INDIANAPOLIS —Are the Indianapolis Colts switching it up on defense?
General manager Chris Ballard hinted at the idea Wednesday during a press conference at the team facility, where he primarily discussed the re-opening of the Colts' head coaching position after Josh McDaniels, who had agreed to terms to take over the job, ultimately decided against it.
That decision could've left three recently-hired assistant coaches — Matt Eberflus, Mike Phair and Dave DeGuglielmo — out of luck and without the support of the team as it continues to look for its new leader. Instead, Ballard said all three coaches "will be on the staff" of the next Colts head coach.
"We will not abandon them," Ballard said. "They're good coaches. They're good people. They're good developer of men and that's what we want."
Ballard said Eberflus will take over as Indy's defensive coordinator. Eberflus, 47, had spent the last seven seasons as the linebackers coach for the Dallas Cowboys, and in 2016, he added on passing game coordinator duties.
Ballard then began connecting the dots to a possible change in scheme for the Colts' defense under Eberflus:
• Ballard was a scout and Director of Pro Scouting for the Chicago Bears from 2001 through 2012. While there, he developed a close relationship with Rod Marinelli, who was the Bears' assistant head coach/defensive line coach/defensive coordinator from 2009 through 2012. The Bears would rank in the Top 10 in the NFL in total defense twice under Marinelli, including ninth in 2010 and fifth in 2012.
• Chicago utilized a 4-3 base defensive scheme, with four defensive linemen and three linebackers up front, and mostly utilized a Tampa 2 zone coverage in the secondary, emulating the same defensive principles that worked so well for future Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy in his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Colts
• Marinelli in 2013 headed to the Cowboys, where he was the defensive line coach his first season and in 2014 was named the defensive coordinator, where he retained Eberflus as his linebackers coach, and later, defensive passing game coordinator. Marinelli then connected Ballard with Eberflus. "Rod Marinelli is a close friend and mentor that I trust and value his opinion," Ballard said Wednesday. "I got to know Matt Eberflus a few years ago and was blown away by Matt."
• Ballard then talked about his belief in the defensive system and principles used in both Chicago under Marinelli and in Indianapolis under Dungy, which finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in total defense two times during his seven-year tenure (2002 and 2007) and finished in 11th three other seasons utilizing the 4-3 base defense
Ballard said their schemes are "easy for young players to play because it's simple and it allows them to play fast and physical and that's what we want to be."
The Colts switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense with the arrival of then-head coach Chuck Pagano back in 2012, a scheme the team kept through Pagano's final season in 2017.
While a 3-4 defense typically relies on pressure being created by the linebackers — particularly the outside linebackers — it can be much more of a complex system overall, with varying gap responsibilities for defensive linemen, pass rush and coverage needs from outside linebackers and varying man-to-man and zone coverage schemes by the secondary.
In the 4-3, those used as 3-4 outside linebackers would typically be used as defensive ends, while a 3-4 nose tackle/defensive end would take on more of a defensive tackle role. There are still two outside linebackers in a 4-3, but they tend to take on many more responsibilities in coverage, while the middle linebacker is perhaps the most important player in the entire scheme, as he'll be relied upon to be stout against the run as well as in zone coverage.
The secondary is a huge aspect of the 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme, meanwhile, and is relied upon to provide coverage of several zones by the linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. While a free safety might be responsible for the area behind him and to his right and a strong safety has the area behind him and to his left, it's the middle linebacker that must be athletic enough to cover the zone deep over the middle.
Under Marinelli — and with Eberflus learning every step of the way — the Cowboys utilized this defensive approach to improve from ranking 14th in total defense in 2016 to eighth in 2017.
So could the Colts try to get back to their defensive ways back in 2007, for example, when they were third in the league in total defense and first in points allowed, and featured a Defensive Player of the Year at safety in Bob Sanders, two terrifying pass rushers at defensive end in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and an athletic, all-around leader at middle linebacker in Gary Brackett?
It sure looks like that writing is on the wall.
"I feel very lucky to have Matt Eberflus in the building running a scheme that I think fits our team that we can scout for and that fits our building," Ballard said. "We're playing on an indoor surface. We're going to be playing in ideal weather 8-12 games a year that's going to be based on athletic ability and speed. That's how this defense is built."