Colts’ D thriving behind Matt Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on the sidelines during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Kenny Moore II did the heavy lifting, but had little opportunity to finish what he started.

His defensive teammates got in the way. One, two, three, dozens of ‘em, or so it seemed. Consider it the latest example of Matt Eberflus’ H.I.T.S philosophy flowing from the meeting room to the practice field to game day.

It was midway through the Indianapolis Colts’ 44-27 dismantling of the Raiders Sunday in Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, and Derek Carr flipped a screen to the left to Hunter Renfro. Moore reacted immediately from his nickel corner spot, converged on Renfro and forced a fumble.

Again, he had zero chance of covering it.

There was Al-Quadin Muhammad. And Taylor Stallworth. And Anthony Walker Jr. And Darius Leonard. And DeForest Buckner. T.J. Carrie was in the neighborhood. So was Julian Blackmon.

Stallworth ended up with the recovery, but it could have been any one of a half-dozen Colts. Chum was in the water and sharks swarmed.

“If we’re not getting out of the stack and hustling on that particular play, one of the Raiders could have jumped on that football, and we wouldn’t have had the field position and the game-changing play that we end up getting,’’ Eberflus said on a Tuesday Zoom conference call. “We’re trying to strip at the football every single play, and one of the reasons we hustle is that – to be able to recover the fumble.

“I think it makes up for a lot of things when you’re playing defensive football.’’

It doesn’t matter whether that’s everyone swarming to Renfro on a screen or a linebacker or cornerback on the backside of a play giving chase when a ball carrier breaks away across the field. Giving pursuit – hustling until the whistle – might mean the difference in a play chewing up 18-20 yards, or being limited to 5 or 6.

Or it might mean covering a fumble.

“Hustle is something that’s paramount to successful football no matter offense, defense or special teams,’’ Eberflus said.

He’s been Frank Reich’s defensive coordinator since 2018 – he actually already was in place when Reich was named head coach, after Josh McDaniels reneged – and Eberflus not only brought with him a 4-3 scheme to replace Chuck Pagano’s 3-4, but the core principles as well. Those can be traced to Tony Dungy and his defensive staff at Tampa Bay in the mid-1990s.

Dungy and long-time defensive gurus Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli built a defensive philosophy based on speed and hustling and docking players that failed to meet those standards with “loafs.’’

There might be occasions when a player doesn’t agree with being slapped with a loaf – or four or five – after a game, but the video doesn’t play favorites.

“Usually you know,’’ said second-year safety Khari Willis, who returned a Carr interception 50 yards for a touchdown. “Sometimes it’s a pretty tough grade, but that’s the standard, and that’s the expectation we hold each other to.

“For the most part you know . . . that’s something you can’t really hide.’’

From first the day a defensive player enters the building, he’s introduced to Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle. Follow along:

“That’s the pillars we’ve had since we’ve been here,’’ Eberflus said. “It’s the H.I.T.S. principle, and we talk about it every single day. It’s in our defensive room. It’s all over the place.’’

And it’s contagious.

Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni arrived the same offseason as Eberflus and quickly realized his segment of the team had to match the intensity and aggression of the defense.

“It only took about a month of us being here,’’ he said. “We had never seen anything like that as an offense, but we adapted because we saw the benefit of it.’’

And because there really was no other option than to adapt and match what the defense brought to the practice field.

“It was a little bit of adapt or get run out of the gym,’’ Sirianni said with a smile. “Adapt or get exposed at practice. Yes, we hustle. Yes, we finish. But we put a (higher) standard on it after being with Flus for a little bit.

“The way they practice obviously makes us better. The reason I think we’re good at protecting the football is because of how crazy they are at coming after it. Not everybody practices that way.’’

And not everybody plays that way on game day.

During recent preparation for a game, Sirianni and his assistants were reviewing video of a Colts’ receiver who caught a pass and cut upfield. A defensive back slowed down instead of pursing the receiver at full speed “because he didn’t have the angle to tackle our receiver,’’ he said.

The reaction in the room was unanimous.

“We said, ‘Flus would have his butt right there, I’ll tell ya,’’’ Sirianni said.

Reich’s NFL career as a player and coach spans nearly three decades, and virtually every team stresses the importance of hustling on every single play.

But “not to the degree that we do it here,’’ he said. “I’ve never seen anything where there is an accountability on loafs at the level that we have it here. I think what makes it work is the players believe it and see it, and we know there is tangible proof that it works and that it matters.’’

Exhibit A: the defense has generated 22 takeaways. Only Pittsburgh and Miami, with 25 each, have more. Willis, Moore, Carrie and Xavier Rhodes each have a pick-6, tying a franchise record for a season. The Colts have strengthened their playoff push by winning four of their last five. During that stretch, the defense has nine takeaways.

Exhibit B: that relentless mindset has contributed to 57 tackles for loss. Autry and Tyquan Lewis have eight each, Justin Houston seven and Buckner and Leonard six each.

Play full-tilt at all times, Eberflus implores, and good things happen.

“It started out as the coaches talking about it,’’ he said. “Now the players buy into it, and the players do it. When new guys come into our team like the guys we acquired this year, they teach them the loaf system and why we do it.’’

The results are evident, inside the Colts’ complex and elsewhere.

Reich always is talking with coaching colleagues, either during the week or prior to a game. The hustling nature of the Colts’ defense often comes up.

“Invariably every week I’m talking to somebody that says, ‘Man, your defense flies around. Man, your defense runs to the football,’’’ Reich said. “Every week, someone on the opposing coaching staff is going to go out of their way to walk over to me and say, ‘Man, I really respect how hard your defense plays, how much they run to the ball.’

“I think that’s a testament to our players, but I also think to Flus and the defensive coaching staff for that accountability.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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