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New Colts DC- Gus Bradley’s Defense: a quick history and overview

The basics of Bradley’s system and how it came to be

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Over the next couple of days I’m going to take a look at what we should expect from the Gus Bradley led Indianapolis Colts defense. Back in 2018 I took a look at what Frank Reich’s offense might look like and while I got some things wrong in that series, it was really just a guess. Frank Reich had twice been a coordinator but had never been allowed to implement his own system, so predicting what it would look like was a projection at best.

That’s not the case with Gus Bradley who has implemented his system with four different NFL franchises, finding success as a defensive coordinator each time he tried. Today we’ll take a look at the basics of Gus Bradley’s cover three base defense, we’ll talk about the system’s history, the similarities from what the Colts had under Matt Eberflus, and what it’s most basic elements are.

The System’s History: Monte Kiffin’s Influence

When Tony Dungy was hired as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 he brought with him the Cover 2 defense that he learned while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. It’s funny to think that the same defensive scheme that created the most feared defense of the ’70s (The Steel Curtain) is often called a “soft cover 2” by Colts fans today.

In the past 50 years, no defensive mind has had the level of impact on the NFL that Monte Kiffin has had, and in Tampa, while working with Dungy the Buccaneers staff created the “Tampa 2” variation of that Cover 2 defense. What happened next would rewrite NFL history as their system dominated opponents for years before spreading across the NFL.

That’s what Kiffin is best known for, but his philosophy and effective defenses made him famous before getting to Tampa. Perhaps what Kiffin was best known for was his idea that if his defenses prevented big plays, kept everything in front of them, and forced offenses to play mistake-free football for the entire length of the field, his defenses could make stops, more often than not.

At this point, I bet you’re wondering why Monte Kiffin and his “bend don’t break” defensive philosophy is relevant to the 2022 Indianapolis Colts, having just hired Gus Bradley, a disciple of the Seattle Cover 3 defensive system; take a look at this picture:

In case you were distracted by those sweet pants and skipped over the caption, in the center is Monte Kiffin, who was the head coach of N.C. State in 1980. Standing next to him is none other than Pete Carroll. Carroll and Kiffin’s relationship went back to the mid-1970s when Carroll joined Kiffin’s defensive staff under head coach Lou Holtz. Their relationship was vast, and it spanned decades. I could list every team the two men coached together on, but this article is going to be long enough.

I could also wax poetic for a few thousand words about football history and what happened between 1980 and now, and I would enjoy that, but I’ll spare you most of the details. Instead, we’ll skip ahead to 2004 in North Dakota.

Gus Bradley- The College Years

While Kiffin was busy winning a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and Tony Dungy was overseeing the start of the winningest decade in NFL history with the Colts, Gus Bradley was cutting his teeth for North Dakota State. He spent ten years coaching the Bison, 9 of them as a defensive coordinator or assistant head coach. Normally this is where I would go back and try to find something, anything, on what those defenses looked like during his time running the Bison’s defense in that era. But this was a DII/FCS school nearly 20 years ago, and I couldn’t possibly find...

So maybe finding tape from the Bradley-era NDSU defense wasn’t as impossible as I initially thought it would be (you can find almost anything on YouTube), it was tough to find tape that wasn’t against Nichols State, who ran the veer. So there’s not much we can take away from the tape that would be relevant outside of things like the basic formations. So let’s take a look.

Because Nichols runs the offense they do, NDSU has both safeties less than 10 yards off the line of scrimmage with corners playing about 10 yards off the ball. Though the defensive backs don’t tell us much because of the offense. The defensive line and linebackers tell us more, mostly that this is a 4-3 base defense.

In this play, NDSU comes out in their base 4-3, only this time, the DB lined up wide on the last play can now be found near the hash marks at the top of the screen. The reason for that change is because the offense has brought out an in-line tight end instead of having another receiver out wide. This tells us (if the shallow safeties didn’t tip you off) that NDSU is playing man coverage, but that doesn’t mean much due to the offense. Why would you drop into a zone if your opponent rarely throws the ball?

What we can see a little more clearly from this angle is the alignment of the defensive line. The right defensive end is lined up outside the left tackle’s, left shoulder. I don’t think it would be appropriate to call this a wide 9 technique; I think he’s too close to the tackle for that, but it does appear he is completely outside of the tackle, so I am comfortable calling this a 7 technique. The defensive tackle to his left is shaded to the center’s left shoulder, which is also known as being in a 1 technique (aka, 1-tech, aka 1T) the DT to his left is lined up over the guard, in I assume, a 3 technique. That means he’s lined up on the right guard’s outside shoulder. The left defensive end is lined up outside the right tackle but inside the tight end. It’s tough to tell, but I believe he is in a 5 technique, meaning on the right tackle’s outside shoulder.

If you have questions about techniques and gaps here’s a great article from SB Nation’s the Phinsider on the topic.

Now that you have this link, I’m going to refer to these techniques with reckless abandon; it’s up to you to understand what I mean. I’ve given you the tools to teach yourself to fish, so hopefully, you can feed yourself information about Gus Bradley’s defense.

After the snap, this play becomes an absolute mess for NDSU, and frankly, because the Ravens aren’t in the AFC South, none of it is relevant to Colts fans.

This play is a little more interesting because where is that third linebacker? The offense has two receivers lined up to the right, leaving them nine players in frame. The defense has four down linemen, two linebackers, and two safeties, giving them eight players in frame. It makes sense that NDSU would send two DBs to cover the receivers on the wide side of the field, but what about the third LB? He never makes an appearance, as far as I can tell. At first, I thought they might be in a 4-3 under, Which makes sense given that the DT to the weak side of the formation is in a 3 tech. But I (perhaps incorrectly) assume that if the third linebacker were on the line of scrimmage, just out of the shot to the right of the frame, we would see him chasing from behind, and we never see that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe he’s off the ball still just outside the frame. Maybe he gets blocked, so we don’t see him trailing the play. Maybe NDSU had ten players on the field. We’ll never know.

What can we take away from all of this information?

That Gus Bradley is a 4-3 base-defense guy.

If you feel disappointed that you read all that and the only takeaway is that Gus Bradley is a 4-3 base-defense guy, imagine how I feel having done all of the leg work, cutting the video up, writing, editing, and posting all of it. Sorry, you wasted the five minutes you spent reading, but I’ll never get the past three hours of my life back. You’re welcome for saving you two hours and 55 minutes.

Gus Bradley- The NFL Years BP (Before Pete)

After a decade in North Dakota, Gus Bradley decided it was time to leave the nest and join civilization (that’s a joke, relax North Dakota, all seven of you). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him in 2006. Tony Dungy was long gone and busy winning a Super Bowl with Peyton and the boys, but Bradley began studying under none other than Monte Kiffin. After three seasons, two as linebackers coach, Jim Mora Jr. called up and asked Bradley to be his defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks.

A year later, Mora was fired, and Pete Carroll was hired; this is the part of the story where things get interesting. Can you imagine in 2018, when Frank Reich was hired, instead of hiring Nick Siriani as his offensive coordinator, he decided to keep Rob Chudzinski in place as his offensive coordinator even though Chuck Pagano hired Chud?

Because that’s exactly what Carroll did with Bradley. The difference was Carroll was good friends with the man who gave Gus Bradley his first NFL coaching job, Monte Kiffin. Carroll decided to keep Bradley on, presumably after Kiffin vouched for the 44-year-old, and together, the two men would craft a defense that would take the NFL by storm.

Gus Bradley- The NFL Years WP (With Pete)

Nicknames in football have existed longer than the forward pass and are one of the best traditions today. Not every great defense gets one, but the ones who do; the Purple People Eaters, the Doomsday Defense, the No-Name Defense, Monsters of the Midway, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, Orange Crush, the Steel Curtain, all of them are truly great. And under the leadership of Gus Bradley and Pete Carroll, The Legion of Boom was born.

The defensive system they crafted isn’t magic; the early and mid-2010s Seahawks defense was special for a multitude of reasons. The teambuilding (lookin’ at you Ed Dodds) alone deserves its own book. But the system itself contributed in a major way.

What I’m not going to do is write at length about the scheme itself. It’s not that I can’t; I’ve done it close to a dozen times in my time with Stampede Blue, and so much has already been written. It was written for Field Gulls, much of it by Danny Kelly, and this stream of stories is incredible work. I’m not going to write about it because the only way I could top that link is if I quit my job and went full-time breaking down film, and I don’t know if you know this, but if someone were willing to pay me a living wage to write about football, I would already be doing it. So if you want to know everything there is to know about those Seahawks teams, click that link and be prepared to spend multiple days taking it all in.

Gus Bradley- The NFL Years- AP (After Pete)

After four years with the Seahawks, Bradley left to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. His time in Jacksonville went incredibly poorly. After that, Bradley became the defensive coordinator of the Chargers, where he oversaw top 15 defenses three of his four years with the team. In 2021 he was hired as defensive coordinator of the Raiders. Between firing their head coach for an email scandal, cutting their second-year former first-round pick for brandishing a firearm and threatening his enemies on social media, and their other 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs drunkenly killing 23-year-old Tina Tintor, it’s frankly amazing that their train wreck of a season didn’t go worse.

Understandably, Mark Davis and the Raiders wanted to move forward with a clean slate, and Gus Bradley was looking for a job. It just so happened the Colts had an opening, and now, Gus is running the show on defense in Indianapolis.

What Comes Next

I won’t lie to you and tell you that understanding that Seahawks defense is a useless pursuit (it’s way different now than it was a decade ago) on the path to understanding what the 2022 Indianapolis Colts defense will look like. But I will let you know that the only prerequisite to understanding is that you watched the 2018-2021 Colts defenses and read my next article.

Next up, I will compare Matt Eberflus and Gus Bradley’s 2021 defensive systems. I won’t promise that you’ll be an expert after the article is finished, but if you read it and try to understand it, you will be able to complain about the 2022 Colts' defense in an informed way. And all I ask is that your criticisms of the coaching come after trying to understand what the team is attempting to do on the field.