The Indianapolis Colts have made some widespread and significant changes to the coaching and scouting staffs over the past year-and-a-half under Chris Ballard. While the offense is going through similar changes with a new head coach who will be calling the plays, the defense has a steeper learning curve at the moment.
The defense is dealing with a new scheme, less leadership at the key positions — primarily linebacker — and an extremely young and inexperienced back seven in general. The Colts could potentially have 5 starters among the linebacking corps and secondary within their first two years in the league.
You have to like the fact that Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston — in nickel — will be three of those starters when just looking at the talent level. However, only Hairston played the entire season while neither Hooker nor Wilson were active for half of it.
With the linebacker position being almost completely undecided at this point, the Colts 2018 defensive lineup will be highly reliant upon coaching and instincts with a new scheme being implemented. Enter Matt Eberflus with the task of vastly improving the systemic wasteland known as the Colts defense over the past several seasons.
We don’t need to break too far into the Chuck Pagano era, we’ve done that a few times already and we know how awful that was, rather, let’s just look at the past two years. The work ahead of Eberflus, and the efficiency in which he’ll have to enact his scheme while simultaneously teaching it over the coming months is painfully evident.
Here are some of the bottom of the barrel results over the past couple seasons that Eberflus will be tasked with improving from this Colts defense. We’re going to get heavy on the statistics so get yourself ready.
Much like the bulk of the Pagano era, the 2016-17 seasons yielded some very ugly results. The Colts were 30th in sacks (58), tied for 26th in interceptions (21), 25th in first downs allowed (623) — 27th in first down % allowed (30.8%) — tied for 22nd in touchdowns allowed (77), 30th in yards allowed per play (5.94) with possibly the sole positive being tied for 14th in forced fumbles
While being the linebacker’s coach in Dallas, what Eberflus brings along with him as DC will show as being heavily influenced by their scheme from the last couple years. The Cowboys were tied for 15th in sacks, tied for 14th in touchdowns allowed, 19th in first downs allowed — 21st in first down percentage — and 8th in yards allowed per play.
While some are more significant improvements than others, they’re still improvements. Additionally, the Cowboys were worse in team interceptions than the Colts over the past two seasons with just 19 (T-30th). That, along with some other aspects will need to be heavy focuses for Eberflus in a down-to-down approach.
Also, here’s another argument for the addition of a healthy Bashaud Breeland at cornerback or Tre Boston at safety. The past two seasons Breeland has accumulated the fifth-most passes defensed (26), and Boston is tied for the 8th most interceptions (7). Seemed relevant.
Plays Allowing 25 Yards or More
This is a major problem for the Colts and their hopes of being thrust into a bend-don’t-break scheme this season. Specifically, if the Colts are to make any real strides as a team, the defense can’t put Andrew Luck and the offense in massive holes to dig themselves out of. A good example of this is the Colts’ 8-8 2016 season despite Luck having arguably his best season as a pro.
Over the past two seasons, the Colts allowed a play of at least 25 yards in 30 of 32 games, and gave up touchdowns on 18 of them (T-20th). They allowed 77 (plays of 25 yards or more) overall (27th), while being 31st in the league, and allowing the majority of those against the pass (70). The Colts did tie for second in this category allowing only 7 against the run, though — something I don’t think many of us saw coming.
Conversely, the Cowboys allowed only 59 plays of 25 yards or more (3rd) over the past two seasons, 9 resulting in touchdowns (T-3rd), went 6 games in this time span without allowing one, allowed the 8th fewest against the pass (52) and were also tied for 2nd against the run, allowing just 7.
Can you imagine if the Colts allowed 18 fewer explosive plays, and 9 fewer touchdowns while going 12-20 in that span? The Colts lost 12 of those 20 games by one score or less.. just saying.
Defense Inside Own 30 Yard Line
Another problem area for the Colts comes to light as we look over what Eberflus has ahead of him with this defensive group. As offenses near getting into the red zone, the Colts have been surprisingly opportunistic being tied for 11th in the league with 10 interceptions, and landed in 10th with 11 forced fumbles.
However, the rest of their production is predictably quite forgettable. Like most situations for this defense, the Colts are 30th throughout this time span in sacks (16), 26th in yards per play allowed (6.34) and are unfortunately still bending quite easily coming in at 28th, allowing a first-down percentage of 28.8%.
Meanwhile Dallas was 8th in the league allowing 5.65 yards per play, and tied for 1st earning 37 sacks. The Cowboys, though, were 21st allowing a first down percentage of 26.2%, and were similar in turning the ball over with 9 interceptions (T-14th) and forced 13 fumbles (T-6th) in this area of the field.
Negative plays are especially crucial in this area of the field in keeping points off of the board, whether it be forcing the offense to rely on kicking a field goal or taking the offense out of field goal range entirely. The Colts could use some of those 21 sacks the Cowboys bested them by over the past two seasons.
Critical Downs, ‘Long’ Yardage-To-Go Situations
Now, we wrap it up by taking a look at the opportunity to get off the field when the defense has the advantage on critical downs. Third and fourth downs, with 6 or more yards to go is yet another example of situational football not being one of the Colts’ friends as of late.
The Colts are, again, near the bottom of the league allowing 6.47 yards per play (26th), 31st in, both, first-down percentage (32.6%) and turnover percentage (.8%), 20th in sacks (19) and are tied for dead last allowing 12 touchdowns.
Dallas has been much better in this aspect over the past two seasons landing in 10th, allowing 5.65 yards per play, 8th in first-down percentage (25.3%), 12th in turnover percentage (3.1%) and allowed only 5 touchdowns (T-4th). The Cowboys pass rush was less impressive, however, only accumulating 17 sacks (T-25th).
Also, we again come to a couple of players the Colts have recently spoken to who could help specifically in this area. Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro have both been top-10 in the league individually with 5 (1st) and 3 (T-9th) interceptions respectively on late downs with at least 6 yards to go. I’m going to say the Colts might need some of that.
I understand that Matt Eberflus wasn’t the defensive coordinator in Dallas and that having the expectations for him to completely flip the results in each of these areas would be beyond silly in his first year running the Colts’ unit. On the other hand, these areas must be improved — youth blitz or not — and with all of the changes the team is facing, their success could heavily rely on it.
The youth will need the teaching Ballard and the organization have preached being so critical with the transition of regimes. The instincts, and traits they’ve been targeting in the draft and throughout the offseason will have to be there sooner rather than later. But, maybe most importantly, the adjustment in scheme will have to fit the talent the Colts have on hand initially.
Immediate improvements, however, will need to be evident. The pass rush must be more disruptive, quality coverage must be more consistent and, overall, the defense has to be stingier in key areas of the field and on critical downs — and not a little bit either. The Colts young talent is exciting and the scheme — via the players — is considered to be more conducive to making plays. Now, we just wait to see how all of this comes together with all considerations involved.