In March of 2013, the Indianapolis Colts were armed with $46 million in cap space and plenty of holes to fill. The team was coming off of a surprising 11-5 run and a playoff spot in 2012 and was looking to take the next step into Super Bowl contention with a strong offseason.
With that boatload of cap space, it was assumed that the Colts would go after some key pieces in free agency to pick up a few more "blue-chip" players at the top of their roster. Looking back now, that free-agency class has been disappointing, and it starts at the top.
The Colts' two big signings were right tackle Gosder Cherilus and safety LaRon Landry. Cherilus signed a five-year, $34.5 million contract, while Landry signed for $24 million over four years. Both players were underwhelming, but Landry is the one that stood out most of all. While Cherilus wasn't the top-five tackle the Colts hoped they were getting, he was still a solid, dependable tackle.
Landry, on the other hand, was arguably a negative force for the 2013 defense. Hoping to sign a hyperactive playmaker, the Colts instead got an injury-prone player who was often sloppy when he was healthy. The 2012 Pro Bowler was nowhere to be found.
With veteran stalwart Antoine Bethea in San Francisco in 2014, the Colts need Landry to be better in 2014. The team can contend for a Super Bowl with QB Andrew Luck at the helm, but they can't have a defense that allows 87 points over two playoff games again. Landry, as the back line of defense, is a significant part of that.
So how can Landry improve going into his eighth season? He turns 30 in October; he's no longer a young player. It's not a question of getting up to speed and adjusting to the professional level. Rather, Landry has to be more in control and disciplined as he looks to be a cornerstone on the Indianapolis defense.
Contrary to the opinion of many, Landry wasn't the worst safety in the league last season, not even close. The problem is expectations were high for Landry, and his salary large, and his play in that context was extremely disappointing.
Across the board, the metrics on Landry don't necessarily paint the picture of one of the worst safeties in the league, but a guy who was slightly below average. Here are a few of his advanced statistics from 2013. All of the rankings were taken from a qualifying group of between 82 and 86 players (except tackle efficiency, which was out of 71), so roughly, the median was between 41 and 43.
|LaRon Landry Advanced Stats 2013|
|Tackle Efficiency (Tackle att./Missed)||7.2||45|
|Run Stop Percentage||5.6||36|
|Passer Rating Allowed||109.7||64|
|Pro Football Focus|
The easiest place to see Landry's struggles were at the point of attack: Tackles. Landry missed 13 tackles in 2013; only 14 safeties missed more tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Most of his missed tackles came against the run game, where he had an abysmal tackle efficiency rate of 5.2 (58th out of 71 starting safeties). In contrast, Antoine Bethea was ninth in the league with a tackle efficiency of 19.3 against the run, and seventh overall at 15.7.
Those tackling problems hit Landry hard in the playoffs, where he missed three tackles. Bethea was the only safety to miss more tackles in the postseason, according to Pro Football Focus, although his efficiency was still notably higher.
One of the biggest problems for Landry was the angles he took to the ball. Landry routinely took sloppy, erratic angles to the ball-carrier, and while his speed could often get him within striking distance, he would end up lunging at the offensive player haphazardly.
Take the Colts' loss to New England, for example. In the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Colts were down just 22-29 when the Patriots got the ball on their own 27-yard line with just over 13 minutes left. On the first play of the drive, LeGarrette Blount took the carry off the right guard for 73 yards and the game-icing touchdown.
Landry is slow to react to the handoff, and then angles directly for the inside of the hole (toward the center of the field) rather than mirroring Blount and being patient. Because he's late to react, Blount has plenty of room to make a slight change of direction to the outside, and Landry is left whiffing.
An attacking linebacker or blitzing safety can take this kind of risk (to minimize gain on the play), but as the last leg of the defense, Landry has to make sure he gets the tackle in this situation. You are willing to give a couple of extra yards in order to prevent exactly what happens. That means being patient and just slightly rounding off his run in order to both minimize the risk of missing the tackle and allowing help to come (in this case, Vontae Davis or another one of the linebackers). Defensive players are taught to focus on and aim for the inside hip. That's what Landry does on this play, but with too little patience.
The opposite is when a player overcommits to a player, aiming for the outside hip instead. This is especially true when tracking a player at an angle, as Landry is in this 63-yard catch-and-run by Dwayne Bowe:
Landry's awareness and anticipation of plays isn't necessarily going to improve at this stage of his career, but his discipline can.
In coverage, we saw similar issues with angles, where Landry anticipated throws but misread the angles or timing, which resulted in him giving up completions. Landry rarely got burned through the air, but he struggles to position himself in space.
Take this play against the Patriots for example. Landry knows where Brady is going, Brady stares down Danny Amendola and Davis has his man locked down on the right side (offense's left), so Landry's fairly sure he knows where the play is going.
But, he just can't quite get himself into the right position. Whether it's the timing or the spacing of the play, Landry just can't quite get it right.
This was the problem throughout the season, as Landry was one of just five qualifying safeties (out of 86) to not record an interception or a pass defense during the regular season. Landry has to be more disciplined in space, recognizing where routes are headed and the angle at which he must take to reach the intersecting point of ball and receiver.
It's unlikely that he can improve on this skill, which is more instinctual than anything else, drastically in his eighth season, which is why it makes more sense to keep Landry near the line of scrimmage. There he can take more risks with direct lines to the ball-carrier as well as be more active with man-to-man coverage on tight ends and backs. Landry has the speed to stay with the more athletic backs and tight ends, as well as the size and strength to hold his own against the bigger, more physical tight ends.
Will the Colts use him in this way? It seems unlikely that he'd be transitioned into a full-time strong safety role considering how much the Colts prefer to use the "interchangeable" safeties. But perhaps a flip of the field would be ideal for Landry, moving him to the left side of the field, where the safety is more likely to be on the strong side of the offense, traditionally.
Without Antoine Bethea in Indianapolis and Delano Howell's comfort level on the right side of the defense (where he replaced Landry last season, with reasonable success), it's definitely a change that's within the realm of possibility, but nothing will happen until Landry gets back on the field.
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.