The story of the 2020 season for the Indianapolis Colts has been the superb play of the defense. Football Outsiders created a rankings system for the NFL that measures play of teams weighted for the opponents they play called DVOA. According to DVOA, the Colts currently have the 4th ranked defense in the NFL. This defense has been on display the last two weeks as they have held the high powered offenses of the Titans and Ravens to just 17 points each in those match-ups.
As the Colts ready up to face another offensive powerhouse in the Green Bay Packers, I think we should take a step back and admire this defense in its totality. What the Colts have been able to do on that side of the ball has been remarkable and Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus is drawing praise from league circles. The beauty of this defense though is its simplicity. Here is what Mike Linebacker Anthony Walker had to say to me in the offseason about this defensive scheme:
“Coach wants to make sure that everybody is locked in on gameday and if anything is too complicated or anything like that he throws it out. We want to be as simple as possible and want guys to fly around and execute. The best way to do that is to have a limited menu and we make sure that we can go out there and execute.”
So today we are going to look at some of the key points in this defense and look at how simplicity can go a long way when you have players playing fast and technically sound.
It Starts on the Early Downs
The key to winning on defense in the NFL is dictating play by winning the early downs. This can be accomplished in multiple ways but it starts with run defense. For Coach Eberflus, run defense isn’t just one player making plays. It is a collective effort and coaching emphasis to win the early downs by shutting down the run.
“In order to have good run defense, all 11 have to be in sync with the call. We’ve been working hard on that.”
With this defensive scheme, individual players can make plays in the run game. We have seen it multiple times and players like Khari Willis, Grover Stewart, and Anthony Walker Jr. are on this team primarily due to this fact. The key though is attacking and swarming with all 11 defenders to completely shut down rush offenses. Look at how the defense attacks the Bears’ running back on this play.
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
Speaking of that swarm mentality, it applies to the passing game as well. The Colts play a heavy zone scheme that allows their defenders to be in a constant state of “see ball, get ball.” Eberflus and this defense doesn’t care if teams complete 90% of their passes in a game. If they are keeping the yards per attempt down and eliminating the big play, the Colts are playing to their game. Here is what Walker had to say to me on this matter:
“On 1st and 10 if they two or three yards, then it’s 2nd and seven or eight and they are playing on our terms. If they get to second and three or two then they can take a shot or run the ball and they control the game. If we win on first down, then we can control the game and dictate the play.”
That is the biggest key for this defense. In a league where offense is king, the Colts try to shift the power to their defense by winning on early downs and dictating play. Once they force teams into second or third and long, then they force big mistakes like this interception on Kirk Cousins in week two.
This is great unspoken chemistry between Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon here in Cover 2. Willis aggressively plays the deep in before transitioning to the deep over route. Blackmon plays the ball as Willis plays the man. Pass ends in an interception. Love it pic.twitter.com/khKtehCdvE— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) September 24, 2020
The Colts zone forces offenses to be perfect
Now on to the infuriating zone defense. Fans, and even some media people, have complained for years about this zone heavy scheme that seemingly gives up easy completions to offenses. While it is true that the Colts employ more of a “bend don’t break” style of defense, there is a method to this madness.
The Colts eliminate the big play and force offenses to attack underneath and make plays after the catch. The thought process is that the more plays an offense runs, the more likely they are to make a mistake. Eberflus and the Colts’ defense is so confident in their technique and effort that they are willing to bet that the offense makes a mistake before their defenders. Walker is a big proponent of this scheme.
“We are able to get the ball thrown to exactly where we want the ball thrown at. Coach calls it the ‘no cover zone.’ Making them attack underneath creates big hits, takeaways, and offenses want to get down the field as fast as possible. We feel like we can out-execute a team that has to go 12 or 13 plays to get down the field on us. We know when we get to the red zone, we are going to execute. We feel like we can outlast any team on the field.”
This was evident against the Ravens. To start the second half, the Ravens used eight plays to get down to the Colts’ three yard line. The defense was backed up but they were still able to force a huge fumble on the play to temporarily shift momentum back for the offense.
Okay so to review:— Taylor Tannebaum (@TaylorTannebaum) November 8, 2020
•Deforest Buckner forces fumble
•Darius Leonard recovers
•Darius Leonard fumbles
•Bobby Okereke recovers in mid-air
All that to say...turnover. #Colts defense comes up huge in the red zone.
Starting from the Basics
By all accounts from veteran players who have signed to this team or rookies who were drafted, the Colts have an intense practice schedule. The coaching staff preaches the importance of practicing hard and carrying it over to the games.
“Coach Eberflus talks about it all the time. You practice how you are going to play.”
With practice though, it isn’t just getting ready for certain opponents and game planning throughout the week. It is about refining technique and working on the fundamentals of the game as well. It is that endless repetition that has helped the Colts be at the bottom of the league in missed tackles.
“Coach Eberflus does a great job of working on different techniques with us. Block shedding, tackling, punching out the ball. We literally work on that everyday. During camp, minicamp, OTA’s, from week one through week 17 in the regular season we are working on these drills. We want to create that sense of everybody working together. Our staff does a great job of putting the best plan for us and giving us that great detail and technique.”
Obviously a lot of players benefit from this repetition but Kenny Moore II being one of the best tackling corners in space in the NFL despite his size is definitely one of the most obvious signs of this:
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
Matt Eberflus and this Colts defense have found success this year for a lot of reasons. At the core of it all are the fundamentals and habits that this staff has been instilling in these players since 2018. This emphasis on technique and fundamentals has morphed into one of the league’s best defenses.
Obviously having star players like Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner make life much easier for a Defensive Coordinator. For scheme to truly work though, it takes an entire team to buy in and play fast. Anybody who has watched this defense play this year has seen one cohesive unit that understands the goal they need to accomplish each and every game.
The Colts’ defense is simple but the beauty in it is it allows these players to play to their strengths. They are a ferocious group that outlasts opponents and dictates play against offenses. This defense is finally where Matt Eberflus envisioned it could be at the start of 2018. This is a top unit in the league and with how they are playing, the Colts can compete with any team in the league.