Defensive Personnel and the Colts Defensive Scheme in 2012

One of the most exciting prospects of new Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano is the defensive changes he will make in Indianapolis. Much of the fan base is tired of watching a bend but don’t break defensive philosophy that allows opponents to dominate time of possession and keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands. The rumble grew louder every year to find a way to stop the bleeding with the Colts run defense and to fix a secondary that began to decline rapidly due to injuries and player departures.

Now that Pagano has arrived, comparisons are made between Colts personnel and those found on the defenses in Baltimore and San Diego — when Pagano led those respective units. Superstars like NT Haloti Ngata and Jamal Williams, linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Shawne Merriman, and safeties like Ed Reed and Dawan Landry all come to mind. Indianapolis does not have those household names on the roster and the contracts players like those require suggest that there is no way the Colts defense will look anything like those groups until a lot of player acquisitions occur — a very difficult task when the franchise has so much dead cap.

It is for this reason that it is completely reasonable and rational for the fan base to have significant concerns about the Colts having a chance to field a competitive defense in 2012. There is no pulling punches that Antonio Johnson and likely Brandon McKinney are not going to perform at the levels of a Ngata or Williams. There is no real certainty in the Colts secondary. The best players on the defense from 2011 are all going to be playing in new roles and have new responsibilities if they are to take the place of players like Suggs and Lewis.

Of course, this kind of obvious and rational observation on the part of a fan base is surely not beyond the grasp of a seasoned NFL defensive head coach and the defensive staff he brought in, right? The term square peg and round hole should really jump out to this coaching staff and to the fan base when they attempt to create the image of a dominant Ravens-like 3-4 defense with the current players on the Colts roster.

In my opinion, there is no way Pagano and the defensive minds in the Colts front office are bringing over carbon copies of the Baltimore or San Diego defensive scheme and intending to impose that on a group of players that do not fit in that role. Just this week Pagano even spoke to this topic when he mentioned that Dwight Freeney will likely be used more often with his hand on the ground than standing up.

Another key consideration that is oft-forgotten about the Baltimore Ravens defense is that the last two seasons it has been more of a base 4-3, hybrid 3-4 look. An amazing athlete like Haloti Ngata has the size and speed to play the nose when asked and to also move outside to end. An amazing athlete like Dwight Freeney should likewise be able to take a lot of snaps as a 4-3 down defensive end and move outside in a hybrid 3-4 with another player filling a 3-4 DE role.

The point of Pagano’s defense, as he commented in his initial press conferences, is keeping the opposing offense off-balance and setting the tempo on defense when the Colts don’t have the ball. This means coming up with a way to use the personnel available in numerous roles that make it difficult for quarterbacks to read coverages, make it difficult for offensive linemen to effectively block all of the moving parts, and force opposing ball carriers and receivers to enter a whirlwind of very physical defensive bodies as they try to get open or pick up yards.

As discussed in “Don’t Be Surprised Part II” there are members of the Colts defense who have the ability and experience to play multiple roles. They were hybrid players in a 4-3, and will be hybrid players in a 3-4 look as well. Names like Moala, Hughes, Nevis, and Mathis should all come to mind.

It is reasonable to be uncertain about Moala moving to 3-4 defensive end when called upon because he has not yet been as productive in the under tackle role as fans and coaches would have liked. It is just as reasonable to realize that his size and experience at USC were in the 3-4 defensive end role quite often and that he had success — he also had to transition into the kinds of responsibilities he had to take on in Indianapolis under the old defensive philosophy (the new role would be more natural).

It is reasonable to be uncertain about Jerry Hughes ever making anything out of his professional career. It is equally rational to consider that Hughes is built more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defensive end, that he had his collegiate success as a hybrid 3-4 outside rusher, and that comparing him to Robert Mathis and expecting him to be as productive as Mathis in a 4-3 role is trying to find a very rare thing — so rare that Mathis was drafted later in the draft due to his size disadvantages at the position but Hughes was drafted early hoping to be the replacement for a “one-of-a-kind.” Will he turn out in a new pass rushing role under Pagano? I think there’s a greater chance he will succeed under a Pagano led defense than he ever would under the previous scheme.

A player like Drake Nevis has been cast aside in the 4-3, 3-4 Pagano hybrid because he is too small to be a nose tackle (weight), and too small to be a defensive end (height). Of course, those kinds of consideration are made on the basis of what an ideal player would look like in those roles — and nose tackle isn’t really an option for him. What about the smaller 3-4 defensive ends like 6-foot 1-inch 297 pounds Glenn Dorsey or 6-foot 2-inch 305 pounds Cullen Jenkins? They may not be the best 3-4 defensive ends in football but they are talented enough defensive linemen to be impact players.

While Mathis has always played with his hands down as a 4-3 defensive end, he has the speed and agility to move into a role that requires more of him. He may not have the experience in pass coverage that one would like from a 3-4 linebacker but Pagano and Grigson chose to re-sign him for a reason. He will continue to be a pass rushing force to be reckoned with and if the trade-off is in pass defense — though the Colts 4-3 Cover-2 linebackers were not particularly adept pass defenders either — the team will have to make do.

Both Angerer and Conner are solid run stopping linebackers who should excel in the middle of the field in that role — when they are asked to do so. Angerer is the better pass defender and will be the primary player called upon to fulfill those responsibilities — as he was in the 4-3 Cover-2.

Bethea’s role will not change significantly enough to create a great deal of concern. Powers should be able to showcase his skills a bit more in a more aggressive style defense. Who will play across from him is not known at this time, nor is the strong safety position completely nailed down.

The point of going through the defense once again, particularly with respect to all of the assumptions and expectations being placed upon Pagano and the players he has to work with is to indicate that there is defensive talent available on the Indianapolis Colts. If people choose to analyze that talent in a “Conner has to be a pass defender” and “Freeney has to play pass defense and play linebacker” and “Nevis is too small to play 3-4 defensive end” sort of way, the outlook will turn bleek in a big hurry.

But expecting the sound defensive minds that have just stepped into their new positions with the Indianapolis Colts to force square pegs into round holes to meet this “image” of a defense the fans insist on trying to play out in their heads is likely not the approach that the coaches will take. It makes more sense to form a defensive philosophy and fill defensive positions contingent upon the defensive personnel you have available to you.

Pagano intends to use Freeney in a Suggs-like role, whereby his hand is down more often than up — in a 4-3 look more than a 3-4 look. He likely also intends to use the other talented players he will be overseeing in Indianapolis in roles that their skillsets best suit.

When one acknowledges that Pagano and his players have flexibility and must not rely on being either the Baltimore Ravens defense or the Indianapolis Colts Cover-2 defense, it becomes easier to recognize the talent that is actually available to work with. No one is forcing anything.

If Pagano and company do force the team to be something they’re not right now, the fans are right to be concerned. The team will be an absolute mess and it will take years to get it right. If he doesn’t, fans, analysts, and bloggers need to modify their perspectives and allow the defensive coaches to work their magic.