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How the Colts Became 2018’s Biggest Breakout Team

How a head coach who was Plan B and a defensive coordinator he didn’t hire molded a damaged quarterback and a young roster into a contender. And their future is even brighter.

Few first-time head coaches have ever faced as difficult a situation as the one Frank Reich stepped into when taking the Colts job this past February. Having worked through the Super Bowl as Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator, Reich was more than two weeks behind in the offseason process. Little fanfare was behind him, as he’d been so obviously Indy’s Plan B—no matter how Colts owner Jim Irsay and GM Chris Ballard tried to spin it after being spurned by top choice Josh McDaniels. Some of McDaniels’s assistants had already come aboard, most notably defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus; Reich, an offensive coach, couldn’t even make his own hire at his coaching staff’s most important post.

Even clunkier than the coaching staff’s construction was Indy’s roster, which was bereft of talent and facing a major remodel. No matter how 2018 free agency and the draft shook out, Eberflus would have to start multiple backup-caliber players and callow rookies. Reich would have to reprogram damaged QB Andrew Luck, who was coming off a major shoulder injury. Part of helping Luck would be fixing an offensive line that had been mostly unserviceable since the Peyton Manning Era. On top of all that, Reich also would be calling plays for the first time since 2015, in San Diego.

But in September, Reich’s Colts came together and proved to all the doubters and naysayers that they were—well, actually, they were exactly right. The Colts started 1-5 and local media outlets were ready to start hyping 2019 mock drafts. But a closer inspection of those first six games revealed reason for hope. Reich’s Colts clearly had an identity, and as the losses piled up, the team only seemed to commit closer to it.

That identity: a straightforward defense with highly schemed D-line tactics in front of traditional zone coverages. An offense built around quick-strike passes, so Luck could throw the ball before his young O-line had a chance to let pass rushers hit his repaired shoulder.

What happens with a well-coached, straightforward schematic approach is young players learn quickly on the fly and become more efficient. Not only do those young players have less to think about, but with their scheme being so simple, opponents tend to attack it the same ways each week. Players start anticipating certain things, which makes them play faster still. For defensive and offensive units that grow quickly, coaches become comfortable enough to implement more schematic wrinkles. Their simple scheme gains subtle, valuable texture, and that’s when a team can really take off.

This is precisely what has happened with the 2018 Colts, who after a come-from-behind victory over the Giants on Sunday are 9-6 and in contention to become one of the unlikeliest wild-card clubs in history.

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Eberflus’s unit is no longer just a plain zone defense. The Colts have overcome a lack of talent and athleticism along their D-line by featuring stunts and twists and D-line slants, skewing an offense’s angles and numbers. Think of it this way: a Colts D-linemen who at the snap is in, say the B-gap (between a guard and tackle), very often winds up attacking the A-gap or C-gap. It’s an aggressive approach that only works with sharp linebackers behind it.

Eberflus, having worked closely with Indy’s linebackers this season, has helped second-round rookie Darius Leonard become one of the game’s best. He has also seen massive improvements from low-pedigreed young guys like Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin (both seventh-round rookies) and Anthony Walker (a 2017 fifth-rounder who did not play Sunday against New York but has been the No. 2 ’backer in most packages). With an overachieving front seven, Indy’s secondary—which is also young in many places—has performed marvelously. So marvelously, in fact, that Eberflus has comfortably expanded his scheme. The Colts now feature a litany of fire zone blitzes (slot corner Kenny Moore has become a weapon on these). They employ those zone blitzes selectively but effectively against veteran QBs (like Eli Manning on Sunday), and relentlessly against certain young QBs (like Dak Prescott last week).

Offensively, Luck is doing as much pre-snap line of scrimmage work as ever, which is key for orchestrating a quick-strike offense. (To get the ball out quickly, a QB must read at least parts of the defense before the play.) Receiver screens have become prominent. So have designer plays out of multi-tight end sets—something Reich had success with in Philadelphia.

Indy’s young offensive line, which has four starters who were drafted before Pick 40 (LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly and RT Braden Smith) has played closer to its talent level each week, to such a degree that Reich has started asking more of them. Besides headlining a multidimensional ground game, a few times a game the O-line blocks for deeper dropbacks, where Luck, with his downfield vision and precision accuracy, has once again looked like the MVP-caliber quarterback he was prior to his shoulder problems.

The Colts will have over $122 million in cap space next season, three picks in the first two rounds of the draft thanks to the Jets/Sam Darnold trade, and a roster stocked with intriguing second- and third-year players. They’re poised to be a perennial playoff force. Amazingly, that run might start not next year, but in a couple of weeks.

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