If you’re a lifelong fan you know what this is like. In fact, you may not even remember a time when it wasn’t so. What’s blue, has a horseshoe, and can’t stop the run? An Indianapolis Colt. It’s been a recurring problem for years. 4-3…3-4…small defensive tackles…big defensive tackles; no matter the scheme or personnel, the Colts always seem to have a problem stopping the run. It’s like it’s a requirement for any Colts’ player to immediately lose his run-stuffing prowess before starting on the job. You could have a defensive line of Tony Siragusa (pictured right), Vince Wilfork, and Casey Hampton all in their prime, and something about the horseshoe negates it all. The blue horseshoe is like a run stuffing, talent sapping symbol sent from the Monstars of Moron Mountain (refer to Space Jam).
In 2013, the Colts ranked 26th against the run, allowing 125.1 ypg, and once again struggled. Why does this continue to be the case? In prior years, the Colts suffered against the run from having undersized 4-3 defensive lineman, lineman that were specifically brought in to be quick and penetrative rather than strong and stout at the point of attack. With a switch to the 3-4 defense, fans remained hopeful that the Colts would finally get bigger and stronger in the trenches. Dreaming of bigger defensive ends to plug the edges, and a big bodied nose tackle to control things in the middle. Flash forward to 2014, and we are right where we’ve seemingly always been. The nightmare isn’t over.
To be fair, the switch has taken time to get the right 3-4 personnel, as in, “out with the old, in with the new”. This has required time and a complete overhaul of the 4-3 defensive roster GM Ryan Grigson inherited, with the only remaining 4-3 starter, Robert Mathis, having now successfully transitioned to a 3-4 pass rushing OLB. With the addition of DE/NT Arthur Jones this offseason, it appears that head coach Chuck Pagano finally has the proper personnel to work with. There are no more excuses.
What I’m hoping to investigate is how the girth of the Colts’ big uglies on the starting defensive line stacks up with the personnel of other starting NFL 3-4 defenses. Are the Colts right on par or is there still a glaring need to get bigger on their defensive line? Is there a direct correlation between being BIGGER and stopping the run? There are 17 defenses utilizing or set to utilize a 3-4 defense in 2014: Atlanta Falcons, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, and the Washington Redskins. For the purposes of this analysis, I’ve taken the projected starting defensive linemen for each 3-4 defense (LDE, NT, RDE) and divided by 3 to get an average starting weight. From this, I’ve calculated the average weight of each NFL 3-4 defensive line, as well as the average weight of the Top 5, 3-4 NFL rushing defenses in 2013. See the following calculations below:
What does this indicate? To me, with the naked eye, it indicates that there may not be a direct correlation between being heavier in weight and a defense’s success in stopping the run. The NFL’s best rushing 3-4 defense, the Arizona Cardinals were a “light” 301.3 lbs. A defense that is known as one of the truly smash-mouth defenses of the NFL and also a top rushing defense, the San Francisco 49ers, were an even “lighter” 293.3 lbs. The Colts at 307.7 lbs are slightly lighter than the average 3-4 defense of 308.8 lbs, but are still heavier than 3 of the Top 5 rushing defenses in 2013 (including also the Philadelphia Eagles). This may mean that the Colts don’t need to send their guys to the local Chinese Super Buffet to load up on their trays and seek additional carbs. Rather, they appear to already be at an acceptable 3-4 weight all things considered.
However, do the advanced statistics provide detail on what may be missing or overlooked? Perhaps. According to ProFootballFocus.com (PFF), the NFL’s top rated rush defense using advanced statistics and by a wide margin was the New York Jets. The Jets are on the scales at a “heavy” 319.7 lbs. Is it weight or ability though? Muhammed Wilkerson was an All-Pro in 2013, and Sheldon Richardson was the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year. This unit appears to be just as talented, as it does heavy. Yet, it should be noted that their NT Damon Harrison, nicknamed “Snacks”, tipped the scales at 350 lbs. and was PFF’s highest rated NT against the run, also by a wide margin. “Heavy” weight may play a factor after all. Time to hit the vending machine after all, right?
Not so fast, this doesn’t explain the 2013 Cleveland Browns though. Are they simply an anomaly? They are the 2nd heaviest 3-4 defense and graded out as a pedestrian run defense everywhere, 18th in total yards in the NFL and 15th in efficiency using PFF, last year respectively. If weight directly impacts the success of a team’s run defense, shouldn’t they be better? I would think yes or at the very least, that there would be a direct positive correlation.
This leads me to conclude that while weight can help, it is not a direct variable in determining the success of a team’s rush defense. While “heavy” 3-4 defenses have proven successful like the aforementioned New York Jets as well as the Baltimore Ravens, there are also comparatively “lighter” defenses like the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers that are also very strong against the run. Even further, the league’s best 3-4 run stuffing DE (PFF), Texans’ All-Pro J.J. Watt, comes in “light”, at 290 lbs, for 3-4 DE standards. To me, this indicates that it is moreso about natural run stuffing ability, than just how much of the tape measure it takes to wrap around one’s belly. Weight may very well play a role, but it’s not the all-be determining factor.
The success of the Colts’ run defense in 2014 won’t rely as much on how much their defensive line collectively weighs, but rather, whether LDE C. Redding can give them yet another solid season, RDE A. Jones can bring the exceptional run stuffing ability he formerly brought to the Ravens, and NT J. Chapman can truly be a difference maker and set the tone in the middle. At the end of the day, success will be dictated by this unit’s talent, not so much on whether the group will have to buy bigger pants. To answer the question, “Where’s the Beef?” It’s presumably already here. Now it’s time to make opposing running backs look chicken.