Ever since Matt Eberflus was hired as the Colts’ Defensive Coordinator in 2018, the Colts defense has had a few key points of emphasis that they live by. One of the most important points for this defense to have success has been the ability to stop the run. This is something that Eberflus has preached his entire career and has always wanted his teams to have an elite run defense.
Well it looks like the Colts have that in 2020. Through six games the Colts are currently allowing just 3.5 yards per carry against (3rd best in the league) and have only allowed 530 yards rushing on the year (5th fewest yards allowed). On top of that, they have allowed just two rushing attempts of over 20 yards on the year as well.
The Colts run defense has been pretty stout but why have they been so dominant? That is what we are going to look at today as we will look at each positional group and see their role in this run defense. We will also discuss why Eberflus’ coaching philosophies are a big reason for this success as well.
Interior Defensive Line
This group is the biggest reason the Colts have such a stout run defense. Grover Stewart is playing exceptional ball and he has been an unmovable force on every rush attempt. DeForest Buckner is as elite as expected as he combines raw strength with incredible athleticism to impact every play. The Colts have also had some good production from Taylor Stallworth off the bench as well.
Starting with Stewart, he is having an incredible breakout season where he is establishing himself as one of the top 1-Tech defensive linemen in the NFL. His power is unmatched as he drives back single teams and stuffs double teams in the hole. What has impressed me the most has been his improved ability to shed blocks as he did struggle a bit there in 2019. When you add in his physical gifts and hustle as well, you have a stud on the interior.
It also helps when you have a 1 Tech playing at an elite level in Grover Stewart. The addition of DeForest Buckner has been great but Stewart has been phenomenal on run downs this year. Unblockable one on one. pic.twitter.com/WRSkmDAZnI— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
One more note about Stewart, he has gotten better each and every game. The Colts faced the best rushing attack in the NFL when they played the Cleveland Browns in week five. With an interior line of Wyatt Teller, J.C Tretter, and Joel Bitonio, I expected Stewart to have some struggles. The result however was his best game as a pro as he was making plays all over the field and stuffing a top rushing attack. He is a really important piece to this defense that the Colts need to extend ASAP.
Against the one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, Grover Stewart was an absolute star this week. He has established himself as one of the premier run stuffing 1Tech DT's in the NFL. Every day the Colts don't extend him, that price tag is going up. What a stud. pic.twitter.com/GIY4gqXRBx— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 17, 2020
DeForest Buckner is a freak as well on the interior. Standing a 6’7” 300 pounds, he has the power to overwhelm linemen in the run game. Along with that though, he can also run around linemen and beat them to the hole if they are slow on their cuts. It is a bit rare to see a player as well rounded as he is but he gets it done in both phases.
The right tackle had no chance at all of cutting Buckner on this block. pic.twitter.com/8jI8lWWTl8— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 7, 2020
When you combine these two players, you get the best run stuffing interior in the NFL. They complement each other so well and prevent the other one from being doubled on a regular basis. On the biggest plays and downs of the season so far, these two have stepped up. These two right here are the main reason why the Colts have an elite run defense.
Biggest play of the game as the Bears had a 3rd and 2 in the fourth quarter. What happens? Big Grover Stewart drives the center four yards into the backfield and blows up the play. The Colts have a gem in this 1-Tech. Extend him now please pic.twitter.com/uuBHaq8qZk— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 5, 2020
The defensive ends are a bit of a different story as they have played more of a support role than the interior has. The biggest job they have though is to make offenses pay for blocking them with tight ends in the run game. If the ends can consistently win their matchups with tight ends, it leads to less tackle-guard double teams down on the elite interior. Here are two examples of the Colts’ defensive ends winning their blocks on the outside against tight ends to get quick run stops.
The defensive ends aren't playing nearly as well as the interior but they are winning their easy matchups in the run game. Here are two examples of Banogu and Autry beating TE's in run D. These plays result in less G-T double teams on the interior guys. pic.twitter.com/xjtt1q11bD— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
The other big thing the ends have to do well, outside of containing the outside, is pursue hard in backside contain. The Colts have played a few teams that love the outside stretch run in the Vikings, Browns, and Bengals. Gap integrity on these plays is important for the defensive end as they need to reach that backside gap to prevent a cutback. Here are a few examples of the ends crashing hard backside the last few weeks. The defensive ends haven’t been outstanding in run defense but they are funneling everything inside and making life easier for the elite interior.
Mini compilation of the Colts backside defensive end crashing down to get a run stop in the backside gap pic.twitter.com/56FiAmXZfb— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
The Colts have an outstanding linebacker group headlined by All-Pro Darius Leonard. Leonard is simply outstanding in run defense as he takes incredible angles with great speed to the ball. Anthony Walker Jr is also a very stout run defender and Bobby Okereke is also enjoying a bit of a breakout season.
The Colts linebackers understand their roles and play fast and aggressive up front. This play is a perfect example of that. This is the Colts’ “patterns” call where they slant the line down and crash the linebackers to create positive angles. Okereke and Walker both crash into the run lane to take on lead blockers while Leonard swings around and meets the back in the hole. It’s extremely quick, effective, and it gets the job done. That is the Colts’ linebackers in run defense.
One of the reasons why the Colts are among the best in the league in run defense? Their linebackers are aggressive, physical, and play fast. Look at Okereke and Walker taking away lead blocks on this power run as Darius Leonard fills as the backside linebacker: pic.twitter.com/TVd0xvZp77— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
A huge element to the Colts having a great run defense has been the ability of Bobby Okereke at SAM backer. He isn’t the traditional fit at the position but he plays fast and fills run lanes with reckless abandon like all great SAMs do. Here is a quick compilation of him meeting fullbacks and lead blockers in the hole to assist his teammates in getting stops.
I love watching Bobby Okereke fill run lanes and take on lead blockers/fullbacks in the hole. Never shows up in the box score but it leads to so many run stops for the defense. pic.twitter.com/zTytLenWeQ— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) September 25, 2020
Overall the Colts have a well oiled machine at linebacker that leads to so many run stops being made. The interior defensive line creates havoc while the linebacker group cleans it up. It also helps to have a trio of athletes who play fast and confident. Look at this play by Darius Leonard from the backside. Just an excellent group that pairs so well with the Colts’ defensive line.
Climbing to the second level against the Colts' defense is a nightmare. Linebackers are way too fast and aggressive for this backside climb to work. Darius Leonard was shot out of a cannon here. pic.twitter.com/n8L2lnQnIw— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
There isn’t too much to say about the secondary other than the fact that the Colts have a group of players here who are willing and able to fill in the run game and add to the collective effort in that area. Khari Willis is an excellent run defending safety and Rock Ya-Sin is a hard hitting corner. The star in this group however is Kenny Moore II. His pursuit angles and aggressiveness in run defense are such an asset for this team He is currently second among CBs in run stops and third in run stop percentage on the year. He is a complete stud in this area and like another linebacker on the field.
The Colts have a lot of great run defenders in their secondary but Kenny Moore II is such a stud in this area. His recognition skills and pursuit angles are top notch. He's like having an extra linebacker in the box when he's in tight pic.twitter.com/UOSfCJBrbh— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
The Eberflus Effect
So on top of having all these great pieces that stuff opposing rush offenses, they also have a coach committed to this part of the defense. We already talked briefly about “patterns” and how that coaching call helps the run game but there are other ways he impacts the game as the coach.
The first way is with his emphasis on hustle and effort. Eberflus grades players each week on how many loafs they had. A loaf is a play where a player isn’t pursuing the ball at full speed or taking a snap off. The more loafs you have, the less you will play. This in turn has instilled a swarm mentality on the defense as all eleven players are in constant pursuit on every rush. Look how many defenders converge on the runner here after he makes a few players miss in the hole.
Swarm mentality from the Colts in run defense. Montgomery makes two defenders miss at the line of scrimmage and then he looks up to see 10/11 Colts defenders right in his face. Suffocating and fast run defense pic.twitter.com/Gv8PzIBSqL— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
The other way is by preaching gap integrity. The Colts are a fairly small defense as they have always placed an emphasis on adding speed over size. So logically teams would try to run power on them. One way the Colts can mitigate this is by maintaining gap integrity. Get a body in each run lane and give the runner no escape lanes out of the backfield. The Colts have had quite a few examples of this on the year but I made an audio breakdown of this one against the Jets here:
Teams aren't running power well at all against this Colts defense. Why? Colts are winning and controlling their gaps. @DariusJButler said it the other day, there is nowhere for running backs to go when the defense keeps gap integrity. Look here against the Jets in 12 personnel pic.twitter.com/05PpSW9NTN— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 22, 2020
I can already see the analytics guys in the comments after this piece saying that stopping the run doesn’t matter and such. While yes stopping the pass is much more important, having a great run defense leads to having a great pass defense. If you can hold teams to second and third and longs due to run defense, that is a greater chance for success on those pass plays. There is a reason why the top three defenses in DVOA (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Indy) are the top three run defending teams in the league.
Overall the Colts have the mindset and personnel to maintain this great rush defense. The emergence of Grover Stewart and acquisition of DeForest Buckner have been major pieces to it but it all starts with the coaching and preparation. The team has the right mentality and skillset to keep this pace up and stay among the top run defending units in the NFL.