For seven years, Tony Dungy had a very simple philosophy on defense: Do what you do, and do it very, very well. What Indy did do very well was pressure the opposing offense with the front four defensive linemen, allowing their linebackers and DBs to drop back into Cover 2 or Cover 3 shells. Sacks primarily came from the playmakers, like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Raheem Brock. This defense was ideal at eliminating the big play, creating turnovers, and pressuring the opposing offense, especially when the Colts had the lead. This defense was also very good for young players. The terminology was simple. The formations were simple. A player is assigned a gap, or a zone, and they must be disciplined enough to go or stay there. This allows young players to "play fast." Their focus is on their technique, not what fancy or arcane alignment they are supposed to be in.
Do what you do, and do it well.
Now, as we have all been told ad nausea, Tony Dungy is gone. So is Ron Meeks, his defensive coordinator during his entire tenure in Indy. Replacing them, respectively, is a former defensive back from the University of Iowa and his one-time defensive coordinator.
Not many know this, but new Colts head coach Jim Caldwell's former defensive coordinator in college is current Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. This is not the first time a Colts head coach as employed his former college coordinator as an assistant in Indy. Tony Dungy was a QB at the University of Minnesota, and his offensive coordinator at the time was Tom Moore. Also worth noting is that Iowa (Caldwell's school) and Minnesota (Dungy's school) are in the Big Ten (duh!). This means that Dungy played against Caldwell in the 1970s, and back then Minnesota OC Tom Moore matched wits against Iowa DC Larry Coyer.
30-plus years later, Tom Moore and Larry Coyer are matching wits again, but this time it is on the practice field. And what Tom Moore's offense is having to contend with in practice is much, much different than the defenses Ron Meeks trotted out on the Rose Hulman fields.
How different? Check after the jump...
So, what do you think of Dwight Freeney as a stand-up pass rusher? How about a five defensive linemen front? How about, as the offense is setting, we see Dwight and Robert suddenly flip ends? What about seeing Ed Johnson at undertackle? How about a linebacker blitz while Bob Sanders drops into the same zone that linebacker normally patrols?
These are some of the new wrinkles, or "tweaks," Larry Coyer is employing with this Colts defense.
New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has spent the past five months devising ways to free up players like Freeney and Mathis to become more effective—without sacrificing the system or the core principles that led the Colts to a Super Bowl title after the 2006 season.
"It’s just little tweaks here and there," safety Antoine Bethea said. "But this new defense is something out of the ordinary from what you’re used to seeing from the Colts. It’s going to be exciting."
If you happened to take part in Eric Hartz's live chat last night at Colt Power (I did because, well, it's training camp and I'm a FOOTBALL JUNKIE right now!), you got some damn fine information on how Coyer is deploying his players in new formations in order to maximize their ability to attack an offense.
- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are being used as stand-up pass-rushers in certain formations.
- There was a package with five linemen across- Robert Mathis, Daniel Muir, Eric Foster, Raheem Brock, Dwight Freeney. Freeney was a stand-up rusher similar to an outside linebacker in a 3-4.
- Defensive backs are switching up coverages, going from Cover-2 to Cover-3 to man.
- Linebackers like Philip Wheeler and Clint Session are blitzing.
- Antoine Bethea, the free safety, is lining up closer to the line of scrimmage.
These kinds of changes are being put in place in order to create confusion on the part of the opponent's offense. Now, in the past, confusion was never part of the Colts' defensive gameplan. They did their thing, and did it well: Sacked the QB. This forced offenses to keep extra people in, which limited the number of receivers that could go out in routes. This, above all else, is why the Colts pass defense has been the most dominant pass defense the last five years. When you dictate to the offense what they can do before the game is even played, you've won a significant part of the battle.
Offenses countered this basic, simple attack by running the ball more and throwing short, check down-style passes to tight ends and backs. This is why opponents have such a high completion percentage on the Colts (68%) but such a low QB rating (78, only 6 TDs allowed). This counter was the offenses way of playing "keep away" with the Colts. Between the 20s, this attack worked. Teams could move the ball. Inside the 20s, it often stalled. The Colts, despite a terrible run defense last year, only allowed 18 ppg, which was 7th best in the league. However, this "keep away" counter-attack limited the number of opportunities for Peyton Manning and the offense to score points.
The Colts offense had the best red zone scoring percentage in football last year, and they were the best at converting on third down. Conversely, the Colts defense was terrible at stopping teams on third down. This allowed bad clubs, like the Cleveland Browns, to grind and grind and grind the ball without really scoring. Coyer's philosophy heading into 2009 is the defense must attack the opponent and get them off the field on third down, thus allowing Peyton Manning and the offense more opportunities to score.
"In the past, a lot of teams liked to double-team us," defensive end Raheem Brock said. "We’re known for getting to the quarterback, so offenses would try to leave everybody in to block them. Now everybody’s moving around and having fun. It confuses the offense and gives us a chance to make plays."
It's important to note that tweaks, like Coyer's, were not uncommon during Tony Dungy's tenure as coach. Recall last year's final game against the Jacksonville Jaguars: Dungy deployed DT Raheem Brock as a stand-up rusher coming from the interior of the defensive line. Brock would start outside and, prior to the snap of the ball, he'd swing inside. This way, when the ball was snapped, he already had a running start, and was pushing through the interior of the Jags' offensive line. The "tweak" worked. Brock was in David Garrard's face all night.
Dungy also deployed the famous (well, famous for us) Bob Sanders Beatdown Defense, which was a Cover-2 look that shifted to Cover-3 at the snap of the ball.
So, tweaks of Coyer's nature may seem like OMG! We're becoming the Steelers! style changes to us on the surface, the reality is we've seen tweaks like this before. In Coyer's case, he seems to be doing more of them at one time with the emphasis on freeing up Freeney, Mathis, and others from double teams.
Clearly, Coyer is working with a strong foundation.
Freeney and Mathis went to the Pro Bowl last year and are among the most feared pass-rushing duos in the league.
Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders was the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year and Bethea joined Sanders at the 2007 Pro Bowl. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden recently signed a five-year, $43 million contract in February, and linebacker Gary Brackett, the captain, is entering his fifth season as the defensive signal-caller.
So he isn’t doing anything drastic, like moving Freeney to linebacker or turning the Colts into Blitzburgh.
But he has been constructing a different plan.
When all is said and done, the true test of this defense will be how it performs against the best in the NFL. We've seen it rise to the occasion against teams like the Patriots and Steelers, and we've seen it break and give way like it did last year in the playoffs against the Chargers. Coyer's task is to get the opponent off the field, limit the big play, and create turnovers in order to maximize the Colts offense's ability to score points. So far, players are enjoying the "tweaks" at camp as they seem to be keeping people on their toes:
"Its not too much of a change," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said, "but a little tweak here and there."
"Before, you could probably leave a meeting, go to your room, lay down and go to sleep," he explained. "But now you have to get that extra 30 minutes or hour to get in your playbook. Or get up early if you need to and get with a coach to iron out all the things that are unclear to you. Overall it’s going to make you more aware of all the things you need to do out there."
Sometimes, change is good. Sometimes, "doing what you do" needs to be shaken up a bit, because while it is vital that all players be very good at their fundamentals, doing the same thing every. single. day. can make things stale. As the first pre-season game approaches, we will continue to keep a close eye on what Larry Coyer is deploying with this "tweaked" Colts defense.