Observations about the Indianapolis Colts' 2009 defense

Colts.com has a nice article up about new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and how he has an "open door" policy with the players. Essentially, Coyer makes it a point to listen to player input and, when possible, incorporates that input into the defense's game plan.

"You need to listen to your players," Coyer said recently. "We try to have an open-door policy. We can’t incorporate everybody, but we need to listen to our players because they play the game. Coaching genius is great, but if they can’t execute it, it isn’t nothing. It’s playing genius that we need.

"We’re trying to incorporate player input into our game plan."

As the Colts game plan this week for their third pre-season game (against the Detroit Lions), it will be interesting to see what new wrinkles Coyer will throw out there, and if any of those wrinkles are suggestions from players.

As we've blogged about all off-season, the retirement of Tony Dungy has both its negatives and its positives. Gone is a Hall of Fame head coach; maybe the best of his generation. He was a magnificent game manager and, quite possibly, the best football teacher in the game. But Dungy's great gifts as a coach also came with weaknesses. Dungy was oftentimes too loyal to assistants who, quite frankly, stunk at their jobs. With Dungy now doing work that seems to transcend football while, at the same time, remaining involved in it (see Michael Vick), it provided the Colts an opportunity to re-energize the team by cutting loose old, ineffective coaches and bringing in some new voices.

Larry Coyer is one of those new voices, and the players are listening attentively.

"He has his own style and he’s ‘Old School,’" Colts four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I like to sit down there with him because he has so much knowledge and so much experience, so you can kind of pick his brain.

"That’s what I like to do. I like to sit there and talk to him."

Freeney's sentiments have been echoed by other players on defense, such as Antoine Bethea and Gary Brackett. Players like Eric Foster have stated that they have "fallen in love" with Coyer and the kind of defense he is bringing to Indy.

But what have we actually seen with our own eyes that makes this defense "new" or more interesting than the one former coordinator Ron Meeks ran for seven years?

In the first two pre-season games, we've seen more "movement" from the defensive players. If there is one obvious change from the Dungy-Meeks Tampa-2, that is the biggest, movement. The old defense would line up in standard 4-3 look and play, for the most part, Tampa-2 coverage with the LBers and DBs. Now, we are seeing a very different approach. For example:

On a third down play against the Eagles last week, we saw the Colts three linebackers move down from their normal Tampa-2 coverage areas into the gaps along the defensive line. This gave the offense for the Eagles pause. Sure, they'd seen blitzing before. They'd just never seen it from the Colts. With seven players down near the defensive line showing blitz, Eagles' QB Donovan McNabb pointed out the MIKE backer to his offensive linemen and called for the snap. When the ball snapped, the Colts linebackers... immediately dropped back into their normal Tampa-2 zones.

At another point in the game, Colts strong safety Melvin Bullitt (filling in for the injured Bob Sanders), blitzed and recorded a sack. PhilB at the Indy Star breaks down the defensive alignment:

Interesting alignment on Melvin Bullitt's sack. The safety blitz worked, in part, because Session also blitzed on the Eagles' left side as the Colts showed six and brought 'em.

Also, in practices, we're also seeing more stunting from the defensive line, as well as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis used as stand-up pass rushers. Defensive ends, like Raheem Brock, are moving (pre-snap) from end to tackle, using their speed to attack a gap inside and pressure the pocket.

Because of all this movement, it is likely that the corners need to play a bit more-man-to-man coverage than the normal Cover-2. I haven't watched much of the DBs. so, if someone has any observations about this, add them in the comments.

The change in philosophy from Meeks to Coyer is "aggressiveness." It's important to stress that aggressiveness does not mean "tougher." Say what you will about Ron Meeks, but despite a revolving door at the defensive tackle spot for years, he has managed to coach the Colts defense to surrendering only 19 points per game the last three seasons.

I don't care who you are. That's damn impressive. No "soft" defense holds team to 19 a game over three years.

We all remember the years under coaching losers like Vic Fangio and Rusty Tillman, where the Colts defense would surrender an average of 27 points per game. So, while Meeks might not have been the greatest DC in the world, he got the job done. Now, it is up to Coyer to build on that solid foundation. So far, players are responding very well, and maybe, just maybe, we might have a dominant defense in Indy in 2009. We'll see.

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