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Colts Defensive Line Has Very Clear Role in New Scheme

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Once all of the Indianapolis Colts’ new coaching hires were finalized we began to understand a bit more of what would be expected from the defensive linemen in Matt Eberflus’ system. When the Colts released Johnathan Hankins, things got a bit murky but the stance from Chris Ballard was clear: There would be a distinct change in what the front seven would be asked to do.

While Hankins was the largest change from the carryovers from last year up front, the incoming talent differs greatly from that of the past several seasons. This time of year there aren’t many concrete storylines, real news that can be seen as a development with a starting unit, or being able to identify key pieces in a rotation.

But, quite possibly the most interesting part of that ambiguity is how it’s almost simultaneously the answer we’re now searching for.

The most glaring difference from the expectations between Eberflus’ scheme and that of the old 3-4 base is the responsibilities between the linemen and linebackers, and how they work off of each other. Chuck Pagano’s two-gap system depended upon the linemen to hold up blockers while the linebackers shoot, pursue and cover, while creating pressure fell almost solely form the outside linebackers and the occasional blitz package.

Now, the Colts’ line will be the ones creating the pressure. They will need to do everything they can to beat those linemen off the snap that they would have previously been asked to occupy, which will allow the linebackers to clean up whatever gets passed the initial wave.

These new responsibilities may prove to be an interesting ask for guys like Al Woods, who is virtually the last run-stopper among the group, and will test guys like Hassan Ridgeway and John Simon to make an impact with the influx of athleticism to the group. On the other hand Tarell Basham and Jabaal Sheard should be right at home with the transition, and are currently running the first unit as of Day 4 of OTAs — for whatever that’s worth.

But Frank Reich, Eberflus and a host of players continue to hammer home the importance of “speed and effort” which is the clear focus for this group. It appears to be popular approach, though, especially for those who take immense pride in showing off their explosion.

Eberflus told us exactly what they were looking for: “Well, the defense is built on the athletic, speed players that can affect the pass — we’re built on effort and execution.” Pretty self explanatory I would say. Over the past few weeks — in their own words — we’ve seen that the players are digging it for sure.

Just Wednesday the newest edge presence Chris McCain conveyed that this system gives him the best chance to succeed.

“Speed is everything and here they are coaching speed and effort. And that’s everything that I have – tenacity, speed, effort and hustling every play because you never know.”

Second-year linebacker Anthony Walker spoke last week about it, and seems to be a fan as well. You’ll see that this is a common opinion about the changes that are being implemented.

“It’s a lot more running. A lot of just being aggressive, a lot less thinking — just be able to play fast and see what’s going on in front of you and play off of that. That’s what this defense is and when you’re able to play fast and think less, I think that’s what makes the defense good.”

Though he’s not a front-seven player, Nate Hairston is a guy who was used to blitz from the nickel spot a bit last season and could benefit from the move to an even front with his skill set. He explains that the expectations are similar at each level of the defense.

“Yeah, the defense is a lot easier. They keep it simple for us, but it allows you to fly around and make plays, so I think everyone is loving it so far.”

Even Woods, who should probably be expected to serve in a limited role on early downs, is a major fan of the approach.

“I love it. Attacking defense, getting off the ball, not messing around, no holding up blocks; just in your face, overwhelming. That’s what I like to play.”

Additionally, Reich has stated that he wants a platoon-style approach from the linemen, ultimately giving us the answer as to who will start, will guys play multiple positions throughout games and so on.

“What we find is, hey, let’s get eight starters and just keeping rolling them and have them fresh out there. That seems to be the most productive formula and (we’re) really happy with the depth that we have at that position.”

The ‘less thinking, play fast’ approach will be one to watch once the season starts, but the revolving door that will be the Colts’ defensive line is likely going to be the answer as to who does what amongst the group. Guys like Tyquan Lewis will move around, Kemoko Turay will be extremely fun to watch, and could be one of the most versatile of all of the rookies as he develops.

Margus Hunt may provide more interior pressure as he did last season despite the change in scheme. Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Denico Autry will also make this summer very interesting, but the expectations for everyone involved is quite clear.

Whoever can stand out as a possible game-changer, and use their versatility to create mismatches will make this squad when it’s all said and done.