INDIANAPOLIS – The magnitude of the issues facing the Indianapolis Colts was showcased on the NFL’s grandest stage.
The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs were going with a patchwork offensive line. Starting left tackle Eric Fisher tore an Achilles tendon in the AFC Championship game. Bookend right tackle Mitchell Schwartz already was on injured reserve with a back injury.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Shaq Barrett, countered with a healthy and active pass rush.
The result: a withering 31-9 win by the Bucs and a transcendent quarterback under constant siege.
In hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on its home field, Tampa Bay did what everyone thought was impossible: it made Patrick Mahomes look mortal. The high-powered Chiefs were held without a touchdown for the first time in Mahomes’ 54-game career. The Bucs got to him for three sacks but had him on the run all day. They were credited with a Super Bowl-record 29 pressures on his 52 pass attempts.
Jim Irsay, like millions around the globe, noticed.
“You have to create pressure on the quarterback in this league,’’ the Colts’ owner said Wednesday. “We saw what happened in the Super Bowl. As great as Mahomes is, we saw what can happen when you lose both tackles . . . and all of a sudden, a great player looks like they are really out there struggling.
“These guys in this league, if you let them play flag football and just sit back there and throw the football all day, you’re going to be in real trouble.’’
At the risk of being too simplistic on the matter, consider six of the top 10 sack-producing teams last season – including Nos. 1-2 Pittsburgh and the L.A. Rams – reached the playoffs. And nine of the 10 worst at getting to the quarterback were on the outside looking in.
The Colts ranked 11th a year ago, but the pass rush was hit and miss: five games with at least 4 sacks, seven with 1 or fewer.
DeForest Buckner led the team with 9.5, a Colts’ record for a tackle. Justin Houston (8) and Denico Autry (7.5) were the primary edge rushers, but Autry signed with the Tennessee Titans and Houston remains unsigned.
Irsay made it clear the door remains open for Houston to return for a third season.
“Justin could come back,’’ he said.
Here’s an overview of the position:
Six overall picks – round 1 (21st overall), round 2 (54th), round 3 (to Eagles as part of Carson Wentz trade), round 4 (127th), round 5 (165th), round 6 (206th), round 7 (248th).
On the roster
Kemoko Turay, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu, Kameron Cline.
There’s no evidence the primary pass-rush presence is on the roster. Potential? Sure. Turay has shown flashes, as has Lewis. Muhammad has been a productive rotational player, but would his contributions increase with more reps? Banogu remains a complete unknown. He appeared in just nine games last season – he was a healthy scratch seven times, eight if you include the wild-card playoff game – and was on the field for just 10% of the snaps. His two-year totals include 15 tackles, 5 sacks and five quarterback hits.
It’s too risky to even consider not addressing the position in the draft. Re-signing Houston wouldn’t be a bad idea, even if an edge rusher is selected.
In the draft
Kwity Paye, Michigan; Jaelen Phillips, Miami; Greg Rousseau, Miami; Azeez Ojulari, Georgia; Jayson Oweh, Penn State; Joe Tryon, Washington; Carlos Bashum, Wake Forest; Payton Turner, Houston; Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma.
There is so much to like regarding the latest crop of pass-rush talent. Athleticism abounds and ceilings appear high. But virtually everyone comes with a question mark.
Phillips cut loose with 8 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in his only season with the Hurricanes in 2020. But the 6-5, 260-pounder but sat out ’19 after transferring from UCLA after dealing with concussion issues that forced him to miss most of ’18.
Rousseau led the ACC in sacks (15.5) and tackles for loss (19.5) as a redshirt freshman in 2019 but opted out of ’20 due to COVID-19 concerns.
Oweh had a stellar Pro Day – 4.36 40, 39.5-inch vertical leap, 11’2’’ broad jump at 6-5 and 257 pounds – but he had zero sacks last season. Good pressure, but zero sacks.
Paye is another supreme athlete at 6-2, 261 pounds – 4.52 40, 35.5-inch vertical, 9’10’’ broad jump, 36 bench reps – but generated a modest 8.5 sacks in his last 16 games.
The pressure is on Ballard and his scouting staff to figure out which player’s potential likely will be realized at the next level.
Rousseau back to work
Rousseau is making up for lost time. One of the nation’s premier pass-rush threats in 2019 – his 15.5 sacks trailed only Ohio State’s Chase Young’s 16.5 – opted out of last season because of COVID-19. He made the decision after talking with Miami coaches, and his mother, who was a nurse at the time.
Rousseau pointed to the “uncertainty surrounding the season’’ for his decision.
“It was just like in my best interest to opt out,’’ he said last month at his Pro Day at Miami. “I’m just glad, honestly, to be back on Greentree (the Hurricanes’ practice facility) and have a day to compete with my guys one last time.’’
Unfortunately for Rousseau, he didn’t exactly enjoy a strong Pro Day: 40 in the low 4.7s, 30-inch vertical, 9’7’’ broad jump, 21 reps on the bench press.
More concerning, though, might be the lack of experience.
“I don’t have a lot of film,’’ Rousseau said, “but I feel like I showed a lot in the time I did play, my redshirt freshman year. I feel like I proved a lot. I also feel like I’m a very versatile athlete and I fit into a lot of schemes and I’m just going to be somebody who’s hard working from day 1.
“I’m ready to go to the next level.’’
It’s not that the Colts haven’t tried to get their next Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis the draft. They’ve just failed to this point.
Since 2010, Indy has used six picks in the first three rounds on someone viewed as a viable pass-rush threat: Jerry Hughes (31st overall in 2010), Bjoern Werner (24th overall in ’13), Tarell Basham (round 3, 80th overall in ’17), Kemoko Turay (round 2, 52nd in ’18), Tyquan Lewis (round 2, 64th in ’18) and Ben Banogu (round 2, 49th in ’19).
The best single-season output from that group: 4 by Turay (in ’18), Lewis (’20), Werner (’14) and Hughes (’12).
The top sack output from a Colts’ draft pick since they hit the lottery in consecutive seasons with Freeney (11th in 2002) and Mathis (round 5, 138th overall in ’03)? Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 fifth-round pick, led the defense with 6.5 as a rookie. His NFL career lasted two seasons.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.