One of the surprises of the season for many is just how good the Colts defense has been. A younger unit than many around the league, the Colts have gelled with the additions of DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes into a group that has 22 takeaways, good for 3rd in the NFL. When you pair that with an offense that is 5th in the league in average points per game, you get the kind of results we’ve seen in 2020.
How has this defense been so successful? Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus cites their usage of the H.I.T.S. principle as a big factor in their consistently good defense. What does that mean exactly?
“It starts with ‘H,’ ‘H’ is the hustle part of it. The ‘I’ is how we play with intensity. The ‘T’ is taking the ball away and the ‘S’ is being smart situationally. That’s the pillars we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Eberflus explains.
Anyone who has played a sport at any level has heard their coach preaching the importance of hustle, but it is a way of life for the Colts defense. Matt Eberflus’ system of grading games and assigning “loafs” is well-documented, and that accountability is what makes all the talk about hustle more than just lip-service and standard coachspeak.
“We have basically six categories for what a loaf is and I won’t get into all the details of every single one of those, but one of those would be a change of speed,” says Eberflus.
When film shows players who are in pursuit, whether they think they’re relevant to the play or not, clear instances of slowing up are getting them dinged. Running play on the opposite side of the field breaks loose and you’re the backside cornerback? Better run, because come Monday, you’ll be hearing it from Eberflus if you’re jogging.
“We want you going full speed, full tilt all the way through the down. Once the ball is snapped until the ball is on the ground,” says Eberflus.
This accountability has helped make this more than just a motto that can be plastered on the locker room wall. It has helped turn the team into an opportunistic, fast, gang-tackling group that rarely misses taking advantage of what offenses give them.
They’ve been preaching turnovers since Ballard arrived in town, and they know the importance of both winning turnover differential and getting points off turnovers. All of that starts with making sure you are in the right place at the right time.
“We know that we’re trying to strip at the football every single play and one of the reasons why we hustle is that because we want to be able to recover the fumble,” Eberflus says.
The Colts are hardly the first team to stress these things. If you hit the practice field in any given NFL facility, you’d no doubt hear some variation of this kind of verbiage. One of the reasons it seems to have landed better with this defense is perhaps the way it has been implemented.
College players might simply be willing to hustle because the coach says so, but these are grown men who are being paid well to play the game.
It is not enough to demand something, Eberflus says, “You have to teach it to the players and show them why. It’s so important for our teaching that you really affect the guy through his mind so he understands why, why that’s so important. Then you can make true change with habits because if you don’t teach him why, he’s like, ‘Why am I doing this?”
Not all NFL coaches care about explaining the why to their methods. Many coaches, in fact, prefer their players to be akin to soldiers, following orders without question. The Colts have found success through education, getting their players to buy in because they understand what’s driving their coaches’ instructions.
When they explain how their methods benefit the players, it goes a long way to getting their buy-in.
“We show him why. ‘Hey, because this guy caused a fumble and you’ll be the guy who recovered it. You’ll never know the chance that you had to recover it if you were loafing on the back side.’”
Call it cliché if you like. Eberflus doesn’t much care what you call it, because in a season where the defense has been the backbone of the team, perhaps the best thing to call it is effective.