The Colts "bend-but-don't-break" defensive philosophy was often a source of frustration for fans during the Tony Dungy-Ron Meeks defensive regime in Indianapolis. While Dungy repeatedly stood behind his philosophy with his "do what we do" mantra and was loathe to make changes in coordinators, that changed when Dungy retired and Jim Caldwell took over as the Colts head coach.
With Dungy gone, Caldwell replaced Meeks — who has since been hired by the Carolina Panthers — with Larry Coyer, formerly of the Broncos and Buccaneers. However, he's said that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a sea change for the Indianapolis defense.
"From a schematic standpoint we are the same," Caldwell said during the Colts' organized team activities. "Our terminology is the same. We'll just have a couple of wrinkles here and there that maybe we'll use utilize a guy's ability a little differently from time to time.
Freeney says he's excited about the new defensive changes
AP Photo/Tom Strickland
"Overall, you probably won't see much difference at all. We have the same system and that was part of the plan. Larry (Coyer) came from Tampa. Tampa ran basically the same system that we run here and the same terminology. I think that works well and suits well for what we plan to do with our defensive structure."
Caldwell told Scout.com National NFL Reporter Adam Caplan essentially the same thing during the owner's meetings in March, albeit with a bit of a twist:
"He said they would keep the Cover-2, but probably would be a little more aggressive," Caplan told ColtPower.com.
Those two factors — added aggressiveness and a higher blitz rate — seem to be the two things people are anticipating when it comes to the defense under Coyer.
Marlin Jackson seemed to reinforce that sentiment during OTAs, as well.
"The concepts are still the same, but I think there's going to be a little more aggressiveness in the defense, and the way we play, doing some different things and mixing it up," Jackson said. "Overall, the concepts of the defense are the same, but play calling and things of that nature maybe a little different.
"The defensive front is definitely aggressive. There will be a few blitzes in there and different coverages and things of that nature, to give the offenses different looks."
Defensive end Dwight Freeney also talked at length during OTAs about the defense and any changes people might see.
"(Coyer) definitely has new stuff; some very interesting things that help out a lot and are a lot different from last year," Freeney said. "We also have a lot that is the same and I think, sometimes, change is a good thing. So, we'll see what happens . . . I think you'll probably see more movement and maybe some different coverages and fronts. Mostly doing some things just to tweak it up a bit and keep the offense on their toes."
Freeney seemed to generally have a positive view of what he has seen from the new coaching regime.
"Every year going into a new year there is always change. Even with the same coordinator there is going to be change, because you always have to improve from the year before. Obviously, we have a new coordinator this year and there's probably a little bit more change than what we're used too, but it might be a good thing. The same pieces are out there doing what we do.
"I like a lot of the changes. We'll see what happens. It's easy to say that now, but I have confidence that what we have now will work."
Freeney was rebuffed by Bill Polian and Caldwell when he brought up the possibility of playing offense this spring, and it's unlikely you'll see the pass-rusher extraordinaire in any other roles as well, such as dropping into coverage in zone blitzes."I don't think so," Freeney said about dropping into coverage, "but if they do ask me (to) I'll be all right."
So, with those thoughts in mind, what can we really expect from Coyer's defense?
More blitzing seems to be No. 1 on the list. The problem with that is there's a good reason that the Colts didn't blitz much under Dungy and Meeks — when you blitz, you leave areas of the field open. A good offensive team will take advantage of that, which is one reason team's haven't had much success blitzing the Colts over the years — Peyton Manning and Co. will make them pay for it.
The Cover-2 or "Tampa-2" defense — which is explained here in an excellent article by Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden — is a bit of an umbrella defense that relies on the front four defenders to pressure the quarterback, and the back seven defenders each patrolling a specific zone. It's designed to take away big plays and force offenses to dink-and-dunk their way down the field.
It's not a new defense, and it's one that has gone in and out of vogue in the NFL. It is currently going out of vogue a bit in favor of the 3-4 defensive schemes used by the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and others. However, it's still a popular defense, especially considering the reach of Dungy's coaching tree (which originates from Chuck Noll's Steeler teams in the 1970's) in today's NFL.
When you pull players out of their zone to pursue the quarterback, you still have to account for that zone, meaning it either goes uncovered or the other players have to cover more ground to make up for it. This goes against the basic tenant of the Tampa-2, which is to take away big plays by keeping everything in front of the defense and cover the whole field. With less defenders to cover, the more possibility exists for a big play.
However, more blitzing also means more rushers for teams to account for, and often, less time for the quarterback to throw. That's why teams often will "pin their ears back" and bring lots of blitzers at inexperienced or indecisive quarterbacks. That's also why blitzes aren't effective against QBs like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. When the New York Giants made Brady's life miserable in Super Bowl XLII, they did it mainly with their front four.
So will Coyer's Colts blitz more, or will the team stick to its usual mode of attack?
Caplan seems to think we'll see more blitzes from the Colts. "The Colts historically had a low blitz rate under Ron Meeks, so that could go up," he said.
Doug Farrar, who publishes NorthwestFootball.net, Scout.com's Seattle Seahawks site, and is a contributor at Football Outsiders, ESPN.com and the Washington Post online, shared some thoughts about the Colts defense and Coyer's defenses.
"Last year, no team brought five or more defenders with less frequency than the Colts per Football Outsiders' stats," Farrar said, "so any aggressiveness in that regard would be an uptick.
"In Coyer's last season as Denver's defensive coordinator (2006), the Broncos brought the house pretty frequently. According to Football Outsiders' numbers, the '06 Broncos rushed six or more defenders 10.5 percent of the time (rank: 11th) and seven or more 2.7 percent of the time (rank: 7th)."
Of course, Coyer was fired by the Broncos after they finished 14th in total defense in 2006, despite several successful seasons prior to that. They did tie for 8th in points per game allowed, but for all those blitzes, were only 21st in sacks per pass attempt. Like the Colts in 2006, the Broncos had a bit of a defensive meltdown and lost five of their last seven games to miss the playoffs.
Caplan says the problem wasn't Coyer, it was the players he had to work with. "Coyer got unfairly blamed for Denver's defensive struggles when he was there," he said. "It really came down to a lack of quality personnel."
Farrar agreed with that assessment.
"As Adam said, it's tough to know how much blame to put on this or that coordinator when the front office kept whiffing on defensive linemen and leaking linebacker talent," he told ColtPower.com.
"Seattle's Gus Bradley, who worked with Coyer in Tampa Bay through the 2007 and 2008 seasons, talks about bringing different facets of the Tampa-2 to the Seahawks with a pretty decent amount of schematic diversity," Farrar continued. "I would imagine that Coyer has a similar concept in mind, since the Colts were already set up as a T-2 team by way of Mr. Dungy."
The Colts were right in the middle of the league in sacks, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis accounting for 22 of the team's 30. More blitzes would ease the burden on that duo's shoulders and could well increase the team's total.
Despite popular opinion, Coyer is not inheriting a bad defense in Indianapolis. The Colts finished 11th in yards per game, were seventh in points per game allowed and the team set an NFL record by allowing only six passing touchdowns.
However, there are two glaring areas where the Colts need to improve: third-down percentage, where they finished second-to-last in the league, and rushing yards per game, where they finished 24th.
Blitzing aside, most fans would like to see those two areas shored up with a more aggressive style, attacking instead of reacting when an opposing team faces a third down or an obvious running situation.
Session and Wheeler should help the Colts turn up the aggressiveness on defense
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
The Colts may very well be better in those areas in 2009 in part because of the personnel they have added. The team drafted two defensive tackles and brought back Ed Johnson to bolster the run defense up the middle.
Already in training camp, we've seen some blitzing from Session and Wheeler, and we've sen the defense show blitz even more often, then drop into coverage. Reggie Wayne even commented that blitzing in the first practice was something the defense was excited about.
Another interesting wrinkle is one of a five-man front, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the ends and Daniel Muir, Eric Foster and Raheem Brock in the middle. The Colts have experimented with this alignment as well, even using Mathis and Freeney in a two-point stance to rush the passer. Read more about it in this chat from Aug. 4.
And, of course, the Colts' talented secondary should allow the front to play aggressively, but even a secondary as good as the Colts can only cover so much ground.
We'll keep watching and updating on what we see from Coyer, but we won't know for sure for another week when the Colts take the field against the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason opener.
"We're probably going to mix things up a little bit more than we have previously," Caldwell said Tuesday. "And that's what I think when the guys are talking about it more than anything else, is you have to practice those things. It's not like were going to use all these things in one game. But you have to go through your menu, work your way down your list, install everything you have and then you come back and for each game you pick out a few things you're going to utilize. Don't expect our entire game to be an all-out blitz from start to finish."
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