Influx of young, new talent fueling Colts’ move to 4-3 defense

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 20: Nick Boyle #86 of the Baltimore Ravens leaps for extra yardage after a reception against Darius Leonard #53 and Nate Hairston #27 of the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter of a preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 20, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This unquestionably is Matt Eberflus’ defense, but the first-time coordinator needs to share the distinction with one of his bosses.

That would be general manager Chris Ballard.

The Indianapolis Colts are morphing from what was an ineffective 3-4 scheme under Chuck Pagano to a 4-3 that worked so well during Tony Dungy’s decorated stint in Indy, and they’re doing it largely with a new cast of characters.

More to the point, they’re doing it with a ton of players who still probably don’t know their way around the city without reaching for their GPS.

Scan the defensive depth chart and you’ll notice only six players who predate Ballard’s arrival in January 2017: safeties Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley and T.J. Green; linebacker Antonio Morrison; defensive lineman Hassan Ridgeway; and cornerback Chris Milton.

Six.

One of the attractive features of Dungy’s 4-3 scheme is its conduciveness to plugging in young players, even rookies, and free agents acquired during the offseason and getting immediate contributions.

“If you look at the history of the system, we’ve been able to play with young players faster,’’ Eberflus said Wednesday. “I don’t have statistical data to back that up, but (from) my experiences it seems like we’ve been able to get young linebackers on the field, young defensive ends.

“And really, acquisition players as well. Have them come in, learn the system and play right away and play pretty effectively.’’

Again, let’s peruse the depth chart.

Of the projected top-22 defensive players on the depth chart, eight are in their first year with the Colts. No one should be surprised if three rookies are in the starting lineup for the Sept. 9 opener against the Cincinnati Bengals: end Kemoko Turay, weak-side linebacker Darius Leonard and middle ‘backer Skai Moore.

Strong-side linebacker Najee Goode and tackle Denico Autry were off-season additions.

Stroll through the Colts’ new, expansive locker room and you’ll not find a defensive player upset with the schematic transition. To a man, it suits the personnel.

Listen to safety Malik Hooker, the 2017 first-round draft pick who’ll make his first appearance of the preseason Saturday against the San Francisco 49ers.

“I feel like it’s a good defense for myself and some of the young guys we’ve got here,’’ he said. “This defense is for guys who are fast and have high motors.

“It gives you a chance to be yourself. This is my favorite defense. You’ve got technique and assignments, but you can be free to roam.’’

And this from Leonard, whose sideline-to-sideline pursuit has been evident throughout the preseason.

“I like the 4-3,’’ he said. “I’m free a lot. I’m able to run around a little bit.’’

The looming issue with Eberflus’ 4-3? To operate at a high level, the front four must generate the pass rush. Dungy’s defense was effective during his Colts’ days in large part because of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. In Tampa, he relied on Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice.

The Colts still are waiting for young pass rushers to emerge. Turay has battled injuries during camp and Tarell Basham, a 2017 third-round pick, has had a quiet camp and preseason in terms of being a pass-rush presence.

The most effective edge pass rusher has been veteran John Simon, who’s tacked up 2.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in two games.

The foundation of Eberflus’ defense, again, can be traced to Dungy.

“Coach Dungy, back when he was with Tampa Bay, coined the phrase ‘quickness, instincts and striking ability,’’’ he said. “That has nothing to do with speed. (It’s) guys who are quick to the punch. At certain positions you need speed. You need speed at corner . . . at safety . . . on the edges.

“But being quick and instinctual is super important to this defense.’’

Not surprisingly, it remains a work in progress.

When operating correctly, Eberflus said, “it turns guys loose.

“It should be fun to watch and fun to play in. We’re not there yet, but that’s what we’re searching for.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.