It’s time Colts’ defense started pulling its weight

Ben Jones #60 of the Tennessee Titans lines up across from Kendall Langford #90 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Nissan Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In a casual setting during a lull in last month’s NFL Draft, Chris Ballard addressed a topic so many of us have asked since the arrival of Andrew Luck in 2012.

What if the Indianapolis Colts defense did a better job of pulling its weight?

What if every game wasn’t so dependent on the Luck-led offense piling up 25, 30 points? Or more?

Ballard was direct.

“If we can get to where we are just in the middle of the pack defensively right now, we’ve got a chance to take another step,’’ he said.

“The last few years they’ve been at the bottom of the league.’’

Ballard wasn’t setting a low bar for his defense, but realizes it’s going to take more than one ultra-busy offseason to remedy what’s been a persistent problem.

Since Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 scheme to town in ’12, the Colts defense has ranked better than 20th in total yards allowed just once (11th in ’14). It’s been 26th or worse three times, including 30th last season when it allowed the second-highest average (382.9) in franchise history.

In four of the last five seasons, it has ranked 19th or worse in points allowed. Since ’12, the defense has allowed an average of 23.7 points per game.

The Colts are 49-31 in the regular season during the Luck/Pagano era, and it’s fair to wonder how much better things might have been with a more reliable defense. Consider the Colts are:

  • A league-best 26-2 (.929) when they’ve allowed 19 points or fewer. For perspective on the 28 overall games, consider Seattle has allowed 19 or fewer 50 times and the Kansas City Chiefs 48.
  • Just 17-26 (.395) when they’ve allowed at least 23 points. New England is the only team above .500 (19-13, .594).
  • 0-12 when they’ve given up at least 35 points.

It’s also worth noting the Colts have been gashed for at least 40 points in nine of 80 games. That’s 11 percent of the time, and tied for the most in the NFL over that stretch.

And that doesn’t include allowing 43 and 45 points in playoff losses at New England and chasing down the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 in the 2013 postseason.

Coordinator Ted Monachino was asked if the influx of so much defensive talent during the offseason – six of eight draft picks, eight of 12 veteran free agents – was a reflection the ’16 defense simply wasn’t good enough?

“Oh, absolutely. We all know that it wasn’t,’’ he replied, noting some of the ineffectiveness could be attributed to him installing his own system. “But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t for a lack of effort and lack of focus . . .

“We were at a point with several players that we needed to move and that’s what Mr. Ballard decided to do.’’

We’re not here to absolve Luck and the offense from any blame. We’re not going to brush aside his 80 interceptions in 76 career games, including 12 in six playoff games; T.Y. Hilton occasionally disappearing; or the running game being too inconsistent.

But neither are we going to minimize the obvious: too often, the defense has made winning too difficult.

The memory of last season’s opener against Detroit at Lucas Oil Stadium remains fresh with owner Jim Irsay. The Colts would score 35 points, and lose. After Luck gave the Colts a 35-34 lead with 37 seconds to play with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle, the Lions needed only 33 seconds to move 50 yards for Matt Prater’s 43-yard field goal.

“Hey, that’s a problem,’’ Irsay said.

Hey, that’s been a problem.

Ever the optimist, Monachino envisions a better tomorrow.

“We’ve got very high expectations and it’s high expectations of our team,’’ he said. “We know we have to pull our part of the rope on that deal. All we have to do is hold serve one more time than they do.

“But from a statistical standpoint, we would love to be better than average in a lot of places. Average puts you at 16th and 16th isn’t really good enough for a guy that is a competitor like I am.’’

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