Has Colts Defense Improved Enough Under Pagano & Manusky?


The Indianapolis Colts are set to enter their 4th season of the Chuck Pagano regime. A highly regarded defensive minded head coach, who was brought in by Colts owner Jim Irsay in January of 2012 to help build a tough defensive unit that mimicked the recent smashmouth Baltimore Ravens’ championship defenses.

Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano during the third quarter against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

While the defense has improved considerably since the 2012 season under Pagano’s coaching, it has yet to consistently reach the peaks of an elite caliber NFL defense. Colts fans know all too well the highs and lows of this defense, and its frequent “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” routine.

It was never more apparent then in this year’s playoffs, when the Colts defense shut down Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense en route to a 24-13 Divisional Round win, only to get thoroughly dominated by the Patriots offense in an embarrassing 45-7 AFC Championship loss.

To be fair, it was always going to take some time and rightfully so in order to properly, “Build the Monster“. Switching from a 4-3, Cover 2 defensive scheme that emphasized speed to a 3-4 defensive scheme that required strength was never going to be an easy or quick transition. However, now entering year 4 with the Colts, both Chuck Pagano and his defensive coordinator in Greg Manusky have had sufficient time to not only get “3-4 guys”, but more importantly, their guys…to play their defense. It’s time to get serious, as there really can’t be any excuses anymore from this point forward.

The Colts defense played well, even great at times this season, as clearly evident by their 27-0 defensive shutout against “Pro Bowler” Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 7.  However, how much of their efforts were aided by playing in the lowly AFC South, whose teams feature lackluster starting quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Charlie Whitehurst, and rookie Blake Bortles (among others) twice a year? With a rather soft quarterback schedule, the Colts defense fared quite well against “non-elite” quarterbacks as a whole:

However, when placed up against elite quarterbacks (sans an injured Peyton Manning in the playoffs), and the Colts defense routinely struggled mightily all season to the tune of 15 touchdowns to 2 interceptions and 4 losses in as many regular season games:

Like the recent NyQuil television commercial that says “Dads don’t take sick days“, well neither do elite defenses. If you want to be considered one of the best defensive units, then you have to bring it every Sunday and occasional Monday night. It can’t only be against the non-elite quarterbacks, as it has to come against the bonafide “best in the business” as well.

Still, while Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky still have a ways to go in making their “Frankenstein” fully operational, their defense still has made steady improvement from 2012-14. While this year’s defense actually allowed more points per game than the 2013 defensive unit, 23.1 ppg to 21.0 ppg, a lot of that is because when the Colts got beat, not surprisingly they gave up a lot of points (30+ points). That’s not justifying such defensive ineptitude by any means, but this defense actually held most non-elite quarterbacks and their respective offenses (i.e. the majority of their schedule) in-check.

However, as you can see below (pictured) many of the other major defensive statistical categories including total ypg, rush ypc, passing ypc, and 3rd down % were either better in 2014 (like the aforementioned stats) or pretty much on-par with 2013 (such as the remaining group). [This was all without veteran star pass rusher Robert Mathis this past season too]:

So there’s really no question, that the defense has in fact, largely steadily improved under Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky under their tutelage. However, they’ve still been a rather middling defense overall when it’s all said and done. While they’ve played great at times, too often than not, they’ve proved to “drop the ball” against elite quarterbacks and their offenses. The Colts and their fans would like this defense to take that “next step” and become a truly tough defense across the board on a consistent basis.

They’re not alone, as Colts owner Jim Irsay noted after his team’s brutal AFC Championship loss:

"“What’s missing is trying to continue to bring in a team that I talked about, which is a really tough defensive team.”"

It looks as though Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky still have considerable work to do before they can truly shout, “It’s Alive!”

Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano walks off the field after losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports