INDIANAPOLIS –One game.
That margin has kept the Colts out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Consecutive 8-8 campaigns have the Colts in the midst of a two-year postseason drought, for the first time since 1998.
What must the Colts do to find themselves (again) playing meaningful football in the month of January?
1. Overall Defensive Improvement
The Colts were the 30th ranked defense last season. When Chris Ballard took the job in late January, he began a full reconstruction to that side of the ball. The results: gone are (aging) players that made up nearly half of the defensive playing time last season, with a possible seven new starters coming in 2017.
Outside of red-zone defense, the Colts ranked near the bottom of the NFL in virtually all meaningful defensive categories. The 382.9 yards per game allowed last season were the most the Indianapolis Colts have ever given up.
If the Colts could have come up with one more defensive stop early last year in losses to the Lions, Jaguars or Texans, they would not have been starting their off-season vacation earlier than normal.HOW TO IMPROVE: See improvements out of a new-look defensive front. The Colts inked big man Johnathan Hankins in the offseason and welcome back healthy returns for Henry Anderson and Kendall Langford, who will start Training Camp on the PUP list. The front seven should have a totally different makeup, one that is more like a 3-4 defense. Along with better play in the front seven, the Colts have to get cornerback Vontae Davis at a Pro Bowl level. Davis and whoever starts opposite him have to provide the Colts a chance at improving from the 27th ranked passing defense (31st in interceptions) last year. 2. Protect The Franchise
From a pure concern standpoint, this level is probably the lowest it's been since Andrew Luck's arrival in 2012. The Colts see promise in their 2017 line. It's a group that is expected to start three second-year players, to combine with veterans Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhort.
But the line play is still a question due to Luck's current state of health and how many hits he's taken in his five NFL seasons.
In 2016, the Colts were 28th in the NFL in protecting their quarterback. If the Colts can keep Luck upright, everything else looks to be in place for this offense to truly flourish in 2017.HOW TO IMPROVE: Have some continuity up front. Since Luck's NFL debut in 2012, he's played behind 35 different offensive line starting combinations. The Colts have to find some stability up front. That building appeared to be taking place during the spring. Outside of Jack Mewhort ramping back up to full health, the Colts had the rest of their starting line meshing together throughout the offseason program. Now, it's time to further that, in full pads, during Training Camp and the preseason. It's a line group that enters 2017 all with multiple game experience working next to each other.3. Find Defensive Playmaking
This was one of the areas that stuck out to Chris Ballard in his evaluation of the Colts. Since 2012, the Colts have ranked better than 25th in turnover margin just once (10th in 2013).
Creating turnovers and finding more takeaways has to be a staple of the defense going forward. It's why Chuck Pagano told his team back in the spring of this stat: since '12, the Colts are 27-2 when finishing a game with at least a plus one differential in turnover margin.
Defensive playmaking should not be restricted to just turnovers. More pressure on quarterbacks has to reach a consistent level to where the opportunities for such big plays can grow for Ted Monachino's unit.HOW TO IMPROVE: Get Malik Hooker to look like the safety Ohio State had last season. Hooker was drafted largely because of his playmaking (seven interceptions, three returned for a touchdown, last year). The Colts have to find the football more. That means added pressure on the quarterback has to aid what the Colts can force at the back end of things. We probably will not see a whole lot of exotic looks from the Indy defense in 2017, so that unit has to take advantage of the chances they do create when the ball is in the air, or on the ground.4. More Reliable Ground Game
Yes, the Colts had a 1,000-yard rusher last year (Frank Gore) for the first time since 2007. But their overall run game still ranked 23rd in the NFL.
In any season, relying on a productive rushing attack is obviously a great advantage. That's especially true in 2017, with the Colts having the uncertainty surrounding Andrew Luck's right shoulder rehab.
Score dictates a lot of things during a specific game, but the Colts would love to have a reliable ground game to alleviate any of the extra throws that Luck might have to unleash during a given game.HOW TO IMPROVE: Have the overall line play mentioned in point No. 2 trickle down to this key as well. Improved play in the offensive trenches begins with protection, with the run game also factoring in. The Colts head into Training Camp with a one-two punch in the backfield of Frank Gore and Robert Turbin. To establish a better run game, we could see more of Turbin on earlier downs this year. If the Colts want to, they also have a new infusion of speed in Marlon Mack who could provide a jolt to the backfield.5. Quicker Starts
In seven of the Colts' eight losses last year, they gave up at least three scoring drives in the first half. Too often the Colts were playing from behind.
This key also applies to the season in general, not just specific games. The Colts have started 0-2 in each of the last three seasons.
The good news in 2017 is the schedule looks much more favorable early on. With a trip to the Rams and home contests against the Cardinals and Browns to start the season, the Colts should have a pretty good chance at getting off to a much better start compared to years past.
HOW TO IMPROVE: Talking about games first, earlier execution is a must. This goes to both sides of the ball. Andrew Luck's ability to orchestrate comebacks is very impressive. But it has had to happen too often. Does that mean a more up-tempo pace earlier in games? With regards to the season, this preseason is going to be vital for both the offense and defense. On offense, how quickly can the Colts get Luck up to full speed, so he's 100 percent by Week One? On defense, how quickly can Monachino have his defense working in symmetry so the mental aspect of the game is not holding that side of the ball back in September?
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