The Latest from Priority Sports
The Latest from Priority Sports
The list of criteria required to play in a defense run by Matt Eberflus is quite succinct. And the consequence of not meeting those criteria is grave.
“He’s brought a responsibility to this defense where, if you’re not doing your job, which is very simple and easy to do, which doesn’t really require any talent, all they’re asking for is for you to run to the ball and to give maximum effort,” Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman Margus Hunt said.
“If you’re not doing it, then you’re not going to see any time on the field.”
Let’s allow linebacker Anthony Walker to say it louder, and more concisely, lest any part of this remain unclear.
“If you’re not hustling, if you’re not out there trying to get to the ball on every play,” Walker said, “then you will not play. It’s simple.”
Throw around all the statistics and accomplishments you’d like. They’re fun and all, but they fall woefully short of explaining the biggest impact made by Eberflus, the Colts defensive coordinator, just 13 games into his first season in Indy.
This man is not running a defense. He’s instilling a culture. It is an obsessive, uncompromising and ultra-demanding culture of hustle, discipline and teamwork.
Eberflus will not bend his inflexible rules for anyone. If you’re on the field, you will fall in line. You will buy in. The alternative is, well, there is no alternative.
Call his scheme whatever you want: Cover 2, zone-heavy, bend-but-don’t-break. Whatever. Eberflus assuredly doesn’t care. He is a man of few words and even fewer principles. But he makes his words count and his principles are non-negotiable.
“People always say this system is about a certain coverage or a certain front and that’s not what it is at all,” he said. “People get that misconception. That was taught to me years ago by guys that have been coaching in it for 30 years. It’s not about that. It’s about style. It’s about how we do things.”
The approach is long overdue in Indianapolis. Discipline seemed a lacking characteristic under former coach Chuck Pagano, who had a questionable ability to motivate his team by the end of his lame-duck season in 2017. And the defensive scheme he brought with him from Baltimore rarely produced the kind of dominance he suggested it would, even after six seasons.
Also, accountability has been lacking for too long. Missed assignments will happen. But they cannot and should not be tolerated or they inevitably will continue. That has not always been the case at Colts headquarters.
Maybe Eberflus knew this. And perhaps that explains what he told his players on Day 1, when he delivered a jarring message.
“This will be the hardest thing you will ever do,” he told his players the day he met them.
Eberflus’ expectations were so rigid, his standards so high, that he knew he’d better prepare them for what was to come.
“He’s holding everybody accountable,” safety Clayton Geathers added.
Eberflus brought with him an intense grading system which assesses demerits, of sorts, to players who do not play with maximum effort. They are known as loafs, and literally every play of every game is graded.
Ask players for their feelings of the process and there won’t be many fans. They are all assessed loafs, from sideline-to-sideline tackling machine Darius Leonard to recently sack-happy Denico Autry. If the ball is clear on the opposite side of the field, but players don’t run to the whistle, it’s a loaf.
Short of being injured, context doesn’t matter. It’s run to the ball or die in this defense. It’s not a scheme. It’s a way of life.
“We talk about either buying in or buying out,” Walker said. “I mean, you don’t have to be here. That’s what it is. (Eberflus) said it in the offseason: ‘You have to want to be in this system. You want to play hard and understand what this is.’ And we’re seeing the fruits of the labor.”
Here’s one way the changes are paying dividends: The Colts are getting more production out of many of the same defenders from last year’s 4-12 team. Of the 11 starters on the field for Sunday’s win over the Texans, seven were with the club last season.
The notion that the defense was overhauled during the offseason isn’t totally unfounded – additions like Leonard, Autry and Tyquan Lewis can’t be overstated – but Eberflus is playing with quite a few recycled players as well.
One startling example of a player who has taken off under Eberflus is Walker. The team’s previous coaching staff actually advocated for cutting him from the roster as a rookie last season. The front office resisted and Walker was retained. Now, he’s the team’s second-leading tackler.
The numbers show progress, too. The Colts are excelling in the areas this scheme promotes. They already have 35 sacks, 10 more than all of last season. They’re eighth in takeaways, with 21. The Colts are continuing to limit explosive passing plays, a product of multiple defenders swarming receivers the second they catch a pass. And the Colts rank second in tackles for losses, something Hunt attributes to the scheme and philosophy. He and defensive end Jabaal Sheard have 13 apiece, tied for ninth league-wide.
“If you have guys running to the ball and the ball is thrown behind the line of scrimmage or a screen, and somebody misses the tackle,” Hunt said, “you have guys pursuing to make sure that somebody is going to be there to make sure it is a tackle for a loss. They’re not going to get any extra yards.”
Eberflus’ impact is obvious, but how Eberflus landed this job is a story unto itself.
The presumption is would-be Colts coach Josh McDaniels, who in the 11th hour reneged on a deal to take the job in January before returning to the New England Patriots, brought Eberflus onboard. It is true that Eberflus knows McDaniels and was on staff before McDaniels’ hiring, expecting to work for him. But it is Colts general manager Chris Ballard who was most intent on Eberflus becoming the Colts’ defensive coordinator.
Ballard, a source said, held Eberflus in such high regard that it’s possible he would have become the choice no matter who the head coach was (provided it wasn’t a defensive coach, who likely would have installed his own scheme). Eberflus’ name was raised with nearly everyone who interviewed for the head-coaching post.
The link between Ballard and Eberflus is a big one: Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. The former Marine has had a similar impact on both men: Ballard, while with the Chicago Bears in the 2000s, and Eberflus, during his seven seasons in Dallas, which is the Colts’ opponent Sunday.
They all share similar defensive principles and preferences, and it only made sense that Ballard would want Eberflus to bring those concepts to Indianapolis when the opportunity arose.
Finally, it did. And with him came a culture of hustle, effort and high standards. Players must love it and embrace it or face the consequences.
Said Walker: “You just won’t play.”