237/4.45c in 08
2008 stats: 6 GP/0 GS, 6 TK, 1 AT, 1.5-6 SK, 3 QBH, 0.5-0.5 TFL, 1 FF, 5 STT, 3 STA
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 3 TK, 1 AT, 2.5-11 SK, 2 QBH, 1 PBU
Status: Signed through 2010

Before people declare Howard the second coming of Mathis, they should be forewarned that he has a lot of learning before that comparison is valid. Yes he’s small and fast and got a lot of college sacks, but Howard needs to learn to use his hands and put together combination pass-rush moves before he can make much of an impact.

He certainly looked the part in preseason and in the meaningless Game 16, when he played against the Titans’ backups. If you take away that game, Howard’s rookie stats on defense read like this: Two tackles and one quarterback hurry.

He’s a project, but the Colts have time with him. And unlike many other teams, they won’t screw him up by moving him to linebacker.

94 Curtis Johnson
Numbers: 6025/242/4.69c4.60pd in 08
2008 stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 2 TK, 3 AT, 1-9 SK, 6 STT
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 2 TK, 1-1 TFL
Status: Signed through 2010

What can be said about Howard can be said about Johnson, only more so. He has similar skills, but is far rawer and more prone to mistakes like overpursuit and falling for fakes. And, like Howard, he didn’t do much as a rookie if you subtract Game 16.

While Johnson has the physical skills to become an NFL-quality pass rusher, I wouldn’t expect much from him right away. The Colts are set on the outside with Freeney and Mathis. As long as they are playing, there is little Howard or Johnson can do but learn from them.

How this affects the draft and free agency

The first question at the position has to do with Thomas. Keep him or let him go? Right now I’d say it’s 50-50. As a veteran, he’s entitled to a pretty big payday for a backup (even if no other team bids on him), and when he plays he doesn’t exactly set the league on fire. But he is versatile, consistently competent and a good locker-room guy. Besides, the backups at this point are all skinny little pass-rush guys, it’s unlikely they could step in his shoes.

So if Thomas leaves, they’d probably have to replace him. Perhaps the loser of the Keyunta Dawson/Eric Foster battles inside could slide outside and take over. Or maybe not.

The Colts could draft another end if he leaves, but knowing Bill Polian, he’d go for some 240-pound small schooler who piled up sacks even though he already has Mathis, Howard and Johnson on the roster. Actually, that could happen anyway. Polian is famous for his “you can’t have too many pass rushers” philosophy and could easily fall in love with one at any time. A couple of guys who fit his shopping list include Troy’s Kenny Mainor and Oregon State’s Slade Norris. Keep in mind that Polian will open up Colts camp as a home for wayward pass rushers, so expect any guy with potential who went undrafted or has been waived by another team to be invited to camp.

Note: Polian did not draft Thomas, but signed him as an undrafted free agent after much urging by Freeney, who was Thomas’s linemate and friend at Syracuse

Draft picks at the position since Polian took over

2008 Fifth Marcus Howard
2005 Fifth Jonathan Welsh
2003 Fifth Robert Mathis
2002 First Dwight Freeney
2002 Seventh Josh Mallard
1999 Fifth Brad Scioli
1999 Seventh Corey Terry


shake'n'bake said...

The Colts only scored 13 points and Marv coughed up a killer fumble for TD against Chicago and a blatant PI call was missed for a ten point swing because Mathis started at LDE instead of Brock?

I really like your posts, but posting the TEAMS record with/without role players (or even stars) and attaching some kind of meaning to it, bothers me.

shake'n'bake said...

Got all ranty and forgot the other thing.

If Indy drafts Mitch King, I'm really interested in how he could do in a Josh Thomas role (bigger, slightly more run focused DE) in addition to rotating at the (a bit crowded if they draft him) undertackle spot.

Jerry Langton said...

Shake, as always, thanks for your insight and comments.

!) Of course Mathis didn't lose the first two games. But the D gave up 183 and 179 yards rushing in those games and lots of them came over Mathis. The real point of the whole won-loss thing is to indicate were more than happy to relieve Mathis of his starting LDE duties.

2) I think if King gets drafted by the Colts, he's a pure DT, but it would, I agree, be intriguing to see him in a Thomas- or Brock-like role on the outside on running downa and inside on passing downs. But the Colts' biggest problem on defense was stopping the inside run, something King would appear to be better at than Dawson or Foster.

shake'n'bake said...

It's good. Just when I read "It was no coincidence that the Colts were 12-2 with Brock at LDE, and 0-2 with Mathis."

I couldn't quiet the voice in my head screaming "YES IT WAS"