Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is the rare first-time coordinator who accepted a job and then had to wait to find out who his head coach would be. Tapped for the Josh McDaniels staff, Eberflus stayed with the Colts thanks in part to support from GM Chris Ballard, who sold Indy’s Plan B Coach, Frank Reich, on the longtime Cowboys defensive assistant. During those turbulent weeks, Eberflus kept working on a project that he’d started almost right away: studying Indy’s defensive roster.
Eberflus watched the film on every snap of every current Colts defender spanning back over the last four years. He’d spend the first 75 or so plays just watching. Then, he’d start jotting down notes. When no plays were left, he’d read through his notes and type out a final report.
Most of those final reports reiterated what Eberflus almost surely expected going in: His Indy defense needed work. A lot of work. Most players had been acquired for previous head coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 blitzing, matchup-coverage system, which was antithetical to Eberflus’s 4-3 zone coverage scheme. Given this and the underwhelming talent of many of those Pagano players, one could argue that every position on Indy’s defense save for 2017 first-rounder Malik Hooker’s free safety spot needed upgrading.
Even if Ballard were to be aggressive altering the roster—and he was, Indy drafted five defensive rookies and signed three notable defensive contributors—Eberflus would still be working with a crew of young players, journeymen vets and whatever ill-fitting Pagano holdovers remained.
Entering September, Indy’s defense featured no natural pass rushers, a bevy of callow linebackers and host of fringe-level defensive backs. It is no understatement to say that Eberflus’s 2018 season was the most impressive defensive coordinating debut of this decade. The Colts started 1-5, giving up 32 points a game in the losses while rotating at almost every position and looking every bit as vulnerable as expected. They finished 9-1, having tightened those rotations and their identity, which is built on sound fundamentals and relentless effort. In those final 10 games, Indy allowed 16.4 points per outing, which would have led the league by more than a point if stretched over the full 17-week season.
Eberflus, though still largely unknown, is now unequivocally the best defensive-minded head-coaching candidate on this year’s market. He interviewed with the Browns on Sunday, and there are rumors that the Jets and Bengals might have interest.
Few men get head-coaching jobs after just one year of coordinating, and the most recent to do from the defensive side of the ball—Steve Wilks—was fired after a miserable one-and-done season in Arizona. (And Vance Joseph lasted just two seasons in Denver.) But the multi-pronged factors behind Eberflus’s 2018 triumphs point to a man uniquely prepared for the quantum leap to head coach. A head coach must be, in no particular order, CEO, teacher, schemer and motivator.
As a CEO
No coach could move to a new city and iron out a wrinkled roster after a dramatic and impromptu head-coaching search the way Eberflus did without having organizational skills and a capacity for balancing the big picture and little picture.
As a teacher
Eberflus has an attention to detail and knack for explaining easy-to-remember thought-processes for the different rules and reads that come with his Cover 2-based scheme. It’s a relatively simple scheme that only works if players consistently go hard while honoring the fine details. The Colts in this sense have shined every week on film, even in some of those early losses when they were learning on the fly. As the season has progressed, Indy’s defenders have all played faster—the surest signs that players are comfortable with what they’re being taught. It’s especially noticeable with the young linebackers, whom Eberflus, a linebackers coach in Dallas, has often worked with directly. Everyone knows about second-round rookie All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, but 2017 fifth-rounder Anthony Walker has also played very well.
As a schemer
It would have been tempting for Eberflus to texture his straightforward zone scheme with disguises and pressure packages early in the season in hopes of camouflaging the lineup’s deficiencies. But he instead had the discipline to withhold the schematic wrinkles until after the zone foundation was stable.
Some of those schematic wrinkles have been brilliant. For example, even publicly Eberflus would probably admit that his defensive line, though tenacious, is not particularly athletic, especially inside. Eberflus believes that a coach must offset this by helping his D-linemen with stunts, twists and slants—tactics that have a defender align in one gap but fire into another gap after the snap. This has become a Colts mainstay (the speed and awareness of those young linebackers allows it to work; they play off the D-line’s movement). But early in the season, it was apparent that even a heavy commitment to the stunts and slants wasn’t enough. Indy simply had no force at 3-technique—the “Aaron Donald” penetrating defensive tackle position that’s crucial to every 4-3 scheme. So, Eberflus did the unthinkable and eradicated the position from his base fronts, instead playing with two nose-shade tackles, capitalizing on Indy’s unique combination of “good size, iffy athleticism” at defensive tackle. Putting both nose tackles in the A-gaps changed the defense. With centers now unable to work up to Indy’s linebackers, opponents no longer could execute their base zone runs.
That change initiated in Week 3 against Philly and grew over time. Weeks later, Eberflus would go to work on his pass defense, adding complexities. Most notable were the edge blitzes, many of which featured magnificently underrated slot corner Kenny Moore. While most teams play man coverage behind a blitz, Eberflus’s Colts often stay in zone, with the safeties and linebackers working in conjunction to disguise and obscure passing lanes. Just like with their regular zone coverages, Colts defenders have gotten faster at executing these zone blitzes, which Eberflus leaned on heavily in preserving his team’s lead at Houston in the Wild Card round.
As a motivator
This is always the hardest way to measure a coach, especially from the outside looking in. He can only thrive here if he checks the CEO, teacher and schemer boxes, and quality motivational leading is subjective. But here’s what we know about Eberflus on the surface: He has worked under a variety of personalities, ranging from the bombastic Rob Ryan, stolid Rod Marinelli and, now, the even-keeled Frank Reich. Three years ago, coaching the Senior Bowl with the Cowboys, Eberflus could be seen running uncommonly competitive position drills, jumping on players quickly who needed correcting, praising them just as quickly after the corrections took hold and constantly calling out who was winning the drill, which seemed to spark not just to the player winning the drill but also those who weren’t.
Many teams with head coaching vacancies are searching for this year’s Sean McVay or Matt Nagy. But since there are more vacancies than young innovative offensive coaches, teams must also look for men who can help counter those offensive minds. There’s a great one available in Indy.
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