WESTFIELD, Ind. – It’s a number, but not just a number: 40.
Matt Eberflus doesn’t just pluck a number off the table and haphazardly use it as a motivational tool in the ongoing development of the Indianapolis Colts’ defense.
It’s a number with significance to the veteran defensive coordinator: 40 takeaways.
“That’s just the NFL greats in the history of the NFL, that 40 number,’’ Eberflus said during training camp. “That’s just there. It’s one of those numbers that’s really super high, and a few teams have achieved it and we’re just trying to search for that.’’
Over the past 20 seasons, 13 teams have reached the 40-takeaway level and there’s a clear cause-and-effect. Twelve won at least 10 games and 11 followed their larcenous defense into the postseason.
“It’s one of those things where you’re shooting for perfection and you’ll catch excellence,’’ Eberflus said. “It is achievable. It’s been done in the past. I think the highest for the Colts I want to say is in the high 30s quite a few years back. We’re shooting for that.’’
That the defense has progressed under Eberflus’ direction since 2018 is undeniable. After ranking 30th in total yards in ’17, it’s been 11th, 16 and 8th the last three seasons.
But they haven’t been mistaken for takeaway artists: 25 last year, 23 in ’19, ’26 in ’18. And that’s simply extended a long defensive deficiency.
The Colts have reached that target 40 level 13 times in their history, but only once since their relocation in 1984. In ’87, they generated 45.
Over the last 20 seasons, they’ve cracked 30 only four times: 37 in ’07, 31 in ’05, 36 in ’04, 30 in ’03.
So Eberflus pounds home the message, which is finding a receptive audience.
40. 40. 40.
“That’s been the standard actually since they got here in 2018,’’ nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II said. “It’s nothing new for us. We failed a few times, but we’ve just got to stay on it.’’
That’s evident every day in practice. Cornerbacks always are looking to plaster in coverage or jump a route and come up with an interception or a deflection that sends the football ricocheting to a converging defender. Linebackers and d-linemen attempt to pry the ball out of the hands of a running back or receiver not just to the whistle, but past it.
That approach forces the offense to be on high alert for ball security, but reinforces the idea Eberflus’ defense demands takeaways.
Basically, you play like you practice.
“Of course,’’ All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard said. “You’ve got to because it becomes muscle memory. It’s all about repetition. If you do it in practice day-in and day-out, then in the game it’s going to be second nature to you. You’re going to be punching, you’re going to be scooping, you’re going to be scoring and stuff like that.’’
While the Colts have lacked collective productivity, Leonard has been a disruptive force since being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft with seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The latter includes a punch-out in week 15 last season as Houston wideout Keke Coutee was streaking for the end zone with 19 seconds to play and the Texans trailing 27-20. Bobby Okereke sealed the victory by recovering the Leonard-induced fumble in the end zone.
Much of the attention during training camp has focused on the Carson Wentz/Jacob Eason/Sam Ehlinger trilogy, but Eberflus’ defense has been a constant force. And it’s frequently created turnovers, many a result of pressure on the quarterback from DeForest Buckner, Kwity Paye, Ben Banogu, Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis.
Monday in team drills, Okereke undercut Eason’s quick slant to Zach Pascal and returned the interception for what would have been a pick-6.
Tuesday, cornerback Isaiah Rodgers jumped a route by Dezmon Patmon during 7-on-7 work and returned his interception of Wentz for a touchdown.
Veteran safety Sean Davis has come up with three interceptions the last two days.
Eberflus has been pleased as training camp has unfolded – he missed the first two games after a positive COVID-19 test – but only to a point.
“Our mentality is going to sound like a downer a little bit,’’ he said, “but it’s never good enough. We’re always missing strip assignments, we’re always missing opportunities . . . and you have to seize them.’’
Video review points out the positives, but also highlights those missed opportunities.
“We’ll always show the guys the great plays they make on the ball,’’ Eberflus said. “(But) every single time we’ll talk about, ‘Hey, you missed four strip attempts and you had three or four good ones.
“That’s really important to us and that’s part of our principle that we believe in, the takeaway part of it. We’re working on it day-to-day, but it’s never good enough.’’
That never-good-enough mindset is infectious. Leonard forced a team-high three fumbles last season. That wasn’t nearly good enough.
“If you look at the missed opportunities we had last year, I had six,’’ he said. “Other guys had a dropped interception or the forced fumbles that we had, we didn’t scoop it up.’’
Forty takeaways, Leonard added, is “realistic.
‘We think that we can shatter that goal, but it’s going to take repetition in practice, then we get in the game, when the moment comes, you’ve got to seize the moment.’’