INDIANAPOLIS — One of the main priorities for Matt Eberflus upon being hired to be the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts earlier this year was to find players who could hustle to the ballcarrier and bring him to the ground.
It may seem simple, but sound tackling is something not every NFL defensive unit can claim as a strength year in and year out.
The Colts, specifically, have struggled in this area the last few seasons; oftentimes a play that could’ve been stopped for a small to moderate pickup broke into a huge gain simply because the defense wasn’t sound in its tackling techniques.
But through two games so far this season, it seems as though Eberflus’ approach in this area is paying off.
The Colts not only visually appear to be better, but Pro Football Focus has the Indy defense ranked as the top tackling unit in the entire NFL, giving them a grade of 88.2 in that area — which is almost six points better than the second-place Carolina Panthers.
In fact, PFF has the Colts ranked as their sixth-best defensive unit overall through the first two weeks of the season, assigning them a grade of 77.0, only trailing the Chicago Bears (85.8), the Los Angeles Rams (85.0), the Washington Redskins (84.6), the Cincinnati Bengals (81.6) and the Baltimore Ravens (77.9).
Always a tough grader, Eberflus said Tuesday he’s been mostly pleased with his unit’s performance when it came to tackling, but feels there’s still tons of work to be done to be better.
“I think it’s OK. I think we can improve,” Eberflus told reporters in his weekly press conference. “We have to work on our angles. There are too many times where you see in the games that we are over shooting the ball. So we have to definitely work on our angles to the football as a unit. So that’s one of the biggest things that we’ll emphasize this week.”
Having the league’s leading tackler through two weeks certainly helps in this area.
Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has been a tackling machine so far, registering an NFL-best 27 stops combined in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Washington Redskins. Leonard had 18 tackles (15 solo) alone in Sunday’s 21-9 win in Washington.
But elsewhere, the Colts seem to be putting themselves in better position overall to make plays. Against the Redskins, Indianapolis utilized a dime-heavy defensive look, getting more speed on the field, but not losing much in the way of tackling ability.
Eberflus primarily utilized Clayton Geathers as his dime linebacker, and the safety, who played 27 snaps in the box, according to PFF, finished with 11 tackles on the day — only second to Leonard.
That oftentimes left Matthias Farley (25 snaps in the secondary) and Malik Hooker lined up deep at safety.
The key now for the Colts is to figure out a way to keep the momentum going against the defending Super Bowl champs.
Indianapolis on Sunday travels to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, who will see the 2018 debut of quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz, of course, was putting in an MVP-caliber season last year when he suffered a torn ACL late in the season, and backup Nick Foles was able to pick up the pieces from there.
And while Sunday’s game will only be about 9 1/2 months since Wentz suffered his knee injury, Eberflus — formerly the linebackers coach and passing game coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys — knows just how dangerous the quarterback can be.
“He is just able to extend plays,” Eberflus said. “He is so strong in the pocket. That’s where he is able to extend a lot like a lot of the bigger quarterbacks who have played in the league. They can stay on their feet and they can stay alive. They can ride the pocket and make those throws so that’s what he’s been able to do. … He is obviously an excellent player and a big challenge for our defense.”