INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Tony Dungy’s smile has widened as the season has unfolded and the Indianapolis Colts defense has evolved from taking baby steps to stepping all over the Dallas Cowboys.
He’s seen this act before.
“It’s been fun to watch,’’ Dungy said. “They do have a lot of the right pieces to the puzzle, just young, aggressive guys who can strike.’’
Wait for it.
“It does remind me of us getting started in 2002,’’ he said.
That was when the Colts transitioned from Jim Mora and Vic Fangio’s zone-blitzing 4-3 defense to Dungy’s Tampa-2.
The Colts had their franchise quarterback (Peyton Manning) in place. The offense was loaded and more than capable of winning any – every – Sunday. Dungy installed a defense that could be built around young, athletic talent, and would fly to the football and create havoc. It would offer complementary assistance to Manning and the offense, and on occasion be capable of carrying the day.
Fast-forward to 2018.
The Colts had their franchise quarterback (Andrew Luck) in place. The offense, while in need of a few more playmakers, was more than capable of piling up the points.
But the defense needed a significant makeover.
It was January and general manager Chris Ballard was in the midst of the franchise’s latest transition. Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino had been dismissed. Ballard was considering Dallas Cowboys assistant Matt Eberflus as Monachino’s successor.
The idea was to scrap Pagano’s 3-4 scheme that too often was substandard and install a version of Dungy’s Tampa-2. Ballard had witnessed its impact with the Colts in the 2000s and while working in Chicago with Lovie Smith.
He sought out the appropriate source before making a franchise-shaping move that included hiring Eberflus and replicating the defensive approach during the Dungy era. It had served the Colts so well, contributing to sustained success and a Super Bowl XLI victory over Smith’s Bears after the 2006 season.
Ballard valued Dungy’s input, and rightly so. He’s the winningest coach in Colts’ history, became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016.
“I talked to Chris Ballard about that. We’ve talked several times,’’ said Dungy, who’s part of NBC’s broadcast crew. “He told me right away that he had spent so much time with Lovie and kind of understood how we put it together in Tampa and in Indy.
“He just really felt good about that plan. It doesn’t surprise me how they’re playing.’’
Unlike some schemes, Dungy’s is conducive to plugging in young players, even rookies, and acquired free agents and getting them up to speed quickly. The Colts have had to turn to 24 different starters on defense, including seven rookies. Second-round draft pick Darius Leonard leads the NFL in total tackles and solos, and is a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
That personnel approach on defense is especially critical when a team’s budget is heavily weighted with offensive talent, as was the case in the Manning years and now with Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Anthony Castonzo.
“When Bill Polian and Jim Irsay hired me that was the thought process,’’ Dungy said. “We’ve got so many dollars allocated to the offense that we weren’t going to be able to sign a lot of veteran free agents and there weren’t going to be a lot of experienced guys. It was going to be draft and plug them in. That’s the one thing Jim and Bill both liked about the defensive system.
“For Chris, it’s the same way. ‘Hey, we want to get this defense up to speed quick. We’re going to use some high draft choices on players and expect them to play.’ And it is easier. You have to become experienced at it and you grow by playing in it, but there aren’t a million rules to learn.
“Guys with athleticism and talent can play relatively quickly.’’
Throughout the growing process, Eberflus has demanded energy, hustle, relentlessness, a player doing his job and accountability. Those are prerequisites for this type of defense.
“I understood that was the blueprint,’’ Dungy said, “and they’ve gone about it very slowly and surely with that in mind. And hiring Matt Eberflus was big.’’
Eberflus learned the ins and outs of the defense while working with Rod Marinelli and Monte Kiffin in Dallas. Both were with Dungy in Tampa.
“He really understands the whole philosophy and the history of the defense and the essence of it and how you do it and really believing in it,’’ Dungy said. “It’s not doing a lot of things, but letting the guys play fast and use their speed.
“I’ve been watching it and you can see it progress almost month by month.’’
There were early growing pangs. During the Colts’ 1-5 start, the defense allowed averages of 386.8 yards and 30 points. During their current 7-1 streak that has them in contention for a playoff berth, the averages are a crisp 307.5 and 15. The defense ranks 10th in the NFL in total yards and 11th in points.
Moreover, it’s coming off its best performance of the season. Sunday against Dallas, Eberflus’ group posted the Colts’ first shutout since 2014 and slapped the Cowboys with their first shutout loss in 15 seasons.
“And they did it against a team that had been explosive,’’ Dungy said. “I loved it. We were talking about it (on the NBC Football Night in America) show. The first couple of drives, Dallas moved the ball. But it was ‘Don’t give Amari Cooper the 60-yard touchdown.’ It was, ‘Make ‘em work.’ If they had to take 10 or 12 plays, somebody on the defense was going to make a play.
“That’s what they’re learning and that’s what showed up. Then Dallas got frustrated. When you get behind, you’re looking for the big plays and they aren’t there and it just snowballs on you.
“It was a perfectly blue-printed game defensively.’’
Dungy offered high praise for Leonard and how the second-round pick fits in Eberflus’ defense.
“There are certain guys – Dwight (Freeney), Bob Sanders, Robert Mathis – that when you saw them, you just said, ‘Wow, they’re perfect for this.’’’ He said. “They play five or 10 plays and you say, ‘They’re going to be pretty good.’
“I think he’s the perfect fit for what the Colts are trying to do, and you could see it right away.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.