INDIANAPOLIS — The key to Matt Eberflus’ defense is simplicity.
It’s a well-worn system born under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay during the mid-1990s and constantly evolving with changes in the game. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl running it with Dungy’s personnel, and the Colts followed suit a few years later with the man himself in charge.
Head coach Pete Carroll reached two Super Bowls — and won one — in the early part of this decade with a Seattle defense that’s a derivative of Kiffin’s early schemes, and the Dallas Cowboys have returned to respectability running a version of the system under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The defense sacrifices complexity in service of speed. The central concept hardly is unique. The fewer real-time decisions players are saddled with on the field, the faster they’ll react and the more plays they’ll make.
Eberflus learned the system from Marinelli, who once was the defensive line coach under Dungy and Kiffin in Tampa Bay. And the difference in this scheme is effort.
Much was made a year ago about the “loafs” Eberflus charges each player with after every practice and game. Defenders are taught to run all-out to the football on every play. If the tape shows a player not chasing the ball — even if the play went to the other side of the field or was made far down field — he’s charged with a “loaf.”
That system is designed to ensure speed remains at the forefront of defenders’ minds and is consistent from one down to another.
General manager Chris Ballard believes in the value of speed so greatly, he made it the focus of his offseason additions. Seven of the Colts’ 10 draft picks were defensive players, and Ballard said the goal with each selection was to make Indianapolis faster and more athletic.
Left unsaid, the moves also make the Colts more versatile.
The success of Eberflus’ simplicity comes in the presentation. His defense won’t do as many stunts and tricks as other schemes, but it will give the offense plenty to think about.
“We kind of want to run our patterns against the offense, which is kind of a little weird to say cause the offense normally dictates what the defense does,” middle linebacker Anthony Walker said. “But we want to be able to dictate that. It’s gonna be fun (this year). It’s gonna be a lot of different things that offenses haven’t seen us do yet. So it’s gonna be fun.”
How does a defense dictate to the offense? One way is to lie.
Everything that happens on a football field before the snap is akin to chess. Players are moved around the board to gain an advantage, and there are rules governing where they can go and how they can get there.
Quarterbacks read the location of the safeties, corners and linebackers to determine whether the defense is playing man-to-man or zone coverage, and wide receivers’ routes often can be adjusted accordingly with an audible at the line of scrimmage.
Many coaches also will send a running back or tight end in motion to give the quarterback even more information about the defense’s intentions.
As the season progessed in 2018 and the Colts’ young defenders became more comfortable in the scheme, Eberflus began lying to opponents.
Indianapolis will show a man-to-man alignment, for instance, and react to the presnap motion accordingly. But when the quarterback drops back to pass, he’ll see zone coverage.
The technique doesn’t need to be employed often to be effective. Sometimes, it’s enough just for an opponent to see it on film in the week leading up to the game.
The goal is to make the quarterback question what his eyes are telling him and hesitate one extra moment in the pocket. In a league as tightly competitive as the NFL, that can make all the difference.
“The quarterbacks are smart in the league,” cornerback Pierre Desir said this spring. “So anything that you can do to throw them off and give you that little step, little advantage is definitely important. That’s something that we practice, and that’s something (the rookies are) learning right now.”
Ballard’s offseason moves could add another level to the deception — personnel.
The GM praised third-year corner Quincy Wilson during the spring for his ability to play all five defensive back positions in the nickel package. And the Colts have similarly built players in Desir and rookie Rock Ya-Sin — taller defenders with long arms, who have the physicality to play man coverage and the athleticism to play zone.
Add in rising star Kenny Moore — who is adept playing both outside and in the slot — and improved depth with Jalen Collins and Nate Hairston showing signs this spring they can return to form, and Indianapolis has the ability to mix and match to suit the needs of the game plan each week.
Similar versatility exists on the defensive line where veteran Justin Houston adds a ferocious pass-rushing presence and Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis and Margus Hunt are among the defenders who can play inside or out depending on need.
The most interesting piece of the puzzle is rookie Ben Banogu. Expected to contribute quickly on third down as a defensive end, he also could see some time as a strongside linebacker in base schemes.
It's a concept borrowed from Carroll and the Seahawks and part of the constant evolution of Eberflus’ scheme.
The game plan remains simple, but it’s always being adapted to the skillset of the roster.
At its heart, this is a scheme built around players and allowing them to shine.
“You want to do something schematically that’s a good idea, sure,” Eberflus said. “But, now, what does the individual player, what is his talent – what does he bring to the table in terms of his skillset? Then you kind of work it from there. So you can never ask a player to do something that he can’t do. Let’s ask him to do something that he’s really good at and let him do that.”