INDIANAPOLIS — Just under one season into the Indianapolis Colts' defensive rebuild, and you can probably consider them ahead of schedule.
First-year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' scheme is often referred to as a Tampa 2 system, relying on simple tasks so that players can play freely and instinctually rather than depending on outwitting the offense. There is a heavy emphasis on discipline, fundamentals, teamwork and hustle.
In a nutshell, stick to your fundamentals and the principles of the defense and your talent and instincts will allow you and your teammates to make plays.
However, the Colts employed a much different 3-4 base defense for the past six seasons before this year. With the change, the Colts needed to find players that fit their new scheme.
This week, Pro Football Focus featured the Colts' defense in a piece in which it examined why the Colts' new defense has already been so effective this season despite being on the simpler side and not having many household names.
One reason the Colts rely on a "simplistic" defense is so that their young, talented players can get onto the field quicker and help the team rather than having to be groomed for weeks into the regular season.
Partly because of the system, youth has not been an issue for the Colts defense. They have approximately 12 defenders who have played significant snaps for them who are either first or second-year players, or this is their first year in the league as a regular starter.
With just two games left in the regular season, the Colts' defense ranks eighth against the run (103.6 YPG), eighth in points per drive allowed (1.84 avg), ninth in red zone scoring defense (51.3%), 10th in total defense (341.5 YPG), 11th in scoring defense (21.4 PPG) and is tied for 12th in sacks (38).
Since Week 11, the Colts have allowed just 279.0 yards, 12.2 points and a third-down rate of 37.3 percent per game to opposing offenses, as well as getting to the quarterback for 3.4 sacks and one takeaway per contest. They've actually forced a turnover in all but one game.
After shutting out a red-hot Dallas Cowboys offense featuring Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper last week, 23-0, the Colts really began to open some eyes.
One big part of their quick success has been the players that they have picked up for the system; many of them are either perfect for the system or are versatile enough to where they can perform many different tasks.
In general, the Colts have found defensive linemen with speed and athleticism, who can play inside and out. The linebackers are fast — covering sideline to sideline — and instinctual. The defensive backs — many of which have good length — have good short-area quickness as well as instincts and ball skills. All of those players must tackle, and all of those players must hustle.
"Hustle is a learned skill. It is the coach's job to stay on it with the player to give him the feedback on every single play," Eberflus said earlier this week. "That starts way back in OTAs, all the way through mini-camp and then through training camp every single play. Coaches want to get enamored with scheme all the time, talk about this technique and that. We have to do that but you can never bypass two things, you can't bypass the hustle. Okay, that has to be coached on every single play by every coach. Then the strip attempts have to be coached every single play by every coach."
PFF points out that the Colts operate almost exclusively out of zone coverage, playing man just 13 percent of the time on passing downs, which is the second-lowest rate in the NFL.
Yes, this allows opposing quarterbacks to complete a high amount of pass attempts — the Colts allow 71 percent, which is the second-highest in the league — but it's not an issue. It also allows young players to get on the field quicker, having to worry about their zone rather than trailing a single assignment. They'll give offenses the completion, but that's all they're going to get.
Colts defenders are taught to swarm to the ball. Not hustling to the ball will get you docked for what they consider a "loaf" in the film room, and it will probably getting your playing time cut as well. That's why the players on the field are an enthusiastic, energetic bunch.
"We talk about seven-plus (players) on underneath throws and intermediate passes and screens and those types of the things and check downs and we like to have at least six to seven guys on every tackle," Eberflus told reporters at the beginning of the season. "That means if we look at that as a group. That means we are hustling, that means we got our D-line hustling out of the stack. We've got our secondary coming to the football and we have more than just two guys trying to make the tackle. We have a good number of guys."
Although the Colts' defense focuses on itself and controlling what it can control, PFF mentions that simply lining up in Cover-2 or Cover-3 almost exclusively does actually create some conflict for opposing offenses.
"With the static look, opposing quarterbacks can't get any sort of presnap read on the defense and the route concepts that beat cover-3 don't often overlap with the concepts that beat cover-2. It's also a defense that can't be 'schemed' into busted coverage."
"The result is a defense that plays as fast as anyone in the league. Whether it's reacting to checkdowns or breaking on routes, the defenders are allowed to play off instinct rather than rules. It's why Darius Leonard is second among all linebackers with 22 coverage stops, and why Kenny Moore is fourth among all corners with 17. It's why teams have only attempted 44 deep passes on them this season, the fewest in the NFL."
The combination of Colts general manager Chris Ballard and the front office's ability to find ideal players for the scheme, and Eberflus and his defensive coaching staff getting the most of that talent, has turned one of the league's most basic defenses into one of its most effective.