SPECIAL COVERAGE: 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500

Numbers bear it out: Colts’ pass rush is broken

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 20: Denico Autry #95 and Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts tackle Javorius Allen #37 of the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter of a preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 20, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Numbers can be massaged and manipulated. You can get them to support just about any argument, skew any debate.

Except this one: the Indianapolis Colts’ pass rush is broken.

Four sacks in the last four games, including none the last two.

Four quarterback hits in the last four games. That includes just one in each of the last two games when Blake Bortles and Derek Carr used a clean pocket to misfire on just 19 of 67 pass attempts. At one point, Carr completed 17 straight.

Remember Sam Darnold? The New York Jets’ rookie is a 55 percent passer on the season with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In a 42-34 win in week 6 against the Colts, he was 24-of-30, 280 yards, two TDs and one interception. He benefitted from facing a tepid Indy pass rush: two sacks, zero pressures.

Margus Hunt doesn’t consider the Colts’ waning pass rush “an issue at all,’’ but conceded the defense must get back to what worked over the first month of the season. During September, it generated 17 sacks and an additional 10 hits.

“We need to put pressure on the quarterback and we really haven’t done that the three or four games,’’ said Hunt, who shares the team lead with a career-high 4 sacks. “We need to pick that up.’’

Starting Sunday when the Tennessee Titans visit Lucas Oil Stadium in a pivotal AFC South matchup.

The Titans have won two straight, including a 34-10 smack-down of New England last Sunday, but frequently have had trouble protecting Marcus Mariota. They’ve allowed at least two sacks in seven straight games, including 11 against Baltimore.

In the Colts’ Sunday win over Jacksonville, the lack of a reasonable pass rush allowed Bortles to scan the field, pat the ball and do with it whatever he wanted until it reared its head late.

Two of the Jaguars’ fourth-quarter drives were thwarted as Jabaal Sheard pressured Bortles into a third-and-11 incompletion and rookie Tyquan Lewis, in his season debut, hit Bortles’ arm on another third-and-11 attempt.

The rest of the game – and too often of late – the pass rush hasn’t gotten it done.

“I just think it needs to be more consistent,’’ coordinator Matt Eberflus said.

One of the basic tenets of the cover-2 defense is getting pressure from the front four, which allows the other seven defenders to fan out in zone coverage.

“I think it’s more on us,’’ said end Jabaal Sheard, who has 4 sacks and a team-high 8 quarterback hits. “The chips (from tight ends and running backs) are going to slow us down a little bit, but it’s on us.

“There’s always going to be a one-on-one somewhere and we’ve got to take advantage of our one-on-one matchups. We’re going to keep analyzing it and trying to figure it out.’’

Blitzing never has been a big part of the game plan with this system. It wasn’t when Tony Dungy brought the cover-2 to town in 2002, but his front four featured bookend terrors Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

And it hasn’t been through nine games with Eberflus. According to ESPN, the Colts are the NFL’s least-blitzing defense – 10.7 percent of the time. Kansas City is next: 15.3 percent. The Arizona Cardinals reside at the other end of the spectrum, blitzing 38.3 percent of the time.

Eberflus didn’t exactly give the impression he’s open to dialing up more blitzes.

“We are a rush and cover team,’’ he said. “We are not a big pressure team and we are going to continue with that.

“We did pressure a few times (against the Jaguars) on third down. We had some success a couple of times and sometimes we didn’t. We’ll continue to mix those things in there as we go and we’ll go from there.’’

When the four-man rush doesn’t disrupt the quarterback, or get a sack, holes in the zone coverage enlarge. A more vibrant pass rush also would help compensate for what has been mediocre play from the cornerbacks.

A byproduct of the cover-2 is allowing completions at a higher rate than other schemes. During Dungy’s seven-year stint in Indy, his defenses routinely yielded higher-than-normal completion percentages: 68.4 in ’08, 67.4 in ’05, 65.4 in ’04 and 65.3 in ’07. But again, those defenses eventually were able to force the issue with Freeney and Mathis.

Absent a reliable pass rush and with DBs who’ve struggled, the Colts are allowing completions at an alarming rate. Opposing QBs are completing 72 percent of their passes, second in the league (73.6, Tampa Bay), and the highest in team history.

In general, this defense is OK with giving up underneath passes providing linebackers and defensive backs make sure tackles and limit chunk plays. Long drives are tolerated based of the belief an offense will self-destruct along the way – a penalty, giving up a sack – or a defender will make a significant play at some point.

The last two games have turned on the defense making a handful of plays in the fourth quarter after struggling to get off the field. At Oakland, it was rookie linebacker Darius Leonard’s forced fumble with 5:16 remaining and the Colts protecting a 35-28 lead. Against Jacksonville, it was cornerback Kenny Moore’s forced fumble with 1:30 remaining and the Jaguars driving for at least a game-tying field goal.

That’s living on a razor’s edge.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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