Today we will look at Gus Bradley’s defensive system compared to Matt Eberflus’ system to see what we should expect for 2022. 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 discover if major changes are on the way or if the defense will look much different to the average fan.
This article isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing look at Gus Bradley’s defense. Frankly, I don’t have the time it would take to produce that series of articles. What this is, is an examination of the differences most fans will be able to notice while watching on TV. If you were hoping for me to take a deep dive on things like the strong safety’s rules for carrying a tight end up the seam in Bradley’s cover 3, you’re going to be disappointed. So keep in mind these are generalities, not absolutes. Fitting an entire defensive system into an article or two is impossible.
Bradley vs Flus: Run Defense
I didn’t spend much time gathering film for the run game. There are differences, Eberflus’ defenses are largely “fill and spill,” while Bradley’s philosophy more closely resembles a Tony Dungy defense where penetration into the backfield is king. So while there are differences, as long as the Colts stay relatively healthy in the front seven, I don’t believe run defense will improve or fall off dramatically with such a talented group.
Eberflus run defense 1 pic.twitter.com/vjRVNSyFyR— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
If you were lost when I said “fill and spill,” this play perfectly illustrates what I mean. Watch Kemoko Turay #57. Turay sees the left tackle drive inside and recognizes the center is pulling to block him. That center wants to get inside leverage to kick Turay out, giving the back a lane to rush inside. Instead, Turay ducks inside his block, filling his gap and spilling the back to the outside. If you’re writing a football textbook, this is the example you put in. After the back is spilled, it’s up to the rest of the defense to flow to the ball carrier and make a tackle. The $0.10 version of this philosophy: you take away the lane the back wants, you make him run east to west, and then you chase him down and make a stop.
Bradley vs run 6 pic.twitter.com/0S9GQ9AGvS— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
One thing that popped off the tape is how differently the Ravens chose to block against the Raiders vs. how they blocked against the Colts. Also I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the differences in personnel and formation the Ravens show here compared to the more spread out formation they used in the clip against the Colts, but this play can help illustrate some of the differences in run-stopping philosophy.
Watch Jonathan Abram #24 on the left side of the window. You’ll notice how he takes on the flowing blocker from the backside of the formation. He takes him head-on to set the edge. The next thing you should look at are #42 and #58. They run downhill, north-south. They’re not scraping over the top to chase down a running back that has been spilled outside. They’re going forward because Gus Bradley’s run defense is based on penetration creating havoc in the backfield, ruining the running back's plan, taking away lanes, and beating your block at the snap. When it works, it’s a lot of fun to watch, like in this play.
Which is better?
This is a question that Colts fans will eventually be asking. Most Colts fans online aren’t going to understand the basic differences between the two systems, so they’ll no doubt complain for the wrong reasons, but they’ll be complaining all the same. Ultimately the question of “which is better” is subjective, a matter of opinion.
The downside of Bradley’s system is that if 34 doesn’t react and shoot that gap, there’s a chance the Ravens running back is still running. That is to say, sometimes if someone doesn’t make a great play, the cavalry isn’t coming - they might be busy shooting their own gaps and getting penetration someplace that didn’t need it.
The downside of Flus’ system is that on zone runs; running backs have designed cutbacks built into the play. So if your linebackers are scraping over the top and your backside contain man doesn’t or isn’t able to do his job, that back is going for a 15-20 yard scamper.
In my opinion Flus’ system is superior, but given the talent the Colts have up front, I don’t know how much it will matter. With Bradley’s philosophy, someone has to make a play, and the most unproven starting defensive lineman, Kwity Paye, was fantastic against the run last season. If the Colts stay healthy, even with a slightly worse (my opinion) run stopping system in place, the run defense will be just fine.
Now even though I feel Bradley’s philosophy isn’t as effective, Flus’ run-stopping philosophy limited what pass rushers were allowed to do, and in 2022, rushing the passer is far more important than stopping the run.
Bradley vs. Flus: Pass Rush
Gus Bradley’s philosophy of penetration at all costs doesn’t change when the time comes to rush the passer. And that in itself is a big change from a season ago.
Pass Rush Under Flus:
Eberflus pass rush 1 pic.twitter.com/pM47Q9UBS3— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
Watching this play you should notice a few things. First you’ll notice that Grover Stewart drops into a spy after initially filling his rush lane. Next, you’ll notice DeForest Buckner fire directly into the guard and center, occupying both blockers while staying in a lane. Then you can take your pick at defensive end. You’ll notice that neither of them is trying to get upfield. Neither of them are trying to turn the edge, in fact, once they hit the same depth as the quarterback they put a foot in the ground and try to work back across the face of their respective tackles.
During 2021’s in-season Hard Knocks, Frank Reich was seen talking to his team about how they were going to win a game, and he said they had to keep the opponents' quarterback “in the cup”. This is what he meant. If someone broke through and could pull the opposing quarterback down for a sack, that was great, but as long as he was kept in the pocket and big plays were limited - that’s what mattered most.
Bradley pass rush 2 pic.twitter.com/bW1CwzwyQU— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 28, 2022
Speed, baby. Get around the edge, rush the passer and let the chips fall where they may. Now against quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, it doesn’t always work out as it did in this clip:
Bradley pass rush 6 pic.twitter.com/lQfh63JF2Y— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
Without maintaining rush lanes, things like this can happen more often.
Which is Better?
Again, this one is subjective. If you want to avoid big plays at all costs, it doesn’t make much sense to rush the passer with reckless abandon. If you want to be aggressive and disrupt what an offense has planned to do, it doesn’t make much sense to use a mush-rush and not get after the quarterback.
So what do I think?
2021 Lamar Jackson against Matt Eberflus:
2021 Lamar Jackson against Gus Bradley:
This is a limited sample size against a single quarterback, but history has shown time and time again that when you pressure quarterbacks, they perform worse than when they aren’t getting hit.
Oh, and the Raiders won their game against the Ravens last year. The Colts did not.
Bradley vs. Flus: Coverage
This is where I need to go back over the fact that this article isn’t meant to cover everything Matt Eberflus or Gus Bradley have ever done or will ever do. This isn’t a deep dive into the coaching differences between Flus’ cover 3 and Bradley’s or anything of the sort. This is me explaining to you what differences you might notice on TV on Sunday. This is introductory, not even a 101-level course. This is Gus Bradley 051.
Spot the difference:
Eberflus coverage 1 pic.twitter.com/UeeTCEy59S— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
Bradley coverage 1 pic.twitter.com/1WNbPADGzm— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 28, 2022
The big difference was that the Raiders' defense played this down better than the Colts. Ultimately there are three high safeties, a cover three.
A lot of Colts fans complained about the cushions Matt Eberflus’ defenses allowed at the snap:
Eberflus Coverage 2 pic.twitter.com/y2d9Bo19Ep— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
If you were one of those fans, sorry about your luck:
Bradley coverage 2 pic.twitter.com/4ygvbyz8ul— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 28, 2022
This coverage is similar in more ways than one, but if you believe Gus Bradley will always disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage, I have bad news for you.
But also, how did the Colts deal with a common 3x1 formation? 3x1 refers to three receiving options on one side, one option on the other:
Eberflus Coverage 3 pic.twitter.com/mbuS3fdIHA— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
You’ll notice Flus has a single corner lined up over the single receiver; he’s one-on-one in press position with no safety help over the top. Meanwhile, most of the defense keys on the much more populated side of the field. So how does Gus Bradley deal with a similar look?
Bradley coverage 5 pic.twitter.com/ChfWrHJF4k— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 28, 2022
Gee, would you look at that?
What I didn’t see much of from Gus:
Eberflus Coverage 9 pic.twitter.com/4zGn3PhhwK— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
That’s cover 2. I’m not saying Gus won’t work it in; I’m just saying I didn’t see it. But Gus did have some two deep safety looks:
Bradley coverage 6 pic.twitter.com/jT3rMnrrjU— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) August 29, 2022
This is another 3x1 look that Bradley matched, initially, with a single corner over the single receiver, but just before the snap, the box safety bails out to take a deep quarter. This is quarters coverage, aka cover 4.
Contrary to a belief that is somehow still popular, Matt Eberflus’ defenses don’t just sit back in “soft zones.”
Eberflus Coverage 10 pic.twitter.com/fQHMdXnfSA— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
But Gus probably plays more man-to-man coverage than Flus, overall:
Bradley coverage 7 pic.twitter.com/h3EatQKFg6— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
And yes, there will be more attempts to disrupt routes with tight coverage at the line of scrimmage:
Bradley coverage 8 pic.twitter.com/CoVRBmu6rY— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
But the fans who complained the most about Eberflus probably won’t notice much of a difference:
Eberflus coverage 13 pic.twitter.com/8QO7ztDhWj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 5, 2022
Which is Better?
This is, once again, subjective. There is no correct answer, and the differences between the two are more subtle than most might expect. The biggest difference, in my opinion, isn’t as much about the specific coverages each man calls as it’s about their defensive philosophy.
Matt Eberflus is about limiting big plays, and he often called coverage that would allow short completions that would force an offense to nickel and dime their way down the field, and they would have to do it without getting greedy or making a mistake.
Gus Bradley is more aggressive, but you’ll never hear him unironically saying, “no risk it, no biscuit.” Bradley will try to disrupt routes more to give his pass rush another half a second to get home. While he’s going to call some coverages that will give up an easy completion here or there, he’s doing so to live to fight another down so that he can choose his spot to be aggressive and try to force a big play for his defense.
What do I think about the two as it relates to coverage? Time will tell. On paper, Flus’ philosophy sounds bad. But in practice, it resulted in statistically the best four-year stretch of Colts defense I’ve ever seen. I like that Bradley leans more aggressively on paper, but we’ll have to see how he calls plays for this Colts team.
Gus vs. Flus: Final Thoughts
Overall, the two systems aren’t going to look that much different. If this were 2012, Gus’ defense would be practically unrecognizable compared to where the system is today. But the fact of the matter is the defense that played well in 2012 doesn’t play well in 2022. If you expect Gus Bradley’s system to be vastly different from Matt Eberflus’ system at first glance, you will be disappointed. This isn’t disappointing or surprising to me, but for the Colts fans that desperately wanted rid of Matt Eberflus (for really misguided reasons), they’re going to want to get rid of Gus Bradley too.
There are things to be excited about for everyone, namely the changes we should see for the Colts when it's time to rush the passer. Another thing to be excited about is that Chris Ballard has built a highly talented defensive roster at all three levels. So no matter how you feel about the system, this is good news.
Oh, and if you are hoping that Gus Bradley will send extra pass rushers, you know blitz more often than Matt Eberflus... hahahahahahahaha better luck next defensive coordinator.