Colts defense remains a work in progress as team returns to Dungy’s Tampa-2

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus

WESTFIELD, Ind. – Matt Erberflus is overseeing the seismic shift of an Indianapolis Colts defense that needed it.

Gone is Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme that never lived up to expectations, and too often was overwhelmed by the NFL’s elite offenses. Remember New England? Pittsburgh?

In its place, the return of Tony Dungy’s Tampa-2.

“Same system,’’ said Eberflus, who learned the intricacies of Dungy’s 4-3 while working with Dungy-disciple Rod Marinelli in Dallas.

The nuts and bolts were inserted during offseason work and the necessary positional adjustments made. Outside linebackers in the 3-4, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon and Tarell Basham are ends in Eberflus’ system.

A little more than a week into camp seems more than enough time for an update on the transformation.

“In terms of the position groups, we’re just trying to solidify the starter, the backup and then somebody else who can play that spot,’’ Eberflus said Thursday.

“We’re really just a work in progress right now.’’

As Eberflus spoke with the media under a goal post, two players working with trainers on the field offered an appropriate backdrop.

Safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers were running, cutting, working up a sweat under a high sky and rising temperatures. Each opened camp on the physically unable to perform list, but gained medical clearance Thursday to begin practicing. Hooker has been on the mend after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 22 against Jacksonville while Geathers underwent offseason knee surgery.

It’s not a stretch to consider Hooker, the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft, and Geathers, a 2015 fourth-round pick and a back-end enforcer when he’s been on the field, two of the top three players on defense. We’d slot Sheard in that exclusive group as well.

Eberflus has yet to have Hooker and Geathers on the practice field – offseason or camp – but analyzed video during his personnel evaluations.

“They’re both athletic,’’ he said. “They’re both headsy and we’re certainly excited to have them both.’’

The trouble is, he hasn’t had them, which has impeded the growth of a defense still in its formative stages. Also, Anthony Walker, who had been working at middle linebacker with the starting unit, is expected to miss a couple of weeks with a groin injury.

“With players that aren’t on the field, as coaches we’d love to see them and we’re going to see them as soon as they’re able,’’ Eberflus said. “When they’re out there, we’ll work with them and get them ready.’’

Coaches deal players on the field and don’t have the luxury of worrying about who’s not, even when the missing player possesses game-changing skills. Hooker lived up to his ball-hawking hype as a rookie by posting three interceptions in seven games before suffering his season-ending injury.

To approach it any other way would be counterproductive. That’s a coaching tenet Frank Reich picked up while serving on Dungy’s staff in Indy.

Somebody’s hurt? You move on.

“I mean, that’s why we have 90 guys here,’’ Reich said. “That’s one thing I learned from Tony Dungy . . . he literally never flinched. It was like his heartbeat never skipped a beat. It never went up or down when a player got hurt.

“He never wavered on his belief in the team. That was definitely one thing I saw in him that I will do everything I can do to emulate that. You believe in your guys. The next man has got to step up. I think players sense that when you have that confidence and belief in them.’’

Until Eberflus has his full complement of front-line players, he’ll carry on.

That means figuring out how best to utilize what appears to be a deep line rotation and mixing and matching in back of it. The linebacker corps remains – that’s right – a work in progress, as does the secondary.

One positive aspect of returning to Dungy’s Tampa-2 is it’s conducive to plugging in young players immediately. Two rookies – second-round draft pick Darius Leonard and undrafted rookie Skai Moore – are taking reps as starting linebackers. Another second-rounder, Tyjuan Lewis, is in the D-line mix. Yet another, Kemoko Turay, could emerge as a pass-rush option.

General manager Chris Ballard’s selective shopping on the veteran free-agent market added end/tackle Denico Autry and linebacker Najee Goode. Each is working with the starting unit.

“You get a lot of new faces all the time,’’ Eberflus said. “You get guys that come in at the end of training camp and you’ve got to train them up and go. That’s why we have a system. Our system allows us to teach in an effective, good manner and pick it up really fast and they can execute.

“We’re excited where those guys are in terms of new faces and new rookies. They’re learning it, they’re picking it up and we’re making positive steps every day.’’

Yep, a work in progress.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51