Colts Coyer Trying to Make the Meal With the Wrong Ingredients

The Colts starting defensive line waiting for the Denver offense to get set. (Doug Pensinger | Getty Images)

When Bill Parcells became head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, one of his first moves was to do nothing. What he didn’t do was rush in and change the defense from a base 4-3 to the “Parcells” 3-4 defense that helped him win two Super Bowls with the Giants. When Pat Kirwan asked him why, Parcells explained that he didn’t have the right ingredients for the 3-4. He knew it was going to take about two to three seasons before he could acquire the right personnel to run the 3-4, and be successful. So, he patiently ran the 4-3 until 2005 when he acquired the talent necessary for the switch.

Larry Coyer would be wise to sit down with Parcells, because what he is trying to do defensively in Indy isn’t working. The issues on defense go way beyond injuries — at the root of the problem is the fact that the players and the scheme don’t match up.

When Coyer was hired in 2009, many Colts fans were excited. For years the team suffered under Ron Meeks’ bland version of the Tampa-2. A defensive scheme that only gave the opponent three to four different looks, rarely blitzed, couldn’t stop the run, or get off the field on third down. Of course, Meeks’ defenses always ranked high in fewest points allowed per game, but on the other hand, the offense always ranked at the bottom, or near the bottom in fewest possessions per game.

Given what Coyer did in Denver from 2003-2005, expectations were high that Coyer could breathe new life into the Tampa-2, bringing a more attacking, aggressive style of play to Indy.

After being hired, Coyer addressed one of the most glaring problems on defense — in an Examiner.com article partially titled “No Blitzburgh necessary” — and implied he was going to fix it: “Third down we’ve been (ranked) in the 30s – we can’t do that. It has to do with the number of plays in the drive. Teams can eat up the clock. We can’t let that happen. That’s a state-of-mind, too.  We have to be able to hold them on 3rd-and-3 and 4. That’s major for us.

If that means a big play or two allowed, that’s a necessary risk.

There’s always risk reward. I used to coach with the run-and-shoot. Sometimes, it was better to let them score fast than to let them keep the ball. I’m kidding about that, but sometimes if they can sustain a drive, all you do is diminish your offense’s chances to come back and win the game. We have to give our offense more possessions. We have to get our defense on the sidelines – they know that – for our defense’s sake. Third down is a critical deal.”

Despite the “No Blitzburgh necessary” comment, Coyer did blitz more in 2009, showed the opposing offenses many different fronts, and played more Cover 1 and Cover 3 Man-Under than his predecessor. What was the result? The Colts defense dropped from 11th in the league in 2008, to 18th in the league in 2009. Even against the run there was no improvement — Coyer’s ability to stop the run in Denver was one of the reasons he was hired. The team ranked 24th in 2008, and stayed at 24th in 2009. Keep in mind, in 2009 the Colts defensive tackles got bigger, with the signing of Daniel Muir and “Mookie” Johnson, and the drafting of Fili Moala, and more.

In 2009, Johnson and Muir played well on the interior of the line, and Freeney and Mathis were, well, Freeney and Mathis. So, why was there no improvement in the Colts run defense? The linebacking corps got exposed. Unfortunately for Larry this isn’t the same group that he had in Denver. In fact, in Indy he has the opposite of what he had in Denver: A mediocre Cleveland line whose only duty was to engage the O-line in blocks while outstanding linebackers like Al Harris took care of business up front.  In Indy the line is solid, but the linebackers are suspect — mostly in the running game, but sometimes in space as well. Again, another example of the scheme not meshing with the players on the field.

Larry did make due on his promise to get the defense off the field more on third down. In 2008, teams converted 47% of their third down attempts. In 2009, that number dropped to 45%. In fact, even though the defense ranked 20th in the league in 2010, teams only converted 39% of third down their attempts. Given all of the injuries, that’s a pretty impressive stat.

However, despite the improvement on third down, Coyer’s scheme isn’t producing the results in Indy that a lot of people were expecting. The reason is that Larry often calls plays that the players he has can’t execute. For example, during the playoff game against the Jets this year, did he think he had Champ Bailey matched up against Braylon Edwards on a critical third down play that would end up deciding the outcome of the game? There is no way you leave Jacob Lacey matched up one-on-one with the much taller, more athletic, Edwards. Where was the safety help over the top? It’s amazing that so many people are calling for Caldwell’s head because of that play, yet nary a criticism has been leveled at Coyer for leaving Lacey on an island with Edwards.

The problem in 2010 was Larry pressed, just like Manning was pressing during that three game losing streak. The difference is that Manning corrected himself. The big question is will Coyer do the same in 2011?

As it stands right now Coyer is still the right man for the job. The Colts needed a change on defense, and he’s on the right track. But just like Parcells was patient with the Cowboys, Coyer needs to be patient with the Colts. He needs to pick up a few more pieces in the draft, before he can morph the Colts defense into the man-zone-blitzing machine he wants. Until then, he needs to focus more on the basics: sure tackling, gap integrity, more press coverage, less soft zones, and a huge focus on making better in-game adjustments. If he does those things, we will see a much improved Colts defense in 2011.

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