System, Player, or Coach? Defensive Line

Tony Dungy's system demands a lot out of its defensive linemen. Who stepped up and who fell short throughout the course of his tenure? Did the players he coached succeed because of their talents, his system, or coaching? Brad Keller breaks it down here.

The Colts offense has been consistently potent throughout Tony Dungy's tenure as coach, but his defense has been up-and-down and certainly has not been blessed with the talented players, stars, and high draft choices that the offense has been given since he took the job in 2002.

Since it's safe to say that offensive stars such as Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Marvin Harrison would succeed no matter who drafted them — and Edgerrin James has had some success in Arizona — defense will be the focus of this series, continuing with the defensive line.

Tony Dungy's Cover 2 defense requires that the defensive line be able to pressure the quarterback all by themselves while the linebackers and secondary settle into their zones and force the quarterback into a poor decision.

Coaches focus on lane discipline and tackling the ball carrier on the way to the quarterback.  Typically, from a personnel standpoint, they look for undersized, fast defensive linemen that can shoot gaps and attack the line of scrimmage.

In the drafts prior to Dungy's arrival, the front office was not trying to identify players that fit this scheme, so he had to seek out players that would fit his mold.  Most of those were identified through the draft, but free agency was combed with mixed results.

Dwight Freeney has been a terror to opposing quarterbacks since joining the Colts in 2002
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Starting with Dungy's arrival, the Colts used a first round choice on Dwight Freeney, who showed immediate results in his rookie season with 13 sacks.  Though he originally did not hold up well against the run, coaching and training helped him anchor at the point of attack and he turned into an excellent two-way defender.

Freeney teamed up with fellow end Chad Bratzke, who contributed with six sacks.  Larry Tripplet, drafted in the second round, contributed as well with fellow defensive tackle Brad Scioli — with seven sacks of his own — to represent a formidable pass rush that produced 36 sacks total.

The 2003 season brought a decline in production with the Colts registering only 30 sacks with the same lineup, adding only situational pass rusher Robert Mathis, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, and signing defensive tackle Montae Reagor — a player originally drafted as a defensive end.

The 2004 season produced 45 total sacks, which can be attributed to equal parts of the Colts playing with the lead for most of the year and the maturation of Mathis, who had 10 1/2 sacks, the arrival of Raheem Brock, who added 6 1/2 sacks, and the pass-rushing skills of Reagor, who had five sacks.

In 2005, Freeney, Mathis, Tripplet, Brock, and Reagor all pitched in as the defense as a whole produced 46 sacks, with 41 of those coming from defensive linemen.

In an apparent success, the Dungy system of pressuring the quarterback with the defensive line seemed to be controlling opposing offenses and contributing to the overall success of the team.

However, the albatross of the Colts and the Cover 2 defense in general has been that, with smaller defensive linemen, it is difficult to defend against the run.  Even with the addition of Corey Simon prior to the 2005 season and Anthony McFarland during the 2006 season, the team finished dead last against the run in 2006. 

Raheem Brock
Getty Images/Elsa

But, with McFarland on injured reserve, Ed Johnson filling in for him, Brock at the other tackle position, Mathis at one end position, and a combination of Freeney and Josh Thomas at the other end position, the Colts finished the 2007 season 15th in run defense and 1st in scoring defense.

McFarland has since been let go and the Colts cut ties with Simon in 2007.

With a paltry 24 sacks in their 2006 championship season and 27 sacks in 2007, where Freeney missed half the year with a Lisfranc injury, the Colts failed to generate a significant pass rush the past two seasons.  However, they have improved overall and proved themselves to be very effective in stopping the run during the 2006 postseason.

The coaching staff seems to have traded a relentless pass rush for gap discipline and stoutness at the point of attack.  They have coached up Mathis — considered to be undersized and a liability against the run — into a two-way defender, as well as coaching up Freeney and transforming Brock from a specialist into a diverse, every-down defender.

In addition, they have made Johnson, an undrafted free agent, into a 16-game starter. 

The coaching staff has, apparently, sacrificed pressure for overall effectiveness, teaching their charges to be run defenders first and pass rushers second.

The results during the regular season cannot be ignored, since the Colts led the league in scoring defense, but the post-season results obviously leave a lot to be desired.  Perhaps, with more of their type of players — Indianapolis has largely failed with free agents, since McFarland and Simon did not produce as desired — the Colts can find the balance between stopping the run and rushing the passer. 

With the guys currently on the roster being gentlemen handpicked by the coaching staff and the front office, not free agents, the onus falls squarely on the gentlemen tasked with making sure this defense works, namely Dungy, Ron Meeks, and defensive line coach John Teerlinck.

The inability of incoming players to assimilate the system means that the coaches are most responsible for the success of the system.

Verdict: Coaches.

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