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Colts Defensive Changes Bring New Responsibilities, Expected Roster Turnover

Many changes come along with the Colts switch to a 4-3 base defense. Personnel, positional flexibility and an overall understanding will be key during the transition.

Arizona Cardinals v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As the Indianapolis Colts prepare to welcome in a new head coach, one of the few pieces to the staff that is already set is the defensive approach. Matt Eberflus was hired when Josh McDaniels was expected to become the new coach, but will nevertheless remain in that role and will implement a new defensive scheme.

Chris Ballard stated in his last press conference that the Colts were in fact going to be using a 4-3 base scheme and that the roster was better suited for that change going forward. Eberflus and Ballard, with that being the case, have a lot of work to do with the current roster and will rely on those players who make up that side of the ball to largely take on all new responsibilities.

We’ll be able to break down the finer points of the new scheme as we move along in the process, but today we’re going to look more at what the expectations to be for the players already on the roster, who will become part of it, who may be shipped out as well as where the Colts need the most attention in the offseason.

We’ll also have some visuals as to better familiarize ourselves with the scheme changes in order for us all to understand the weak points of the scheme within itself and how each player may find a role if they are to be part of the carryover.

Let’s dig in.

Young Secondary Will Have A Lot Asked of Them

The Colts have a pretty nice start with their secondary as the scheme takes on significant changes. Quincy Wilson, Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers and Nate Hairston are the foundation for the new look and will be asked to do a lot if the change is to be a successful one.

In the first clip you can see that the strong safety — Geathers’ role — will be tasked with covering the running back into the flat, as the free safety — Hooker’s role — is the center fielder. The cornerbacks, who will be at least Wilson and possibly either a free agent pick up or a draft pick, are going to be on an island the large majority of the time.

In this look, and many others like it, the corners are asked to take away the boundary as an option for the receiver and to push them towards the middle of the field where there is some help. The Colts corners will need to be able to handle receivers on their own as well, which will require excellent coverage, and ball skills much like they needed with their press-man responsibilities in the 3-4 base.

In the slot — most likely Hairston — the corner will be asked to cover flat zones as well a healthy dose of man responsibilities. In the second clip we can also see how important it will be for the nickel role to be able to come off of coverage and be a legit run defender when the defensive line gets too far upfield in attempt to either get after the passer or disrupt the running back in the backfield.

Colts Linebackers Will Have Multiple New Duties

Unlike the secondary, as it currently stands, the Colts don’t really have much to use as the scheme alters into a heavy zone coverage look from the linebackers. The Colts have been awful in coverage in recent years from this position and that simply won’t do going forward.

Here we see a clear Cover-3 look from the secondary, with man-coverage responsibilities from the linebackers. We’ll talk about what this means for the front-4 a bit later, but with Anthony Walker, Antonio Morrison, Jeremiah George as the primary inside options at linebacker right now on the roster that’s somewhat of a scary situation. The need for an excellent coverage backer this offseason cannot be understated.

George showed that he has the ability to cover at times last season, but Morrison doesn’t appear to be a viable option and Walker will need to improve a lot in that respect as well. We also see how with a healthy dose of Cover-3, how important the linebackers will be against the play-action game.

They have a tough task with their help over the top having deep-third responsibilities. Being able to react to the run, but also to get deep enough in their coverage areas to close the windows of opportunity for the quarterback and receivers to connect downfield.

The Defense Will Need to Work More in Unison, Communicate Very Well

Throughout any coverage breakdowns, or the allowance of a route to open up underneath, the Colts front-4 will be relied upon to create pressure all the way across. Though now considered OLBs, Jabaal Sheard and Tarell Basham — and whoever else is acquired this offseason — will be forced to create opportunities for themselves in their new roles.

This dynamic will presumably also have the most semblance of a rotation when finding effective ways to use what they have along the defensive line. Henry Anderson, Hassan Ridgeway, Glover Stewart, Johnathan Hankins and Grover Stewart will have to carve out new roles for themselves in order to see the field in the new base scheme as well as in sub-packages.

When looking at a different approach to the run game, the one thing that seems like a consistency in this base is that the edge is regularly quite vulnerable when the primary edge rushers are on the line of scrimmage. The linebackers are crashing the gaps while the defensive line has the added pressure of keeping containment. This also brings about a difficulty added to the backside linebacker who will be crucial in pursuit, forced to keep runs that do break contain to a minimum while sifting through all of the traffic.

With offensive personnel being a key to what the strong safety will be asked to do, his ability to, both, get downhill quickly as well as taking on, and shedding blockers will be pertinent in a base defense that already has plenty of vulnerability as we saw in the days of Tony Dungy’s Tamp-2 primary looks.

The interior of the defensive line will be a huge part in the defense’s success, or lack thereof as well. Here you see a linebacker creeping to the line of scrimmage there to help against the run, but only 3 linemen tasked with getting into the backfield to get the quarterback off of his base and forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly.

The hopes that the safeties and linebackers in coverage can take the middle of the field away for the quick hitters, along with some interior pressure could force throwaways or create turnovers if a quarterback decides to force a pass into tight zones or double coverage. As I’ve said, there will be plenty more to come in breaking down the specifics of the Colts new scheme, but the possibilities for a very stout defense within the change is quite possible.

On the other hand, there are a lot of room for breakdowns in coverage and creating pressure as well as the simple reality of failing to have the talent and chemistry to make it work as seamlessly as is required for it to be successful.

How the Roster Could Be Impacted

As we look at who could find themselves off of the active roster, in a new role or even cut altogether, there are plenty on the roster who will either need to prove they are necessary. Many will have to prove they can survive with their added responsibilities and possibly even remake their physiques to fill a role that doesn’t fit their current frame.

Where does John Simon fit in the new system? He’s one helluva OLB, but does he have enough versatility to get significant playing time in a 4-3? How about Barkevious Mingo? He would also need to fill out more while maintaining his speed and increase the power aspects of his game to become a more complete edge rusher if he hopes to hang on to anything other than a special teams contributor.

Sheard and Basham ultimately become defensive ends in the new system leaving serious holes at the OLB position. This has to be a major focus of the free agency period as well as the draft.

Several cornerbacks will have a difficult time of remaining on the roster. Chris Milton proved he wasn’t great in any capacity last season in limited time, and D.J. White — who is similarly built — was brought in as Ballard had familiarity with him. White will still have to prove himself worthy, but one would assume his being brought in suggests Ballard sees him having a potential rotational role.

Margus Hunt was far more successful in Indianapolis last season than he’d been in the previous 4-3 scheme that he was used in, but can he fill a role as a DT as opposed to a DE in that scheme to remain with the team and impress like he did last season? Al Woods and Joey Mbu will also need to prove that as primary nose tackles they can work in the gaps to become legitimate pass rushers from the interior and able to disrupt the running game.

Woods was very good last season, but things are different now and that proposes a problem for his viability on what is likely to be a new-look defensive line. We mentioned the linebackers, but does this open the door for Geathers to take on a ‘Will’ role in the new system? How about the chances that Matthias Farley and T.J. Green will find a role under the new scheme.

Farley was quite physical last season and likely earned himself at least an opportunity to see what he can prove, but Green doesn’t look to have enough to make the transition without a significant improvement — and maybe not even then. As we stated, this is going to be another very different look wholistically on the defensive side of the ball.

A lot of changes in personnel, a lot of shifting of responsibilities and a much needed improvement in chemistry and effective play from the front-7 to the secondary if this is going to have any showings of being better than what they ran previously. Right now, until more becomes clear about who, how and where with the new defense, it is reasonable to assume that the transition is going to take some time to see the fruits of change.