Is the Indianapolis Colts' Defense Good Enough to Make a Serious Playoff Run?
Amidst the seemingly infallible season from quarterback Andrew Luck, the improbable receiving production from running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and the immeasurable breakout from wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Indianapolis Colts have one of the most exciting and effective offensive units in all of football.
Even Trent Richardson looks competent out there in the royal blue.
But just because the team's identity runs through its quarterback doesn't mean that this Colts team is a one-sided group.
This defense is good, and it might make a huge difference for Indianapolis' playoff hopes.
Just how good have they been? Well, overall, they rank ninth defensively according to our metrics, but they aren't a well-rounded defensive unit. While Vontae Davis is turning the pass defense into an elite one, the Indianapolis run defense just doesn't stack up.
So let's take a closer look at the defensive unit and see what our metrics indicate about their play.
A Glaring Weak Spot
I know I just began to discuss how critical the team's defensive turnaround is for its success and that the defense is operating at a high level, but placing the discussion of its beatable run defense first and foremost is important. Their run defense is bad, and this can be hidden by raw numbers.
The Colts allow 4.6 yards per rush, which is tied for 25th in the NFL. That's rough.
However, they have allowed only 677 rushing yards so far, 11th-best in the league. But that's because they have seen just 147 rushing attempts, third-fewest in the league.
The two teams with fewer rushing attempts faced are the Denver Broncos and the Arizona Cardinals, each of whom have had their bye week already. Additionally, each is a top-seven unit according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric. The way NEP works is that it tells us how many points a team allows or denies, and it can be adjusted for schedule strength.
According to Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, the Broncos allow -0.12 points per rush, and the Cardinals allow -0.10. Or more correctly, they deny roughly 0.10 points on each rush.
By comparison, the Colts allow 0.08. And that's not to say that their Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play is -0.08. They literally allow 0.08 points per rush, which is 30th in the league.
So why is it again that I gushing about their defensive ability this year compared to last year?
Oh yeah. It's the pass defense.
You Shall Not Pass (on the Colts)
Through Week 7, the Colts have the top pass defense in the NFL according to our metrics. And it's by a fairly sizable margin. Their Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play is -0.06, so they actually deny teams points who try to throw on them on a given play.
The Houston Texans rank second, allowing -0.01 points per play according to our adjusted metrics.
That difference of 0.05 is the same as the distance between the Texans (who rank 2nd) and the Minnesota Vikings (6th). It's also the same gap between the Miami Dolphins (5th) and Philadelphia Eagles (11th).
As a frame of reference, the Seattle Seahawks of 2013 had an Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play of -0.16, so the Colts aren't quite on that level, but their current score would have ended the season tied for third, behind the Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals (-0.07).
Their pass defense is more than making up for the inadequacies of the rush defense, but is it a big enough upgrade from the 2013 unit for the Colts to make a more serious run deep into the playoffs?
A Look Back to 2013
Last year, the Colts were a somewhat similar team on offense and are currently playing better this year than last year. They finished 2013 with the seventh-best offense on a per-play basis according to our metrics. This year, they are fifth.
So a better showing from the defense could be the key to get them past the Divisional Round, the round in which they lost to the New England Patriots last year.
The jump in efficiency from the defense as a whole is entirely impressive, but the rush defense has actually gotten worse this year.
|Year||Adj D NEP/Play||Rank||Adj D PNEP/Play||Rank||Adj. D RNEP/Play||Rank|
The improvement in the pass defense, though, is astounding, and these metrics look more like a Super Bowl contender's than they did last year.
In fact, their current metrics through Week 7 stack up pretty well against the successful teams from 2013.
A Playoff Comparison
Defense may or may not win championships, but the Seahawks were able to rely on it to dismantle the Broncos last year.
But I'm not about to profess that defense still reigns. Not at least until I see the numbers.
Here are the NEP scores and ranks of the 12 playoff teams from last year. I'm including the overall offensive per-play rank just to see where it stacks up in context with the defensive numbers.
|Team||Adj NEP/Play||Rank||Adj D NEP/Play||Rank||Adj D PNEP/Play||Rank||Adj D RNEP/Play||Rank|
It's a lot to soak in, but I'll just give you some bullet points. Of the 12 playoff teams, 8 had top-12 offensive units overall, and 8 had top-12 defensive units overall. Of the 12, 5 of them had both a top-12 offense and defense (Seattle, New England, Carolina, New Orleans, and Philadelphia).
That's quite an array of results, though. Seattle, of course, won the Super Bowl. The Eagles lost in the first round. The Saints and Panthers lost in the NFC Divisional Round, and the Patriots reached the AFC Championship.
So, having top units, like the Colts currently do (fifth in offense and ninth in defense), doesn't necessarily indicate a substantial playoff push. However, this is based only off of last year and was meant as much to display the variety of playoff teams as it was to show, in context, how subpar the Colts defense was compared to playoff opponents from last year.
Only the Colts, Packers, and Chargers ranked outside the top-20 in both rushing and passing defense per play, but all had top-12 offensive units overall. Still, none advanced past the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The two most comparable teams to the 2014 Colts are the Saints and Patriots, both of whom ranked inside the top 10 in overall offense, defense, and pass defense as well as outside the top 20 in run defense.
But Is It Enough?
That's a question that cannot yet be answered because of how porous the run defense has been and because teams with diverse compositions excelled and failed in the playoffs last year. Still, all four teams that reached their Conference Championship had a top-13 offense and a top-13 defense, which is at least a positive sign for the Colts.
The offense is marginally better than it was (and it was already really good last year), and the defense has at least made a big improvement on one side of the ball.
That is a big reason why, with a 10.7% chance to win the Super Bowl, the Colts have the third-highest odds to become champs.
The run defense for the Colts could very well end up being the team's bane come playoff time, but these Colts, as they are playing now, certainly aren't the same Colts that fell short last year.