As they installed their new defense last year, the Indianapolis Colts emphasized it wasn’t a pure 3-4 scheme, but a hybrid.
Looking back, coach Chuck Pagano says in 2012 Indianapolis didn’t use a lot of the sort of 3-4 scheme most of us think of at all.
“With a nose and two big defensive ends, 5-technique types, playing 2-gap?” Pagano said. “I would say very, very, very little were we ever in a straight 2-gap. I think trying to go from a straight 4-3, which we ran for so long here and the way that our roster was set a year ago personnel-wise, it would have been asking a ton of these guys to go from the system and scheme they’d been running. It was hard enough asking the guys to make the transition and they did a great job.”
In free agency and the draft, Indianapolis added three defensive linemen (Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin and Montori Hughes) and three outside linebackers (Erik Walden, Lawrence Sidbury and Bjoern Werner). That group will help the Colts dramatically reshape their front. All of them but Werner, the first-round pick, can be labeled as 3-4 players coming in, arriving in Indianapolis with 3-4 experience.
But, Pagano said, don’t rush to drop the hybrid tag.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Hey, we’re a 3-4 team, we’re a 4-3 team, an under team, an over team,'” Pagano said. “So it’s best to classify us as a hybrid 3-4 defense. The system that I came from [in Baltimore], the systems [defensive coordinator] Greg Manusky has been part of, they’ve all had flexibility to them.
“You’re looking for certain guys for certain spots in terms of body types, but I would still classify us as a hybrid.”
The body types are certainly a lot more suited for the base front and style in Year 2 of the Ryan Grigson-Pagano regime than they were in Year 1.
Jean Francois (6-foot-3, 295 pounds) is very much a versatile 3-4 defensive lineman. Franklin is a 3-4 nose with a lot of experience stuffing the run. Walden played outside linebacker for the 3-4 Green Bay Packers. Giant rookie Montori Hughes (6-4, 329) moved up and down the line at Tennessee-Martin.
And while they are not new, nose tackles Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman (6-0, 316) didn’t play a game in their first season with the Colts because of injuries. According to Pagano, Chapman was back in action as the team hit the field for the second phase of organized team activities. The team is optimistic McKinney will be ready for training camp.
Given the new personnel and the newly healthy personnel, how much more 3-4 will we see?
“I can’t tell you an exact number,” Pagano said. “A lot will depend on the type of scheme we see week in, week out. That will determine how much of that you want to show, how much of that you want to play. Certainly from a personnel standpoint, we have the body types, we have guys who have played in the system and understand it. If you want to play the traditional odd front, we’re a lot closer today than we were any time last year."
Surely, though, it’ll be a lot more than “very little”?
“I wouldn’t say a significant amount,” Pagano said. Then, laughing, he continued: “Time will tell. I can’t give you my whole hand, Paul.”
Defensive tackle Drake Nevis is heading into his third year, but just his second in a 3-4. He played in a 4-3 scheme at LSU and in his rookie year with the Colts.
He considers himself a young guy still and says he and the other less experienced defensive linemen have incredible resources in three guys heading into their 11th years in the league -- Robert Mathis, Cory Redding and Franklin. Mathis was a 4-3 guy until last year, but Redding and Franklin have extensive 3-4 experience.
“We’re going to be a pretty good 3-4 team in our second year in the system,” Nevis said. "We’ll be a lot more comfortable in it. Pretty much in a 4-3, you’re responsible for one gap, you can penetrate a lot more. In a 3-4 you have to be more disciplined. You just have to teach your mind to be more disciplined with your hands and with your steps and everything.”
After a surprise 11-win season and playoff appearance in 2012, many of the Colts' moves have been geared toward stopping the run.
Walden was a bit of a controversial signing with a four-year, $16 million deal. But Indianapolis loves his ability to set the edge against the run. Franklin will be a run-stopping specialist. Strong safety LaRon Landry is expected to come forward and make a lot of tackles on running backs.
The flexibility and the versatility of what the Colts will be able to do with their front seven should also have a strong bearing on the run defense by prompting offenses to reduce their game plans.
“It’s difficult offensively if you’ve got to sit there and try to block up your run game against three or four different looks,” Pagano said. "I think you start whittling things down and paring down because you just don’t have the time to prepare for it.”
Pagano figures the Colts will keep six or seven defensive linemen. That means if they stay healthy through camp, they’ll wind up cutting a couple of good players.
“All of these guys are going to have jobs, we just don’t know where,” Pagano said. “They’ll make it somewhere."
Nevis expects the defensive front to jell and justify the faith the decision-makers are showing in the holdovers and newcomers.
“At the end of the day, everyone will fit the scheme as well as they are supposed to,” Nevis said. “The GM and the coaching staff believe in the guys they brought in, and we’ll play for each other. Things don’t happen overnight. I think it’ll form like it’s supposed to. It’s just a matter of staying focused.”