The Indianapolis Colts had one of the best run defenses in the NFL in 2019 as they only gave up 4.1 yards per carry on the year which was tied for 8th best in the league. They also only gave up 1,570 yards rushing the whole year which was 7th best in the NFL. To even add more to that, if you only count the games after the Colts got Jabaal Sheard back from injury and Grover Stewart became a starter (so basically week four and onward), the Colts only gave up 3.7 yards per carry which would have been 3rd best in the NFL.
So why were the Colts so good in their run defense last year? Well there are a multitude of factors, but one key piece is their defensive run blitz called “Patterns.” Patterns is a new term to me as I hadn’t heard of the play call until Colts LB Anthony Walker used it in an interview with me a few weeks ago. When looking at the film though, this play really stands out as a big reason why the Colts were so successful in their run defense last year.
What is Patterns?
So basically, Patterns is a defensive run blitz that features the play side defensive tackle and defensive end crashing down and shooting the A and B gaps respectively. The play side linebacker then comes downhill hard off the backside of the edge defender and chases the ball carrier. The other linebacker (either the WILL or MIKE depending on the play) then loops around and fills the outside gap to force the play back inside to the help defense. Here is a pristine example of the play when everything is run perfectly together:
Origins of Patterns and Eberflus’ installment of the call
As we all know, Coach Matt Eberflus was the linebackers coach for the Cowboys before coming to Indy as the Defensive Coordinator. There, he worked under long time coach Rod Marinelli, who was Defensive Coordinator in Dallas at the time. Marinelli employs a very similar defensive scheme to Eberflus and I hypothesized that this is where Eberflus picked up this scheme for run defense. After talking with John Owning of SportsDay Cowboys and Mark Bullock of The Athletic, I was able to find that this is a common play call for the Cowboys called “Pirate.” The Cowboys typically like to run this against zone blocking schemes to disrupt angles. iIt seems Eberflus took it a step further to employ it against any scheme to cause disruption. Here is an example of the Cowboys running this play:
Colts DC Matt Eberflus learned "Patterns" call from Rod Marinelli in Dallas. The key is DL penetration with linebackers staying tight and cleaning up. If everything goes right, the defense takes away the RBs options and funnels the play where they want. Defense dictating the play pic.twitter.com/XwQtiFgA8M— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) July 2, 2020
Advantages of Running this Play
Before I talk about the advantages I noticed about running this play, I wanted to pull a quote from my interview with Anthony Walker to show you all how he described the play and reasoning behind it. You can check out the whole interview by clicking the text here as well.
“Yeah we call it patterns. We call that our run defense scheme. We create angles and want to create an advantage like the offense does so yeah we slant the defense end and defensive tackle down and the linebacker comes over the top.”
When I looked at the film, the main takeaways I had were this, when noting the success of the play in general:
1.) Funnels the run play where the defense wants it to go. Defense is dictating the pace which is what you need to do in rush defense
2.) Allows the defensive tackles to focus on disruption and gap shooting to cause havoc. The offense can’t feel comfortable in any run with bodies flying around in the backfield.
3.) Allows long, athletic linebackers to play to their strength and “chase” the play rather than having to diagnose and shed blocks like traditional linebackers of old.
In theory, this rush defense is perfect for the Colts as they feature a very athletic defensive front and a linebacker group that fits perfectly into the run and chase mold. Now, for this play to work, though, there are three elements that have to be in sync. Let’s go one by one and break down the three elements to Patterns.
Step 1: Penetration up front
The first step in making this play work is for the defensive line up front to get that instant penetration and cause havoc in the backfield. If the defensive line fails to get a push or fails to get any real penetration, the running back will have multiple exit routes from the backfield and it would defeat the purpose of Patterns. Here, defensive end Ben Banogu shoots inside, gets initial penetration, and forces the running back to cut to the only place available to him, which happens to be right where Anthony Walker is waiting. Defensive line penetration is the most important part of this play, and certainly a big reason why the Colts went out and added DeForest Buckner this offseason.
Step 2: Funnel the Play where the help is
The penetrating defensive linemen don’t have to make the play in the backfield in this play call. The biggest impact they can have is to crash down, take away the running back’s field of vision, and funnel him to where the linebackers are crashing to the outside. Here is a great example of that as Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad crash their gaps quickly at the snap. This forces the running back to bounce outside where the entire Colts’ defense is waiting to make a play.
Step 3: Linebacker finishing the play
Ever wonder why the Colts’ linebackers are always near the league lead in tackles every year? Part of it is the cover two scheme, but the other part is that their run defense call is specifically designed for them to make almost every tackle. Now that does come at a bit of a price, as they have to be nearly perfect when it comes to getting the ball carrier to the ground. Here is a great example of Anthony Walker crashing hard off the backside of the defensive end, quickly shedding a block, and making a tackle for a loss. Walker is simply excellent in all phases when it comes to executing this play, and it is one of the reasons why he is one of the better run defending linebackers in the NFL.
Advantages of Adding Buckner to this scheme
Before I knew anything about this play or how often the Colts slant defensive linemen, I knew the team liked to cause disruption up front in the run game with their defensive line. Upon finding out about the trade for Buckner months ago, I figured he would be a perfect fit for what the Colts like to do as he has elite size, strength, and athleticism. I didn’t realize how perfect he would be for it though until I dug more into this play. Basically take the best parts of Denico Autry (flashes ability to penetrate on any play) plus the ability of Grover Stewart (space eater who holds up well at the point of attack) and add consistency and then you have the superstar that is DeForest Buckner. If everyone stays healthy, Buckner may help take the Colts into being a top five run defense in 2020 with this scheme.
Buckner splits the double team with ease. So nimble at his size with elite explosion. I'm so happy I get to watch this player next season holy hell. pic.twitter.com/eVBnM7ckSN— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) March 16, 2020
I honestly want to take a second to commend Matt Eberflus on the job he has done with the Colts up to this point. Yes, there are some frustrating moments, but he has done an outstanding job of taking a defense that had little known talent when he first arrived, and developing these guys into a talented group. The more I study his philosophies and schemes, the more impressed I am with some of the minor aspects he employs in games to set his players up for success.
This play was great to research and study, and it is something that pops up on film each and every Sunday. It really plays to the Colts’ strengths of "see ball, attack ball" with every player on the defensive side of the field. The Colts run defense is only getting stronger with the additions of DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day, and the Colts could be near-elite in the near future in this department.