I can prove that Chris Ballard knows who will coach the 2018 Indianapolis Colts. In order to do that I need to explain that the next coach will implement a 4-3 base defensive alignment and run mostly zone coverage, I believe a majority of cover 3. What follows is proof of what is to come.
(UPDATE) I was made aware that I made a mistake regarding the Pierre Desir signing, as a result I have updated the article with accurate information that I intended to include and forgot to put in the article initially, the Desir information has been removed as it was false, though I 100% believed it to be accurate. That point aside, the conclusions I have drawn I feel are completely valid.
Before I get started I just want to get it out of the way, no there isn’t that big of a difference between the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive fronts in the modern NFL. Seriously, there just isn’t. The charge against Ballard is that he would like to run the same 4-3 under and zone coverage base set that teams like the Seattle Seahawks have used with success, and I plan on proving it.
Just keep in mind that the type of players who will compose the defensive line aren’t going to be vastly different from the guys who would line up in any 3-4 base set. Pass rushers aren’t going to be selected based on their ability to “only” rush with their hand in the dirt or “only” rush standing up. Either is fine.
The front 4/5 players aren’t something I really care about for the sake of this case. I don’t have any “insider” information. I don’t know anything about this situation other than the evidence I am about to present to you.
If you’re interested in learning more about this style of defense you can click here and read the breakdown I did of the Seahawks defense, leading up to our week 4 matchup. Further, you will find there are a ton of good links that take you to dozens of articles from FieldGulls. If you enjoy learning about football and you have a few hours to kill, go nuts.
So why do I believe Ballard would prefer to run a 4-3 under base set with a lot of Cover 3 in the back-end? To put it simply; almost everything he’s done so far.
- Exhibit 1: Vice President of Player Personnel, Ed Dodds
From his official Bio on Colts.com:
Dodds was part of a staff that was responsible for drafting franchise players in center Max Unger, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, cornerback Richard Sherman, quarterback Russell Wilson and linebackers Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner.
My case for Ed Dodds is a simple one. He spent the past 10 years in Seattle, 3 years before Pete Carroll arrived. At the time, Mike Holmgren was running the show and employed a 4-3 defense all his own. It is my understanding that Holmgren ran more cover 2 (and some Tampa 2 as well) but his base set featured both 4-3 under and over looks.
Dodds also survived the one year of Jim Mora Jr. who didn’t see fit to change the base defense and since the internet seems to have tried to forget Mora Jr’s lone season in Seattle, I’m not sure the coverage looks he preferred but I would venture it wasn’t much different from what the old Walrus liked to run.
In came Pete Carroll. Dodds moved up the chain during the Carroll era helping build a roster through the draft that fit Carroll’s hybrid 4-3 under, press cover 3 defense. He, in coordination with the Seahawks front office, found players that fit this scheme almost perfectly. One of the more impressive NFL team building efforts of the 2010’s.
- Exhibit 2: Vice President of Player Personnel, Rex Hogan
From his official Bio on colts.com:
Rex Hogan joins the Colts in his first season as vice president of player personnel. Hogan has 14 years of NFL experience and most recently served as the senior director of college scouting with the New York Jets for the last two years (2015-16). Prior to New York, he spent 12 years with the Chicago Bears. Hogan served as a national scout in his final three seasons with the Bears.
With the Bears, Hogan assisted in the draft selections of running back Matt Forte, cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, tackle Kyle Long and tight end Greg Olsen.
Why is this important?
During Hogan’s 12 years in Chicago, the most successful 12 years of his NFL personnel career, the Chicago Bears ran a 4-3 base front almost exclusively while relying on zone coverage on the back end more often than not.
- Exhibit 3: 2nd Round Pick Quincy Wilson
I know what you’re probably telling yourself; Wilson was the best player available when we selected him, this isn’t proof of anything. You would be right, mostly. It stands to reason that Wilson was the best player available on Chris Ballard’s draft board, but why? What traits did Ballard see in Quincy Wilson that made the new GM take the young corner with his second ever draft pick? Let’s look at an NFL.com scouting report:
...Is comfortable and capable in press man, using his size to disrupt receivers’ releases off the line, but doesn’t show enough make up speed to consistently recover when beaten... Tough against the run but still developing from a technical standpoint.
...possesses rare height for a corner with enough bulk and speed. Effective when lined up at the line in press man coverage. Uses length well and established sound initial positioning. Flashes the ability to turn and run. Flashes the ability to high-point the football. Willing to help out in run support.
...Tall, high-cut prospect who displays some hip-stiffness. Not explosive when transitioning or when changing direction. Lacks great recovery skills when beaten off the line.
Sounds like Quincy Wilson, right?
You would be wrong. This is the NFL.com scouting report for Richard Sherman when he came out of Stanford. That may have been a dirty trick but let’s look at the actual scouting report for Quincy Wilson from nfl.com:
Prototypical size for cornerback or safety spot. Big and physical... Uses play strength to overcome some athletic and speed deficiencies. Can maul receivers off line of scrimmage and eliminate them from a route if they don’t get clean release against his press... Good feel for when to step downhill as tackler. Plays off perimeter blocks quickly. Willing to stick his nose in as a tackler.
Hips and feet can be exceedingly sticky in his transitions. Will fight his feet a little in his backpedal and shuffle. Footwork average in space. When feet fail him, he opts to use his hands. Could see spike in illegal contact and holding penalties if asked to play corner early in career. Reliant upon strength and grit in man coverage over speed and athleticism. Plays too tall which hinders click-and-close burst. Allows too much separation against complex routes. Below average reactive athleticism for the position and will struggle to carry long speed.
His size and physicality combined with issues in staying glued to quick receivers could lead him to the safety spot where his instincts, ball skills and willingness to tackle will all serve him well.
If you didn’t know better and I told you that was the scouting report for Richard Sherman, you would probably believe me. From a physical trait standpoint, they’re very similar guys, Sherman is 2 inches taller and 15 pounds lighter. Wilson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.54, Sherman ran it in 4.56. Both were mentioned as limited athletes with noticeable hip stiffness. Both were talked about as bigger, physical corners who played high.
The best press man corner in recent Colts memory is Vontae Davis. I submit to you that the Colts will move forward and look away from these kinds of players. For support, I submit his scouting report to compare and contrast with Wilson:
Positives: Rare combination of size and pure athleticism. Chiseled frame. Excellent straight-line speed. Loose hips to turn and run. Instinctive defender who recognizes the action when playing off-man or zone and closes downhill. Rare aggression in run support... Times his blitzes well and can close when the opportunity presents itself. May boast unmatched upside at this position.
Negatives: Not a natural playmaker. Inconsistent hands for the interception. Doesn’t fight through blocks with the physicality in which he comes up to tackle. Best in off-man and zone coverage where he can watch the action, plant and drive to the ball. Faster in shorts than on the field. Peeks back at the quarterback and savvy route-runners can beat him with double moves...
It doesn’t take an NFL general manager to see the difference in these three scouting reports.
Davis: pure athleticism, straight-line speed, Loose hips, can close when the opportunity presents itself, Doesn’t fight through blocks.
Sherman: doesn’t show enough makeup speed, Tough against the run, rare height for a corner with enough bulk, some hip-stiffness, Not explosive, Lacks great recovery skills, ability to high-point the football.
Wilson: Prototypical size for a cornerback, Big and physical, Plays off perimeter blocks quickly, athletic and speed deficiencies, instincts, ball skills and willingness to tackle, Reliant upon strength and grit in man coverage over speed and athleticism.
One of those descriptions is not like the other.
While true the listed scouting reports did not end up being 100% accurate for the entirety of Davis and Sherman’s careers, I feel that they are a good (and accurate) look into the types of athlete each player is/was.
- Exhibit 4: 1st Round Pick Malik Hooker
Malik Hooker should not have been available to draft at number 15 overall. He was the best player on the board so it is easy to dismiss his selection as simply taking the best player available. While that is true, 14 other teams passed on the safety for one reason or another. Other than “BPA,” what made Chris Ballard pull the trigger?
I’m not going trick you with the ole’ switcheroo like I did when I talked about Quincy Wilson and Richard Sherman. Instead, I’ll just give you this excerpt of an NFL.com scouting report:
...He is an excellent athlete who has good hips and quickness for the safety position. He is competitive athlete who will fill the alley, but scouts question his effectiveness at the next level in that role... He is an instinctive player who anticipates break points well to make plays in the passing game... He has excellent ball skills and has big-play potential when he makes the interception.
...a ball-hawking safety with very good straight-line speed. Elite athlete with fluid hips who follows the quarterback’s eyes and consistently jumps routes. Has the elusiveness to make people miss in space and can take an interception back to the house...
...may not have the strength to make plays inside the box at the next level...
Okay, I lied again, I gave you the ole’ switcheroo. This time I did it with Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Had I not told you, it would have been easy to believe I was talking about Malik Hooker. Let’s take a look at the real scouting report from NFL.com for Hooker:
Outstanding instincts help him work ahead of the play... Always probing quarterback’s eyes for clues... Quick to process and is decisive in action. Flows hard to where his instincts lead him. Has fluid movement... Has loose hips for sudden stop-start to cover in space. Great ball skills.
His instincts are always bringing him to the football and when he gets there he has the ball skills to take it away. His lack of game experience and issues with tackle consistency will likely show themselves early in his career, but his ability to flip the field is worthy of an aggressive projection.
One thing I will say about the two guys is that Thomas was considered a good tackler and Hooker was not. Given the role that Thomas plays in Seattle’s defense of a single deep safety, it’s always important to have the ability to tackle but that’s not why he’s on the field. Earl Thomas has earned his money with his instincts and ability to read a quarterback’s eyes and then using his excellent ball skills and big-play potential.
Strangely enough, Malik Hooker will look to probe the quarterback’s eyes using his outstanding instincts and fluid movement and loose hips to make use of his great ball skills.
Other than their perceived ability to tackle, Hooker is 3 inches taller than Thomas. Malik Hooker has the ability to play as a single high safety in the same kind of 4-3 under, cover 3 heavy defense that Earl Thomas has succeeded in.
- Exhibit 5: Signing Defensive Tackle Johnathan Hankins over Dontari Poe
Johnathan Hankins has been huge for the Indianapolis Colts and Chris Ballard knew he would be. That’s why Ballard made Hankins his biggest (literally and monetarily) free agent acquisition to date. Why Hank?
Chris Ballard spent time in Kansas City around Dontari Poe and hosted the massive 25 year old on a free agent visit. In the end Poe left Indianapolis without a deal and eventually signed with the Atlanta Falcons on a one year contract for $8 million, with incentives the deal could have been worth as much as $10 million.
Poe was poised to have a big season, especially being willing to take a one year contract and by all accounts he delivered this year for the Falcons. So why not a guy who signed for less money, you have personal experience with and if healthy has the ability to be the best in the league at what he does?
Could it be that Poe was dealing with a back injury that has limited him in recent seasons? He was healthy enough to pass Atlanta’s physical and start all 16 games this season. Oh and he started all 16 games in 2016, 13 games in 2015, 16 in 2014, 15 in 2013 and 16 in 2012.
The media made his injury history a big deal but I’m not sure missing 4 starts in 5 years classifies as reason to pass on a guy. Could it be that Poe only wanted a 1 year deal? Possibly but Ballard wasn’t shy about signing some players to one year deals, so that doesn’t seem to fit. It wasn’t the money, like I said, Poe signed for less than Hankins.
So what could it be?
Dontari Poe was drafted by the Kansas City Cheifs as an extremely athletic 0-tech, also known as a nose tackle, most commonly found in a 3-4 alignment. Poe has the athletic ability to slide around the line and fill different roles and very well could succeed in a 4-3. But he never has.
What about Hankins? He was drafted by the Giants in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft and immediately inserted into their base 4-3 front. He then spent 4 professional seasons playing both the 1-tech and 3-tech defensive tackle positions in that 4-3 alignment. He didn’t have much professional experience in a base 3-4 set before he signed with the Colts.
Yet Chris Ballard saw fit to hand Johnathan Hankins a contract worth roughtly $10 million per year to come in and play in a defense with a role he had never played, over signing Dontari Poe to a less expensive deal, a guy he knew could do the job and had extensive history doing so.
If performance levels are similar (they are) why pay someone with less experience, more when you could pay someone with more experience, less? The only reason you do that is if you’re going to be “moving in a new direction” and the person you’re paying more has valuable experience for once you have moved in that new direction.
- Exhibit 6: Interviewing Steve Wilks and Kris Richard
Many have speculated that Steve Wilks and Kris Richard have received requests to interview with the Colts to fulfill the Rooney Rule requirement. While that’s likely true to some extent, Chris Ballard must interview at least one minority candidate to prevent the team from being fined, it really amounts to pocket change for an NFL franchise.
If that were the case here, why bring in both guys for interviews?
You don’t. Further, why bring in 2 guys who are defensive coordinators for teams famous for zone coverage? We know about the Seahawks using only cover 3 and man to man and Richard is currently serving as their DC, while Wilks is the current DC in Carolina for the Panthers.
Something interesting to note under Wilks: the Carolina Panthers were in zone coverage on almost 80% of defensive snaps according to PFF, which was good for 3rd most in the league.
Ballard talked about having a list of available candidates at all times as you never know what will happen with a coach from year to year. This seems like the perfect opportunity to expand his book of coaches during this process and it seems that he’s most interested in people with specific scheme preferences.
“What about Vrabel and McDaniels both coming from 3-4 systems?”
Remember that list I mentioned? This might be the last chance Chris Ballard has to interview them before they are head coaches. Like he said down the road, you never know what will happen. This year, however, with this team of front office personnel, it’s obvious what direction Ballard is going.
- Exhibit 7: Chris Ballard
Chris Ballard spent 12 years in Chicago while they employed a 4-3 base alignment and a zone-heavy coverage scheme. In his time with the Bears he brought in a ton of talent and was responsible for several defensive pieces, from his official Colts.com bio:
With the Bears, Ballard helped draft numerous Pro Bowl players, including running back Matt Forte (2008), wide receiver Johnny Knox (2009), cornerback Charles Tillman (2003), defensive tackle Tommie Harris (2004), cornerback Nathan Vasher (2004) and defensive tackle Henry Melton (2009). He also assisted in many notable acquisitions and trades, including the signings of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, guard Jermon Bushrod, tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker D.J. Williams and linebacker James Anderson.
Ballard spent seven years on Ron Harms coaching staff in the 1990’s. Harms is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach. Harms used a mostly 4-3 alignment.
Ballard played quarterback at Wisconsin under famed coach Barry Alvarez. Alvarez and the Badgers used a 4-3 base front. Though he was on the offensive side of the ball Chris Ballard would have been familiar with the principals and concepts.
So now that we’ve talked a little about his past, let’s look at his signings as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts. We talked about Johnathan Hankins above as there was another option available that would seem better suited to play in our defense at that time. Instead, I am going to focus on 4 other signings, specifically.
- Al Woods- Al Woods is best suited to play as a 0 tech (NT) in a base 3-4 alignment. He could be used as a 1-tech in a 4-3 set as a part of a rotation, either way, he’s likely a 2 down player. He was signed to a 2 year, $3,875,000 deal. Woods was drafted by Tampa Bay (a decidedly 4-3 team) and spent a year in Seattle (2011, 4-3). Suffice to say he knows how to manage both 1 and 2 gap assignments.
- Margus Hunt- Hunt was brought in on a 2-year deal worth $4 million and change. He has experience as a 4-3 defensive end but has seemingly played well as a 5 tech in our 3-4 base set. Hunt can do either job but is limited in a 4-3.
- Jabaal Sheard- Sheard inked a 3 year $25.5 million deal. Sheard started his career in Cleveland where he was a 4-3 defensive end who racked up 8.5 sacks as a 22-year-old rookie. For his career, he has 28.5 sacks when listed as a DE and 13 when listed as an OLB. He has experience in both kinds of systems.
- John Simon- Simon was signed to a 3 year $13.5 million deal. He was drafted in the 4th round in 2013 after playing as a 4-3 defensive end at Ohio State. He has spent most of his career listed as an OLB.
Once again, I want to note that 2 point stance or 3 point stance, there’s just not that much difference when rushing the passer. There is some difference in gap responsibility but that isn’t as pronounced of a difference as it used to be. 4-3 and 3-4 teams are using more of the same principals than ever before.
With that said, there were 5 defensive free agents that Chris Ballard signed to multi-year deals and they all have scheme flexibility between 4-3 and 3-4 gap and alignment responsibilities.
- Closing Arguments
I present to you the facts that I believe will tie everything together and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Chris Ballard will absolutely look to change the Colts base defensive scheme in a big way moving forward.
Taken separately all of the above pieces of evidence prove little. After all, if you spend enough time in football as a player or coach you will encounter multiple systems and approaches to the game. With that said, when gathered together, the above evidence paints a very clear picture: Chris Ballard will institute a 4-3 zone-heavy defensive scheme.
- Ed Dodds comes from a 4-3 cover 3 scheme, he has the most experience scouting players for this scheme and seems to have been instrumental in bringing in a lot of former Seahawks as of late.
- Rex Hogan comes from a 4-3 cover 2 scheme, he has the most experience scouting players for a 4-3 front and zone coverage.
- Quincy Wilson compares well as a prospect to Richard Sherman. Perfect for a physical cover 3 defense.
- Malik Hooker is a younger, bigger version of Earl Thomas. Perfect for a single high safety role in a physical cover 3 defense.
- Johnathan Hankins signed the largest free agent deal of Chris Ballard’s time as general manager of the Colts despite having little no experience in a base 3-4 defense. Meanwhile he passed over a player with a similar talent level who ultimately signed for less money elsewhere with a lot of professional experience in a base 3-4 defense.
- Steve Wilks and Kris Richard have both received interview requests and both guys come from base 4-3 zone heavy teams. Both are considered candidates to become the next coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
- Chris Ballard’s personal background as a player and coach all come with 4-3 experience. He spent the bulk of his career scouting for a 4-3 zone coverage team and his biggest free agent signings all have scheme flexibility and history in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts.
Taken together all of these points make it clear; Chris Ballard will be moving the Indianapolis Colts away from a 3-4 hybrid base and towards a 4-3 under base. Though in 2018 those differences aren’t huge, the changes to our secondary will be. Our Colts were in man to man coverage more than 22 other NFL teams, meaning we were in the top 10 for most downs showing zone coverage. Next year, it would seem, we should expect to see a lot of single high cover 3.
I want to leave you with one final point.
Chris Ballard signed Brad Kaaya 4 days before Chuck Pagano was fired. Chris Ballard knew Chuck Pagano was going to be fired. Chris Ballard, if we are to believe him, shouldn’t have known who the next head coach of the Indianapolis Colts will be, what schemes they will bring in or what traits they will look for from players at specific positions.
So when Brad Kaaya said this:
“From what my agent told me from (his conversations) with Chris Ballard and Rex, they were saying some pretty good things and it was an opportunity for me to continue my development,” Kaaya said, “and, if I hold up my end of the bargain, do my best to make the team.”
How did Chris Ballard and Rex Hogan know they could give Kaaya an opportunity to continue to develop?
They didn’t tell him they were going to put him on their practice squad, he was already on one and both teams ended up firing their head coach, neither opportunity should be more stable than the other.
If they told Kaaya he had a real chance to be on the Colts 2018 53-man roster, they couldn’t realistically make that kind of promise. Again, it would have been impossible four days before Chuck was fired to know what traits to scout for because Chris Ballard has no idea who his head coach would be and what offensive and defensive schemes he would bring in.
Unless he’s known who he would hire and the scheme they would run all along. Which would be fitting for a man who has meticulously planned for this very moment for more than a decade.
Chris Ballard has known since the day he was hired who his head coach would be and what schemes would be run in 2018.
It’s already been decided.