One of Chuck Pagano's primary challenges when he became the Indianapolis Colts' head coach in 2012 was rebuilding a defense that had become stale and outdated under Jim Caldwell, Pagano's predecessor. The Cover 2 and Tampa 2 concepts that worked well for the most part under Tony Dungy had expired, and Pagano, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator, wanted to install the same kind of hybrid 3-4 defense that the Ravens had succeeded with over time. That process was delayed, quite understandably, when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2012 -- but even under the best circumstances, it takes a while to move a defense in a radically different direction.
The Colts went 11-5 in each of Pagano's first two seasons, and his #Chuckstrong story has been one of the most inspiring in NFL history. But when the dust settled, Pagano still had a defense to redefine. And when you switch players to different gaps and responsibilities and concepts, it takes time. In 2011, the Colts finished 26th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency metrics, and they actually dropped a bit to 31st in 2012 -- only the Saints were worse. The Colts moved back up to 16th in 2013, as some of the team's additions started to pay dividends.
But the true payoff appears to be happening now. Entering Week 8, the Colts rank ninth in FO's defensive metrics, and only the Lions are better against the pass. This has to do with several underrated players -- defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, veteran end Cory Redding, cornerback Greg Toler, safety Mike Adams and 2013 first-round outside linebacker Bjoern Werner are among those who have stepped up.
But if one player is the face of Pagano's defense, it's cornerback Vontae Davis, who has proven that no matter what kind of defense you want to run, having a shutdown pass defender transcends all schematic constraints.
Per Pro Football Focus, Davis has allowed 14 catches on 32 targets over 250 snaps, for 174 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Denver's Chris Harris Jr. is the only NFL cornerback with a lower opponent passer rating allowed than Davis' 35.2, and when you add in Toler's excellent play this season, it's evident that the Colts' defensive excellence in 2014 is predicated to a large degree on their cornerbacks.
"I mean when you don’t have anywhere to go with the ball, it makes it ... the quarterback’s got to hold it, and it’s given the guys up front time," Pagano said this week, via ESPN's Mike Wells. "It’s a collaborative effort. One complements the other ... Having guys like that that are shutdown guys that can play that well, it allows you as a signal-caller, it gives [defensive coordinator] Greg [Manusky] the ability to have faith and trust because you’ve got guys out there that can lock guys down and play tight coverage. Even if they don’t hold the ball and they want to throw it deep, the guys are there."
Davis has just about always been there this season. Miami's first-round pick in 2009, Davis came to the Colts in 2012, but he's playing at a different level this season. The team signed Davis to a new four-year, $36 million contract with $20 million guaranteed, and he's living up to it in all kinds of ways.
All cornerbacks have to make split-millisecond decisions in close-in spaces. The best cornerbacks gamble and guess right. Davis' ability to do so is rooted in his field sense and change-of-direction skills. There were a lot of highlights in Indianapolis' 37-0 win over the Bengals last Sunday, but Davis' amazing tackle of halfback Giovani Bernard with 8:14 left in the first quarter has to top the list on the defensive side.
That's gonna leave a mark. Davis' closing ability extends beyond the splash plays, though. I was very impressed with how he countered the play below against the Eagles in Week 2. Indy lost a close 30-27 contest, but Davis did a nice job of reading Chip Kelly's multiple looks in the passing game. The Eagles had first-and-10 at their own 20-yard line, and the idea was to have Nick Foles throw a little wheel screen after pre-snap movement took the Colts' zone defense out of its position. That didn't work, though, because of three steps Davis took on the play.
Outside receiver Riley Cooper motioned inside and across the formation, a tactic designed to reveal what kind of defense the Colts were playing. When Davis stuck outside with Jeremy Maclin, who was now the outside receiver to that end, Foles had his answer -- Davis was staying home, and would follow Maclin upfield.
While Cooper continued across the field on a short drag route, Maclin ran a 12-yard comeback on the numbers. That was one read to Foles' side, but since Davis was in the right position (bail coverage with a look to jump the route), it was a bad play for Philly's quarterback. Instead, he threw to Darren Sproles after Sproles blocked out of the backfield.
The Eagles only got eight yards on the play because Davis did an excellent job of peeling off Maclin and closing on the back as the play developed. That's an outstanding combination of recognition, discipline and athleticism.
This play against the Texans in Week 6 showed how the Colts are able to throw different blitz packages at their opponents because their cornerbacks play the right way, which goes back to Pagano's recent comments about how his defense works. With 14:18 left in the first quarter and the Texans facing a third-and-5 at their own 25-yard line, the Colts went nickel and blitzed free safety Sergio Brown at the snap. Ryan Fitzpatrick's throw was to DeAndre Hopkins on the other side off a crossing pattern with Andre Johnson. Again, it was up to Davis to diagnose the play with perfect timing, and that's just what he did.
Davis had nickel back Josh Gordy over the top to take the deep receiver on the cross, but he still had the opportunity to blow this one after he backpedaled to his spot. He had Hopkins crossing to the sideline as Johnson headed up the numbers on an intermediate in-breaking route.
Davis correctly closed to Hopkins and shook the catch loose with outstanding timing. Drive over for Houston.
Like Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and most of the NFL's better aggressive press corners, Davis can be unraveled by quick comeback routes, especially when he's in zone coverage. He will occasionally make up for missteps with excellent recovery speed, but he does struggle to stick with receivers on routes that break in a hurry. Opponents have been beating Sherman to death with this concept this season, and occasionally, Davis will fall victim to it, as well. He was a bit grabby on Andre Johnson later in the Texans game on a comeback route, as one example of this liability.
However, cornerbacks are ultimately graded on their ability to follow the game's best receivers from press at the line to any sort of deep route. And in this regard, Davis currently has few equals. I loved the way he covered this pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith in Indy's Week 5 win over the Ravens. In fact, the Colts' defensive execution on what became a Davis interception showed why Pagano's pass defense is working so well this season.
Facing a third-and-11 from their own 45-yard line with 13:35 left in the third quarter, the Ravens' plan was to get vertical with a three-receiver set and send tight end Owen Daniels over the middle on a cross to give Flacco a quick read.
But the Colts took that read away in a couple of different ways. First, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson jumped into coverage on the cross, bumped Daniels to alter the timing of the route and stayed with him to the other side. At the same time, Pagano and Manusky sent an overload blitz to Flacco's backside, hurrying the quarterback into a bad decision. Because Jackson won the battle with Daniels on the zone blitz aspect of this play and because the Colts' deep defenders had their assignments on lock, Flacco rushed the throw to Smith.
Davis was playing off and established inside position quickly, following Smith on an 18-yard in route. The ball was underthrown to Smith's route, and Davis had an easy pick -- with a 29-yard return for good measure.
For the record, there wasn't much of Davis to watch in the Colts' 41-17 Week 4 win over the Titans, as he garnered the ultimate level of respect in that game.
"They went straight Richard Sherman on him," Pagano said after the game.
Vontae Island? It might be time to consider the possibility.
So, why is this all working so well? It's clear that Davis and his teammates are learning their lessons both in practice and while watching tape on the field, with the right results.
"You don't see, because there were three or four games and like a lot of corners I've been around, whether they're throwing at you or not throwing at you, you can go into a game where they don't test you and you kind of fall asleep and lose focus," Pagano told WTHR's Bob Kravitz.
"But he's been extremely steady, very, very consistent. I think it's a byproduct of his attention to detail in the classroom, the meeting room. Him and Greg [Manusky] and the whole secondary have spent a ton of extra time watching tape. He's practicing extremely well. All the plays he's making on game day, he's making through the week.''
And it's working out for all involved -- Davis is a different person and player than the mercurial and inconsistent player he was in Miami and early in his time with the Colts.
"That (trade) was the best thing that ever happened to me,'' Davis recently said. "It gave me a chance to come here to Indianapolis. And in time, I've learned how to become a better student of the game. But it's like anything else in life. Rome wasn't built in a day. It took me some time to figure things out.''
However long it took, Vontae Davis has arrived.