Colts’ defense asserting itself under Matt Eberflus’ direction after ‘odd’ beginning

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Matt Eberflus

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Long before we’ve gotten to this point, long before a substandard defense vacated the NFL’s statistical cellar and morphed into a top-11 unit, long before Matt Eberflus instilled a do-it-my-way-or-else mindset, Frank Reich needed to figure out a few things about his inherited defensive coordinator.

Primarily, who was this guy?

It was Feb. 11, a week after Reich and the Philadelphia Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Minneapolis, five days after Josh McDaniels reneged on his handshake agreement with Jim Irsay and Chris Ballard, and the day Reich began the next phase of his three-decade NFL journey.

Among the first orders of business: getting acquainted with three of assistants already in place, including the man who would oversee a defense that for too long had been unreliable.

Reich conceded he “really didn’t’’ know much about Matt Eberflus.

“Obviously when I got the job and he was already in place I talked to Chris.’’ Reich said. “I made several phone calls real quickly and just heard nothing but the absolute best reports of him as a person and as a coach.’

Ballard was bullish on Eberflus and the 4-3 scheme he would install from the outset. Eberflus was a disciple of long-time defensive assistant/coordinator Rod Marinelli – they were together in Dallas for five seasons – and the paths of Marinelli and Ballard crossed in Chicago.

“Chris’ endorsement was really strong,’’ Reich said. “Just having a lot of ties to that system when Chris was in Chicago, so Chris was very persuasive and very strong in his conviction that Matt was the right guy.

“It really couldn’t have worked out any better. I know it’s crazy. It’s really an odd way for it to come together, but it literally couldn’t have come together any better.’’

Reich and Eberflus met, got to know each other.

“I just have a lot of respect for him,’’ Reich said. “High character and integrity as a person, just stands for everything that we would want, carries himself the way we would want a coach to carry himself.’’

Make no mistake, this is Eberflus’ defense. But his ability to work with a head coach he didn’t think he’d be working for back in February – that would be, you know, Josh McDaniels – has been invaluable.

Even though Reich’s heavy-handed in running an offense that ranks 8th in the NFL in yards per game and scoring, he knows the location of the defensive meeting rooms. He spends a great deal of time there.

“A lot of interaction,’’ Eberflus said. “He brings a great perspective from the offensive side due to the fact that he’s played quarterback for all those years in terms of just pressure, coverages, the whole gamut of it.

“That’s called complementary football. It’s called team football and that’s the only way to win.’’

The Colts are playing winning football on defense in large part because Eberflus is maximizing his personnel. He’s putting players in positions that accentuate their strengths and steers clear of any limitations.

It’s a defense that demands – absolutely demands – a pack mentality. Every player sprints to the ball carrier. Everything hinges on effort and execution.

One of Eberflus’ motivational tools involves handing out “loafs’’ in post-game evaluations, an instance when a player didn’t give all-out effort for whatever reason. In season opener against Cincinnati, rookie linebacker Darius Leonard led the defense with 9 tackles, including 6 solos. He also was slapped with 9 loafs. A teammate had 15.

“Every play they want to see you go 110 percent,’’ Leonard said. “Even if the ball’s 95 yards down the field, they want to see you running at least 15 or 20 yards.

“You want that mentality.’’

Eberflus demands that mentality. Effort isn’t optional.

“The system is based on that,’’ Eberflus said.

Like Reich, safety Clayton Geathers had only casual knowledge of Eberflus when they first met.

“Yeah, I knew he was a part of a fast defense out in Dallas,’’ he said. “Then my first impression was great. He came in and was like, ‘This is going to be one of the hardest things you do. Just flying around to the ball, it’s easy to say it, but it’s going to be hard to do it every down.’

“And that’s what it was, holding everybody accountable. I’m very impressed with the defense, how he’s holding everybody accountable and everything just flying around to the ball. It highlights everybody’s skill, so I love it.’’

Eberflus explained the demands of his scheme expose the good, and bad, in players.

“Everything is out on the table,’’ he said. “There is no hiding in the system. You can’t hide. You can’t hide the effort. You can’t hide the execution. So the players know that.

“We tell them, too, ‘It’s not for everybody. It’s not for everybody.’’’

So far, so good.

Individually, Leonard is among the front-runners for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He leads the NFL in total tackles (135, the most by a rookie through his first 12 games since 2007) and solos (80). He has 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 1 interception, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Linebacker Anthony Walker has emerged. Denico Autry has a career-high 8 sacks, Margus Hunt a career-best 5 and rookie Kemoko Turay 4. Jabaal Sheard might be the group’s most underappreciated component with 5.5 sacks, 42 tackles and 13 tackles for loss.

Collectively, the defense no longer is spare and heavy baggage.

This from Andrew Luck after the offense opened last Sunday’s 24-21 win at Houston with an ineffective first quarter: “Defense did a great job of not letting the game get away.’’

It has not allowed a touchdown in three games this season and made significant strides from a year ago in several influential categories:

  • 11th in yards per game allowed (345.3) after being 30th in 2017 (367.1).
  • 15th in points (23.0) after being 30th (25.25).
  • 8th against the run (102.9) after being 26th (120.4). The Colts are one of four teams yet to allow a 100-yard rusher, a fact that should get tested Sunday when it faces Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and next week when the New York Giants bring with them rookie Saquon Barkley.

With three games remaining, the defense already has surpassed last year’s total in sacks (35 after 25 in ’17) and takeaways (21, one more than a year ago).

One of the advantages of Eberflus’ scheme is it’s conducive to young players and free agents stepping in right away and contributing. Twenty-four players have started at least one game, including seven rookies. Mike Mitchell was signed Oct. 9, started five days later and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week in his second game with his new team.

Everything has come together. Week by week. Game by game. Practice repetition by practice repetition.

And to think so much can be traced to the new head coach and his inherited defensive coordinator having a necessary meeting of the minds.

“I think it just takes time,’’ Eberflus said. “It was easier with Frank because he’s trusting and in terms of who he is character-wise and integrity. It becomes pretty easy, pretty fast to see who you are and what the chemistry is. He’s brought that and he’s done a great job with that.’’

But, Eberflus was asked, you didn’t really know what to expect, did you? The new head coach might have been somebody you didn’t get along with.

“Thank God it wasn’t,’’ he said with a laugh.

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