It’s been a calculated process as Colts, Matt Eberflus build defense


Matt Eberflus

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INDIANAPOLIS – Roster turnover is a way of life in the NFL. Here today, somewhere else tomorrow.

But even by league standards, the makeover of the Indianapolis Colts’ defense has been dramatic.

Necessary, but dramatic nonetheless.

By the numbers with the D:

0: players who pre-date the arrival of general manager Chris Ballard in 2017. The last man standing was safety Clayton Geathers, a 2015 fourth-round draft pick who wasn’t re-signed in March.

4: players still around from Ballard’s first season/draft: safety Malik Hooker, tackle Grover Stewart, linebacker Anthony Walker, nickel back Kenny Moore II. The 2017 draft class lost a third defensive prospect in April when Ballard traded Quincy Wilson to the New York Jets. One of Ballard’s key free-agent acquisitions in ‘17, end Jabaal Sheard, saw his three-year stop in Indy end in March.

18: starters or projected backups added since 2018, Matt Eberflus’ first year as coordinator.

The overriding reason for the seismic shift was the team’s transition from Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme to Eberflus’ 4-3. It takes time to put the right pieces in place. Initially, there were too many square pegs to fit in round holes.

In coach-speak, it’s been a process. Early on, Eberflus found himself balancing personnel with personality. Achieving an acceptable bottom line always was the objective – points allowed, pressuring the quarterback, third-down efficiency, takeaways, stopping the run – but it was critical to get there the right way.

Eberflus’ first year included “setting the standards.’’

“We want to play at a certain level in terms of effort, in terms of our intensity and in terms of our execution down-in and down-out,’’ he said in a Monday Zoom conference call.

He drove home his message by assigning “loafs’’ to players. If a player fails to give maximum effort on a play, or doesn’t run down a ball carrier even if the play is to the other side of the field, he’s slapped with a “loaf.’’

Darius Leonard was introduced to Eberflus’ demerit system early in his rookie season. In his second start, the 2018 second-round draft pick piled up 19 tackles at Washington, the most by a Colt in seven seasons. 

Film review was brutal. Eberflus gave his standout Will ‘backer nine loafs.

“Every play they want to see you go 110 percent,’’ Leonard said at the time. “Even if the ball’s 95 yards down the field, they want to see you running at least 15 to 20 yards. You want that mentality.

“It always shocks me when I see loafs. I think I get to the ball, then I see on film I could have done this better.’’

“We assessed (2018) and said, ‘Hey, we did a relatively good job of doing that,’’’ Eberflus said. “If you just watch it from 10,000 feet, I think you can see the effort, the hitting and the things we want to see on tape.

“The thing coach (Tony) Dungy used to always stress is the quickness, the instincts and the striking ability.’’

With the foundation in place, Ballard and his personnel staff used the 2019 draft to flood the defensive roster with prospects. Seven of the first eight picks addressed the ever-evolving defense.

“We were going to put those guys in and play because we knew that they were our future, and they were going to be a big part of our success going forward,’’ Eberflus said.

Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin started 13 of 15 games and was on the field for 851 snaps (87.3%), most on defense. Safety Khari Willis (14 games, nine starts, 59.9% play time), linebacker Bobby Okereke (16, eight, 45.6%), end Ben Banogu (16, 0, 26%) and cornerback Marvell Tell III (13, one, 24.4%) logged extensive minutes with varying degrees of success.

“We couldn’t be afraid to put them in there right away so they can get that experience and playing time because we knew they were good enough,’’ Eberflus said. “They just needed experience.

“We wanted to have a young but experienced defense, and that is what we have now. So we have guys that have a lot of play underneath their belt, and they understand what the standards are.’’

Ballard has used to the offseason to complement that young defense. He traded for tackle DeForest Buckner – the 3-technique who’s projected to be the “engine’’ of the defense – and signed tackle Sheldon Day and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie.

“We feel good where we are right now,’’ Eberflus said, adding the uncertainty of the COVID-19-impacted offseason requires constant adjustment in bringing everything together.

Not surprisingly, the process has endured growing pains.

Eberflus’ defense ranked 11th in total yards (339.4 per game) and 10th in scoring (21.5) in 2018, but dipped to 16th (346.8) and 18th (23.3) last season. It experienced a serious lag over the last six games, giving up averages of 382.2 yards and 27.8 points.

Remember the 38-35 loss at Tampa Bay when Jamesis Winston passed for 456 yards and four TDs? The next week, Drew Brees completed 29-of-30 passes for 307 yards and four TDs in New Orleans’ 34-7 blowout.

The late-season fade offset what otherwise was an encouraging season. During the 5-2 start, Eberflus’ defense – relying on so much youth – allowed averages of 349.4 yards and 21.6 points. Opponents converted an acceptable 39.2% of the time on third downs. That latter figure mushroomed to 48.1% over the final six games.

A high point occurred in week 5 at Kansas City. Even though Leonard and Geathers were out with concussions and Hooker missed the game following knee surgery, the defense stepped up. It harassed Patrick Mahomes (four sacks, four other hits), limited him to 321 yards and one touchdown and stymied his ground game (38 yards on 14 carries). The result: a 19-13 victory at Arrowhead Stadium.

“I remember looking up against Kansas City and seeing five rookies playing,’’ Ballard said. “That’s tough sledding on your coaching staff. I don’t care how good they are as players. They’re still rookies.’’

It gave a glimpse of what could be, of what’s expected moving forward.

“You take one step at a time,’’ Eberflus said. “We felt after those first four games that we started to really come on. There was a situation in the middle there where a lot of those young players were playing at a very high level, we thought. There were the eight games of 10 games in the middle there where we thought we were doing a nice job.

“I think that is going to pay off. I know it will.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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