WESTFIELD, Ind. — In the Indianapolis Colts' old defense, the defensive line didn't always get much glory.
The 3-4 base defense and some of its sub-packages focused on the line controlling the gaps, remaining patient and helping set up teammates to attack the offense.
In defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' new 4-3 defense, the line is supposed to be like a pack of wolves once the ball is snapped. They're supposed to be aggressive, trying to attack the backfield so they can completely disrupt the offense.
Instead of the line helping setup the linebackers, the line is the first wave of attack while the linebackers clean up in the trenches and patrol in coverage.
One of the newest pieces in the Colts' new defensive front is defensive tackle Denico Autry, signed this offseason in free agency. The former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman was a Jack of all trades along the line for his former team, but he has really settled in as the three-technique defensive tackle for the Colts over the last five months.
In his four seasons in Oakland, Autry was known for being a disruptive, high-motor force in their rotation. He only started 18 of his 56 games out west, but it appears as if he is the front-runner for the Colts' first-team three-tech spot, having primarily operated there all spring and summer.
Players and coaches have raved about Autry so far. Rookie guard Quenton Nelson has singled Autry out especially, telling reporters, "Denico is a very impressive player. He can be really slippery. He can be really powerful, too. He's really good at when he loses leverage, re-gaining it. He can be powerful as well as shifty."
"He provides a great challenge for me," Nelson said of Autry. "I really enjoy going against him in practice."
Natural talent aside, you can partially attribute Autry's noticeable play in practice to the new system he is in.
Noting that other Colts defensive linemen have described feeling "unleashed" in this new defensive scheme, Autry agreed emphatically when speaking with the media this week.
"Oh, yeah. Yeah," Autry said. "They turn us loose and let us play."
When describing his new role as opposed to his old one, Autry said, "It's a lot different. I'm not really holding up gaps for no one, so I like that a lot."
"Yeah, it's aggressive. Just get off," he said. "In Oakland, I was more reading, but now it's just get off the ball and go disrupt things."
When you think of defensive linemen being disruptive, you typically think of how often they are able to penetrate and get into the backfield. However, Autry contributes in a multitude of ways, one of which is getting his hands into passing lanes.
In fact, Autry had the fourth-most batted passes among all NFL defensive linemen last year, and he only started three games.
Not to anoint him into this class, but if the Colts can get a positive return on Autry then their interior defensive line could really be a force to be reckoned with.
All across the NFL, teams have been led by high-level three-techs getting interior pressure on quarterbacks or racking up tackles in the backfield on running backs — Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy, Fletcher Cox all being recent examples.