The Indianapolis Colts are sitting at 7-6 right now and are in the middle of a tight playoff race for the 6th seed in the AFC. Led by quarterback Andrew Luck playing at an MVP level, the Colts’ offense has carried the team most of the season as the young defense learned a new system under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. As the season has progressed though, the young defense led by DROY front runner Darius Leonard has essentially turned the corner and is now the 9th ranked defense in the NFL in terms of DVOA.
To add some stats for context, the Colts’ defense has 14 sacks in their last four games played and is top ten in sacks for the season in the NFL. Over the past four weeks, the defense has given up only 15 points per game along with only giving up 275 total yards per game. The Colts are also a top five rush defense in all of football this year in terms of yards per rush.
So what has contributed to this defensive outburst the last four weeks or so by the Colts? Well let’s look at some film and find out.
1.) Blitzing the Quarterback
The Colts’ defense was shredded earlier in the season by offenses because they couldn’t get home with four man rushes. Quarterbacks would sit in the pocket and wait and wait until an open outlet emerged downfield. As a result, the defense was gashed by mediocre quarterbacks such as Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, and Blake Bortles— mediocre may be a stretch for Bortles. The frustration only grew when the Colts registered no sacks against the Raiders and Jaguars (first meeting).
After that first Jaguars game though, Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus decided to get aggressive and creative with his blitz calls. The Colts have registered 14 sacks over the last four games with players such as Kenny Moore II and Darius Leonard contributing on the sack sheet. The main area where this has really taken effect is on third downs. Instead of just sitting back on third downs, Eberflus has elected to send a lot of pressure in recent weeks. The early returns on this change in decision making have been great.
The first clip here shows exactly how creative Eberflus has been with his blitzes. He brings a total of nine (!!!!) guys into the box here to confuse quarterback Marcus Mariota. He does decide to drop back two of those players into coverage but still brings seven guys on the play. On top of bringing a safety— Mike Mitchell— and a corner— Kenny Moore II— on this blitz, Eberflus also stunts Jabaal Sheard inside to get a favorable match-up against the center. The resulting play is Moore and Sheard combining for the half sack.
Here Eberflus again shows a heavy box with six players lined up over the Dolphins’ front. He drops back both Anthony Walker and Clayton Geathers at the snap of the ball but brings both Leonard and Moore off the edge. As a result, Leonard is left with an easy match-up with the running back on the right side of the screen. Leonard is able to beat the back just as quarterback Ryan Tannehill tries to escape the pocket and he ends up with yet another sack on the season. Bringing both Leonard and Moore on blitzes has been a staple of Eberflus’ in recent weeks.
Last clip here is a perfectly drawn up blitz that DeShaun Watson fails to recognize at all. Eberflus puts so much motion into this blitz that it is no wonder that Moore was able to have a free rush at the quarterback. The first movement has Sheard racing across the line on a big stunt, forcing the offensive tackle to look inside. Then, Geathers races inside and forces the running back to step up and block him on the play. These two motions essentially set up that Moore won’t be seen by any blocker on the play, giving him a free rush. Perfectly schemed up blitz by Eberflus.
2.) Dominating the Trenches
The defensive line has been a bit of a worry for the Colts this season. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt both stood out early in the season but injuries to both players slowed up their promising starts. Promising young players Jihad Ward and Hassan Ridgeway both have also been slowed by injuries and Ward was placed on IR earlier in the year. Al Woods and Grover Stewart have both been underwhelming. Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis have also both dealt with injuries and some rookie inconsistencies.
The last couple weeks however, have been much different. Autry and Hunt have both returned to their dominant early year form as Autry has notched five sacks in his last two games. Sheard has solidified the left side of the line as a strong rotation of Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, and Al-Quadin Muhamad have held down the right side. This healthy group of guys have really played dominant football in recent weeks.
Our first clip here is a big third down play late in the game against the Jaguars. The Colts are down 3-0 at this point and the defense needs a stop here to keep the game a one score game for the offense. The defensive line— led by Autry, Hunt, and Sheard— gets immediate penetration and blows up the play in the backfield for the big loss. This was a huge stop right here and the defensive line absolutely dominated the Jaguars’ offensive line.
When the Colts have needed a play the last few weeks, the defensive line has delivered. In the fourth quarter down by a score against the Dolphins, Hunt makes this huge stop to give the ball back to the offense. Hunt has seemingly returned to his early season dominance as he has looked much healthier the last couple weeks. His quickness and strength are on full display here and he changes the momentum of the game with one big tackle. Lewis also does a nice job of getting past the tight end and getting into great position to make a play.
I could have picked any number of plays from the Colts’ win this past Sunday to conclude this section but I chose to highlight the star of the last couple games. Autry has been on a tear in recent weeks and he didn’t slow down at all against the Texans, winning Defensive Player of the Week Honors for the AFC. Here he is way too quick for the Texans offensive line as he gets the sack. The Colts’ defensive line in general though has been simply outstanding the last couple games.
3.) Role Players Settling in
The Colts’ defense has been a bit of a revolving door this year at multiple positions. At third cornerback, the Colts have rolled out guys like Chris Milton, Lenzy Pipkins, and Nate Hairston. At SAM linebacker, they’ve tried Najee Goode, Skai Moore, and Zaire Franklin at times this year. At defensive end, there was an early year rotation of Carroll Phillips and even Tarrell Basham early in the year. All of these guys however, did not pan out at those spots and it led to inconsistent play on the defense for weeks.
In recent weeks however, the defense has settled into certain guys filling those roles and they have been playing extremely well. Quincy Wilson has settled into the third corner spot and has looked much more disciplined and confident lately. Al-Quadin Muhammad is one of the more underrated players on this roster and his run defense has definitely improved in recent games. Rookie 7th round linebacker Matthew Adams has settled in nicely at SAM backer in recent weeks and his playing time has increased each week.
Once heralded as a major bust on Chris Ballard’s draft resume, Wilson is turning doubters into believers with his play in recent weeks. He looks much more comfortable in a zone defense and is actively looking to make plays on passes. He is playing much more physical as well and is much more active in run defense. With Wilson sliding into that third corner spot, the rotation of him, Pierre Desir, and Moore have built up a lot of chemistry the last couple of games. Here, Wilson (bottom of the screen) makes an excellent read in zone to intercept Marcus Mariota.
Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad may not be a player who is talked about often, but he is making a name for himself this season. With Sheard, Turay, and Lewis being the big names in the defensive end rotation, the Colts needed one more guy to step up and be a big piece in the rotation. Muhammad has filled in nicely as a base run defender and he has actually offered some decent traits as a pass rusher as well. His run defense though in recent weeks has really caught my eye. Here he slides through the Texans’ defensive line and makes a big tackle for a loss. The solidified rotation at the defensive end spot has led to better play from all four guys in recent weeks.
Last but certainly not least is Matthew Adams. After not earning any defensive snaps in his first five games of the year, Adams has worked his way into being a key player on defense. He has logged over 40% of defensive snaps played in back to back weeks and brings a new level of intensity and physicality to every snap. With him really filling that SAM backer spot, the linebacker core appears to be filled for the near future with three guys all under 24 years old. He makes the game easier for Leonard and Walker when he is on the field and he also makes some plays on his own. Here are two of my favorite highlights from him on the year.
The most important thing though for any defense is confidence. Early in the year, the team obviously struggled with confidence with guys filtering in and out of the lineup and injury issues. For a young team learning a new system, the players did seem lost at times early in the year as well.
That all changed though these last few games. With Eberflus letting these young players get after the quarterback more, they are playing much more relaxed and confident. With the defensive line getting healthy and stronger, they are playing with enough confidence to go out and dominate the opposition’s offensive line. With role players being solidified in spots that helps themselves and their teammates succeed, the whole defense is playing with more chemistry and confidence. All of these factors above are making a young, aggressive defense more confident. Look at the clips above if you want film of that confidence.
Overall, its easy to fall in love with how this defense has played of late. Season long contributors such as Leonard, Walker, and Moore have continued their strong play. The real difference though is now the entire defense is stepping up and playing with more aggression and confidence. As a result, instead of just Luck carrying this team to the playoffs, the defense is holding up their end of the bargain.
A lot of credit needs to go to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus for this turnaround as he has really been putting players in positions to be most successful in recent weeks. With his newly found aggressive play-calling, these defenders are obviously getting after it more as well.
The defense may not be perfect and still has it’s fair share of struggles— please learn how to defend screens better— but it has drastically improved the last few weeks. They are playing much more aggressive and confident and the defensive line is absolutely dominating the trenches each week. They will have to keep up this strong play the next two games however as Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley roll into town. I personally like the defense’s chances though.