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The Indianapolis Colts Finally Built A Defensive Monster

When the Indianapolis Colts hired Chuck Pagano as head coach, he promised to “Build the Monster”: a perennially tough, hard-nosed team like the one he coached in Baltimore. Through nine games of the 2020 season, the Colts defense has allowed the fewest yards of any defense in the NFL, just the kind of Ravens-esque unit he surely hoped to build.

But Pagano didn’t build this monster. Instead, it was brought to life by his replacement, Frank Reich, and first-time NFL defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.

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Given Reich’s early successes, it might be hard to remember that he was an emergency fallback hire. Indianapolis plucked Reich from the Philadelphia Eagles just five days after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reneged on his agreement to take the Colts job. Remarkably, Eberflus signed his contract thinking he was going to work under McDaniels, not Reich.

Eberflus, who had been considered the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive-coordinator-in-waiting under Rod Marinelli, brought a flavor of Marinelli’s Tampa 2 scheme north with him. Indianapolis, of course, made seven straight playoff appearances and won a Super Bowl running the Tampa 2 under Marinelli’s old boss, Tony Dungy.

Converting from a Ravens-style 3-4 to a Tampa 2-based 4-3 requires extensive changes in personnel, as Eberflus admitted in a town hall meeting after his hiring. But even though Reich didn’t hire Eberflus himself, he bought into the idea.

“I’m really into pressure with four men and let the defense play,” Reich told SiriusXM at the time. “It’s a little bit of bend-but-don’t-break. It’s a unique coverage that not as many teams run, and the teams that run it don’t run it as well as the pure [Tampa 2] teams.”

Pressuring with four pass-rushers and playing well behind them is exactly what the Colts have done this year. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Colts are pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 24.0 percent of dropbacks, ranking 12th in the NFL. Yet they’re blitzing just 19.9 percent of the time, fourth-lowest in the league.

Though the Colts defense played well in the first two years under Eberflus, there’s been one big difference in 2020. Literally, a big difference: 6-foot-7, 295-pound defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.

Acquired in a surprise March trade after the San Francisco 49ers decided they couldn’t meet the young Pro Bowler’s asking price on an extension, Buckner has had a transformative impact on the Colts’ defense. His 16 quarterback hits tie him for sixth-most in the NFL, and just one behind Aaron Donald and Chris Jones for most by an interior defensive lineman. And as opposing offensive lines focus on Buckner, teammates like Denico Autry have had more room to operate; Autry has six sacks in nine games so far this year after notching just 3.5 in 14 games last season.

According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards stat, the Colts’ defensive line was the 15th-best against the run in 2019. This year? They’re seventh-best in that metric, and sixth-best when opponents are running up the middle — at Buckner.

The defensive line’s proficiency up front has allowed the back seven to execute their system and clamp down tight. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, the Colts are dropping into Cover 2 more often than any team in the NFL, on 30.3 percent of pass plays.

The Colts have either intercepted or defended 21 percent of the pass attempts thrown against them — the highest coverage-play rate in the NFL so far:

The Colts cover pass attempts better than anyone

Top five NFL defenses by coverage play rate, or the share of pass attempts against that are defended or intercepted, 2020 season

Rk Team Attempts Against Attempts defended* Coverage play rate
1 Indianapolis Colts 286 60 21.0%
2 Pittsburgh Steelers 308 56 18.2
3 Tennessee Titans 366 65 17.8
4 New England Patriots 245 43 17.6
5 Miami Dolphins 328 57 17.4

Through Week 10.

*Includes interceptions.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of course, there have been standout individual achievers in the back seven, too. Despite missing two games, third-year linebacker Darius Leonard has notched 60 tackles, on pace to match last season’s total — which was good enough for a Pro Bowl nod. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is the sixth-ranked qualified cornerback on Pro Football Focus, with an opposing passer rating allowed of just 63.6 when targeted.

The Colts smothered the Tennessee Titans last week on Thursday Night Football, allowing just 294 yards of total offense on 60 Titans plays. Though 5.07 yards per play would be the fourth-best average in the league across the whole season, that actually worsened the Colts’ league-best average of yards per play allowed, raising it to a still-league-best 4.83. That’s almost a full yard less than their offense is gaining per average play (5.70).

When you’re outgaining your opponents by that much, outscoring them by 7.2 points per game and winning the turnover battle, you’re going to win a lot of football games. They’re also peaking at the perfect time: After playing the Green Bay Packers in Week 11, the Colts host the rematch against the Titans, then have three more divisional games in their remaining five.

It’s no wonder that FiveThirtyEight’s NFL model projects Indianapolis to finish this season with the sixth-best scoring differential in the NFL — and gives the team a 62 percent chance to win the AFC South.

The Colts finally have the defensive monster that Pagano envisioned. It just took Reich to build it.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 10 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Wins Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1735 13.2 >99% 89% 24%
2 Steelers Roethlisberger 6 1692 14.2 >99 90 18
3 Ravens Jackson 5 1635 11.0 86 8 4
4 Packers Rodgers 3 1630 11.8 96 89 10
5 Buccaneers Brady 10 1617 10.7 87 26 7
6 Bills Allen 8 1595 10.6 86 74 3
7 Colts Rivers 17 1590 10.2 73 62 3
8 Seahawks Wilson 4 1584 10.7 87 38 4
9 Rams Goff 16 1575 9.9 76 30 3
10 Raiders Carr 11 1565 10.1 70 11 2
11 Cardinals Murray 2 1564 9.9 71 32 3
12 Saints Winston 22 1561 11.4 96 73 13
13 Vikings Cousins 21 1538 8.2 36 4 1
14 Titans Tannehill 12 1538 9.7 60 37 1
15 Patriots Newton 18 1534 7.8 20 6 <1
16 Browns Mayfield 25 1519 9.9 58 2 1
17 49ers Mullens 29 1507 7.1 10 1 <1
18 Falcons Ryan 9 1506 5.8 3 1 <1
19 Dolphins Tagovailoa 26 1506 9.4 45 20 1
20 Bears Foles✚ 24 1486 8.0 29 7 <1
21 Eagles Wentz 27 1446 6.2 53 53 <1
22 Broncos Lock✚ 30 1441 5.7 1 <1 <1
23 Texans Watson 7 1435 4.8 1 1 <1
24 Chargers Herbert 13 1434 4.7 <1 <1 <1
25 Lions Stafford✚ 15 1419 6.7 9 1 <1
26 Bengals Burrow 19 1415 5.4 <1 <1 <1
27 Giants Jones 23 1408 5.3 23 23 <1
28 Washington Smith 20 1400 4.7 14 14 <1
29 Panthers Bridgewater✚ 14 1357 5.2 1 <1 <1
30 Cowboys Dalton✚ 31 1324 4.2 9 9 <1
31 Jets Flacco 28 1308 1.5 <1 <1 <1
32 Jaguars Luton 32 1208 1.9 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 11 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

†Starter could be replaced for performance reasons.

Simulations as of Nov. 18, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: From a playoff-odds perspective, the biggest games of Week 11 are Philly-Cleveland and Baltimore-Tennessee. But from a pure quality standpoint, it’s tough to beat the third-most-impactful game: Arizona versus Seattle on Thursday night. Both teams have elite quarterbacks playing at a high level, with Kyler Murray of the Cardinals ranking third in expected points added (EPA) and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks ranking fourth. But the two teams are trending in opposite directions. Arizona has won four of its past five games, including a Hail Mary win over the Bills last Sunday, while Seattle has dropped three of its past four contests. Murray has a chance to feast on the Seahawks’ horrible defense (25th in EPA), though at least Seattle has home field on its side. According to our model, the winner will see its chances of winning the NFC West leap to about 55 percent, while the loser’s odds will drop to about 15 percent. So the stakes are clear, and we give the Seahawks the edge with a 58 percent chance to win. Elo’s spread: Seattle -2½

Neil Paine contributed research.

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Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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