In The AFC South, You Need To Stop The Run To Win
No division can boast a trio of successful running backs quite like the AFC South can. In the past three seasons, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson have combined to rush for 11,262 yards and 76 touchdowns while earning six Pro Bowl berths, two All-NFL 1st team selections and two rushing titles.
As the odd team out of the division, the Indianapolis Colts are the unlucky club that must face each of these rushing monsters twice every year. The Colts have been no more successful at stopping the trio than anyone else. In the five games in 2012 when Indianapolis faced one of these rushers (Jones-Drew was injured in Week 10), they combined to rush for 581 yards (116.2 per game) on 5.2 yards per carry. That helped push the Colts to 31st in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt and 29th in total rushing yards allowed. But the problems go beyond just 2012 – Over the course of their entire careers, the trio has averaged 101.7 yards per game on 5.1 yards per attempt against Indianapolis.
Colts GM Ryan Grigson knew this was a problem heading into his initial season in Indianapolis, but it apparently took a year of first-hand experience to force him into doing something about it.
In a 3-4 defense, which the Colts employ, the first step towards stopping the run is a space-eating nose tackle. You don’t need this guy to sack the quarterback, he just needs to be able to eat up blockers and allow his linebackers to swoop in to make tackles for minimal gains.
Unfortunately for the 2012 Colts, both of their top two nose tackles were gone for the year before Week 1 came around. Fifth-round 2012 NFL Draft selection Josh Chapman was expected to be the long-term answer, but a knee injury he suffered his senior year at Alabama disallowed any playing time in his rookie season. Second-stringer Brandon McKinney was placed on Injured Reserve on August 27 because of a torn ACL. That left Antonio Johnson to start in the middle, who was anything but reliable.
While McKinney is questionable on whether he’ll be 100 percent for Week 1, Chapman should be ready to go. On top of that, Grigson signed Aubrayo Franklin and drafted Montori Hughes this offseason. He’s no star, but Franklin is a very solid player who could end up winning the starting job. Either way, the Colts will have at least three and maybe four better options at nose tackle than Johnson.
Run defense doesn’t stop at nose tackle. Defensive end Ricky Jean Francois was signed this offseason and is expected to start opposite Cory Redding. Francois has only started twice during his four-year career, but he’s been a very reliable backup and specializes in stopping the run. He’s ready to become a full-time run-stuffer.
One of the biggest transitions this offseason was the departure of Dwight Freeney and the drafting of outside linebacker Bjoern Werner. While Werner may never live up to Freeney’s success as a pass-rusher, he almost certainly will be better at setting the edge and shutting down running backs.
Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman emerged as a rookie standout last year. He and the ever-improving Kavell Conner will form a formidable wall in the middle of the linebacking corps.
Safety LaRon Landry is another free agent signing that should help bolster the Colts run defense. Although he’s part of the secondary, Landry is a very physical presence that can make plays near the line of scrimmage.
On paper, it appears the Colts have the pieces to finally become a stout defense against the run. Matt Schaub, Jake Locker, Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert don’t exactly strike fear into opposing defenses, so shutting down their teams’ running backs is crucial for the Colts to endure success within the AFC South. In the Colts’ three wins when facing Johnson, Foster or Jones-Drew last year, they held the star backs to an average of 79.7 yards per game and 4.3 per carry. In their two such losses, those numbers jumped to 171 and 6.2, respectively.
Besides preventing your opponent from racking up points and yards, the biggest benefit to shutting down strong running backs is putting the ball back into the hands of quarterback Andrew Luck. The more he’s in control, the better in rhythm the offense will be, and the more tired the opposing defense will be. Plus, the opposites apply for the opposing offense.
With so many new pieces to help, and given how bad the run defense has been in previous years, it’s almost a guarantee it will improve in 2013. Will it turn into a top-10 run defense? Probably not. But a rise out of the 30s and 20s to somewhere in the teens would do wonders for this team’s success. And let’s not forget that this year’s Super Bowl will be played outdoors in cold weather. If the Colts’ true goal is to bring home the Lombardi Trophy this year, they’ll have to stop the run all the way through to the final game.