Pressure’s on as Colts’ pass rush missing steady pressure

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Greg Toler (28) and Vontae Davis (23)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 10, 2015) – If his team’s pass rush was performing at an optimum level, a former starting strong safety at the University of Wyoming insisted he could pull on a set of pads and shadow an opposing team’s receiver.

That would be Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, whose three decades removed from his playing days and sporting streaks of gray in his hair.

A defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback, he insisted, is every defensive back’s best friend.

“Yeah, when they got to get the ball out in less than three seconds, you got to cover for about two, two-and-a-half seconds,’’ Pagano said. “It’s real easy.”

“I could play, to be honest with you.’’

Again, he’s 55 and last pulled on his No. 5 jersey with the Cowboys in 1982.

While Pagano turned to hyperbole when asked about the working relationship between a Colts’ pass rush that isn’t exerting the necessary pressure and a secondary that isn’t adequately covering, he made his point nonetheless.

The two phases of adequately dealing with a passing game are intertwined.

When there’s pressure on the quarterback, covering receivers – even elite ones – is infinitely easier. When defensive backs stick with receivers early in routes, pass rushers are afforded another second to disrupt or pummel the quarterback.

“That’s what makes football the ultimate team game,’’ said cornerback Vontae Davis, who’s yielded seven touchdown passes this season after allowing none in 2014 when he was selected to his first Pro Bowl. “It goes hand-in-hand. The pressure (forces) the quarterback to get the ball out. Our coverage, if it’s good enough, the quarterback holds the ball so the pressure can get a sack.’’

Twelve games into the season, and the Colts remain deficient in both areas.

However, most disappointing has been the glaring lack of consistent pressure, and by extension the dearth of sacks and frequency of damage done to the secondary. Consider the Colts:

  • Have 19 sacks, fifth-fewest in the NFL, and had one or none in seven of 12 games. The league average is 27. For perspective, Robert Mathis piled up a club-record 19.5 in 2013. That he leads the team with 4 this season is an indictment of Trent Cole and Jonathan Harrison, who have 1 each.

    Cole was one of general manager Ryan Grigson’s pricey free-agent acquisitions ($7.75 million this season). Newsome, a 2014 fifth-round pick, led the team with 6.5 sacks as a rookie.

    Aside from Mathis, the most assertive pass rushers have been end Kendall Langford (3 sacks, 12 QB hits) and strong-side linebacker Erik Walden (3 sacks, 11 hits).

  • Are in danger of finishing with one of their meekest sack totals since the league began recognizing them in 1982. The low-water marks in a 16-game season are 21 (1993) and 24 (’86).
  • Have paid the price for the lack of pressure. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged 12.4 yards per completion, fourth-highest in the league, and struck for 24 touchdowns, tied for fifth-most. In the last two meetings with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, the pass rush had no sacks and was credited with one hit on his 88 attempts. He’s capitalized by gashing them with 886 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Nineteen sacks?

“That’s not good enough,’’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “You want 40, 45 sacks.”

“The biggest thing is you have to put pressure on the quarterback somehow, some way. We’ve got to do a better job coaching it. We’ve got to do a better job of playing it.’’

Last season, Manusky used creative blitzes to compensate for the absence of Mathis, out with the four-game suspension and torn Achilles. He insisted the Colts are blitzing about the same this year, but they clearly aren’t getting similar results.

Perhaps things will change Sunday in Jacksonville. Despite possessing the ability to avoid pressure with his mobility, quarterback Blake Bortles has been sacked 36 times, second-most in the league.

When the Colts eked out a 16-13 overtime win over the Jaguars on Oct. 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium, they sacked Bortles once and were credited with seven hits. According to Pro Football Focus, they pressured him on 25 of his 51 drop-back attempts. That contributed to him averaging 5.96 yards per attempt and 10.6 yards per completion.

“We’ll keep working,’’ Pagano said. “We’re going to keep grinding, keep coaching, keep playing, keep teaching. That’s all you can do.’’

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