The Indianapolis Colts have made a new hire at defensive coordinator, as they have agreed to terms with long time coach Gus Bradley. In this series for the site, I will be defining some important terms and roles for this defense to give you all a better understanding of them when they pop up in future articles.
In today's article, we are finally moving to the second-level of the defense with the linebackers. This piece will primarily be about different fronts and responsibilities in run defense, while the next article in this series will go into detail about how the linebackers will be used in the passing game.
Something that I talked about quite a bit with the defensive line articles is the difference between 4-3 under and 4-3 over. A 4-3 under call is essentially a hybrid 3-4 defense, with the outside SAM linebacker stepping up to the line of scrimmage to play off of the edge.
Veteran K.J Wright was the SAM backer for the Las Vegas Raiders a year ago, and he was typically the one to step up into this role in under looks. Typically on these calls, the SAM linebacker would shift to the strong side of the offense and the linebackers would be in what is called a closed look to that side of the field.
Here is a picture to go with that description. The SAM shifts down to the line of scrimmage and the other two linebackers shift over to close that side. The backside WILL backer is responsible for cutback lanes while the MIKE is reading the flow of the play to the strong side of the formation.
A 4-3 over call is your standard 4-3 defensive look. The four defensive linemen are one-gapping up front and the three linebackers are off of the line of scrimmage and at the second-level.
In a typical 4-3 over call, the SAM linebacker will be aligned to the strong side of the offensive formation and be directly behind the 3-technique defensive tackle. The MIKE will obviously be over the middle and the WILL will be on the weakside behind the 1-technique defensive tackle.
While this doesn't necessarily apply much to this article, I did want to include how the Colts liked to use Darius Leonard in 4-3 over looks under Matt Eberflus. Despite Leonard being a WILL linebacker, he mostly aligned as the SAM in the Colts' 4-3 over defense under Matt Eberflus.
Obviously he was pretty effective in this role and it will be interesting to see if Gus Bradley looks to use Leonard in a similar way in 2022.
Differences in Personnel
Now let's take a look at some key personnel changes that could be coming to the Colts in 2022. Last season, the Colts and the Raiders had very similar usage rates when it came to base defense (three linebackers on the field). Both teams were in base defense 21% of the time-- according to Football Outsiders.
Where we could see the biggest change is in nickel personnel, or usage of just two linebackers on the field at the same time. The Colts ranked third in the NFL in nickel usage in 2021, staying in that personnel 78% of the time. The Raiders, however, were only in nickel 58% of the time. So where is the remaining 21% for that Raiders defense last year? That is how often the Raiders were in dime (just one linebacker on the field).
If Bradley approaches the Colts' defense in a similar way, we could see a drop in snaps where Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke are the only two linebackers on the field together, and see a rise in three safety sets. Obviously this is not set in stone, but it is an interesting set of numbers to look at.
Another change that could be coming is a rotation at linebacker. The Colts last season were not shy about who their top two linebackers were, as both Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke appeared in over 1,000 snaps each. The Raiders had more of a committee approach to their linebacker group, as the team had four different players see over 300 snaps at linebacker last year.
- Denzel Perryman: 913 snaps
- Corey Littleton: 693 snaps
- K.J Wright: 442 snaps
- Divine Deablo: 326 snaps
While I would bet good money that both Leonard and Okereke will see a majority of snaps at the linebacker position, it will be interesting to see how the snaps are divvied out on the year. Maybe if the starters snaps are kept to a bit more of a reasonable number, we won't see the defense running on fumes late in the season (like we saw in 2021).
Changes in Run Defense
For the most part, both Bobby Okereke and Darius Leonard will be asked to perform their typical roles in run defense. Okereke will be the MIKE linebacker that will be asked to do it all. He will have to be sturdy enough to fit his run gaps, while also being cerebral enough to diagnose runs at the point of attack.
Denzel Perryman served as the MIKE linebacker last season for Bradley and was able to put up career-best numbers in run defense (and earned his first Pro Bowl nod). If Okereke can improve his consistency, he can make a similar jump in production in 2022.
As for Darius Leonard, he will likely still be running as the WILL linebacker on a majority of snaps in 2022. He will be asked to be the pursuit man from the backside on most plays, but he may tested a bit more in block shedding with a more spaced out defensive front. How he performs in this area will be an interesting storyline to follow on the year.
If he can be kept clean, however, Leonard still remains one of the best run defending linebackers in the entire NFL. I'm sure Bradley will do everything in his power to allow Leonard to attack offenses in 2022.
The Colts' linebackers shouldn't see a major change in their roles and responsibilities in the run game in 2022. Outside of a few personnel differences, Bradley will typically rely on both Bobby Okereke and Darius Leonard to continue their dominant play at the second-level.
The really interesting thing to watch in training camp will be how the depth behind those two shakes out. Bradley likes to have a healthy rotation at linebacker, so there should be some extra snaps up for grabs in camp. While E.J Speed and Zaire Franklin are likely the next men up, some of these undrafted free agents could fight their way into playing time in 2022.
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