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I think it’s safe to say Colts fans are concerned with the state of the defensive back room heading into the 2024 season.

It was believed, myself included, that Indy would look to add proven veterans to complement their two sophomore corners, JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones. As of March 29th, the room is the same, if not worse, as safety Julian Blackmon remains unsigned.

Chris Ballard, in the seven off-seasons that he’s been the general manager, has seldomly given any of us reason to believe he’d decide without critically thinking about it first. It’s why I’ve learned not to jump to criticize every move, but rather attempt to make sense of it. Chris Ballard is a lot of things, but he’s not lazy. He’s as thorough of a decision-maker as they come. You may not agree with the decision or the result, but arguing that Chris Ballard hasn’t thought this over a billion times, would be very inaccurate.

So, let’s try and put all the pieces of the puzzle together. What does Gus Bradley ask of his DBs? What does Chris Ballard see that most fans don’t? And finally, why is there a belief there will be improvement in 2024?

 

GUS BRADLEY’S DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY

 

This quote from Chris Ballard’s one-on-one at the League Meetings does a great job of encapsulating the Bradley philosophy:

“When you understand what our defensive staff and Gus and them are trying to do.. and then you understand where the strengths of the defense are and then where they also can hurt ya a little bit… it makes you play a little freer and faster each and every year you’ve had more reps in it. So that’s definitely a benefit.”

 

Gus Bradley is well known for his work in Seattle. While he wasn’t there for the elite year of the Legion of Boom, he was there in 2010-2012 to work with Pete Carroll. They were architects behind a defensive scheme that was one of the most dominant of its time.

At its core, the Bradley’s defense has three main goals:

  1. Stop the run (gap control defense)
  2. Limit Explosives
  3. Rally to the checkdowns and make QBs dink and dunk down the field.

 

Here’s a great rep from E.J Speed executing #3:

 

 

The calls and tendencies have changed over the years, but philosophically it’s the exact same as it was a decade ago.

 

Some defensive coordinators like Brian Flores and Wink Martindale coach defense with an offensive mindset. It’s why they’re always fun to study and hard to prepare for. They design exotic pressures and call them frequently to make the offense “defend” them.

The Colts on the other hand aren’t like that at all. They couldn’t be more different as a defense. Here’s what Gus Bradley has said about his defense:

You know what, I just think the big thing with our players is I want to really come across as our plan is going to be really simple. Simple means that, like Michelangelo, he used three primary colors, and look at what he did. Beethoven used seven notes, and look at what he did.”

 

The Colts aren’t gonna waste their time in the meeting rooms installing all these new pressures and calls. Instead, they want to spend their time mastering the coverages and calls they need, and then studying their opponent and implementing those calls to take away certain concepts.

Bradley has no problem coming out in the same personnel packages (4DL-2LB-5DBs), bringing a four-man rush, and playing predominately Cover 3 behind it.

So if this defense is so simple and easy to learn, the Colts defensive backs must stink, right? I mean…if they can’t learn the NFL’s most simple defense why is Chris Ballard so confident in them? Why does continuity even matter if the defense isn’t hard to learn?

Let’s get into the film.

 

THE ANATOMY OF GIVING UP EXPLOSIVE PLAYS

 

So now that we’ve laid the groundwork for the Bradley defense and his philosophy, the next step is to try and go through each snap of JuJu and Jaylon and figure out why the Colts let up so many explosive plays and points in 2023.

What I came away with from all the film I watched was a reminder. Especially for a team that is dead last in the league in man coverage, secondary play is often about how you play as a unit rather than an individual. 

A majority of the “explosive plays” given up from Indianapolis in 2023 were a result of coverage busts and poor communication.

 

 

 

Here’s a great example of a huge gain that was a result of no singular person getting beat, but rather 4 guys not on the same page. The Titans are running a Yankee concept from a condensed formation. A Yankee concept is one of the most popular “shot plays” you’ll see on Sundays, and it’s often paired with play-action. Yankee concepts are designed to attack single-high safety coverages. The idea is that a run fake will have the Linebackers step up and create a window to throw the over route, while the post route occupies the play side corner and middle field safety and prevents them from cutting the crosser.

But Defensive coordinators get paid too, so defenses have figured out checks to put themselves in a better position to cover these routes. Notice how Jaylon Jones is playing the over route from Hopkins. At the snap, Jones is bailing into his deep third. As Hopkins starts to cross the hash, you can see Jones with his outside arm up as he lets the receiver go. What Jaylon is trying to do is pass off the crosser to Rodney Thomas II who is in a better position of leverage to do so. However, Rodney doesn’t see it until it’s too late and it’s a big play that resulted in 6 points the very next play.

This is just one example of course, but when the Colts decided to dial up pressure, it put some of these issues on center stage.

 

 

 

Here the Colts are running an exotic 5-man pressure that appears to be a quarters blitz. The coverage techniques are something you don’t often see in the NFL, and is very possible it’s something that is gameplan specific. Without being in the meeting room, I can still feel confident this is a bust in coverage as Julian Blackmon is expecting EJ Speed or JuJu Brents to carry the vertical from the TE.

 

ROOM TO IMPROVE

 

Now just because there were “busts” in coverage, doesn’t mean that guys didn’t get beat either.

Here’s a great example of a play we all have seen a billion times. The first play of the Week 18 Houston game.

 

 

CJ Stroud said it himself, he thought there was no way the Colts would be in this coverage. Nonetheless, Bobby Slowik had the perfect play call.

The Colts are in Cover 6 or Quarter-Quarter Half. It’s a split-field coverage where they are playing Quarters to the field (or wide side) and Cover 2 into the boundary (short side). I know it looks like the Colts are just dropping to no-man’s land and Nick Cross needs to help bracket Nico Collins, but in Cover 6, Cross is responsible for any vertical of the #2 receiver. That means that when Schultz comes on the crosser, JuJu Brents is isolated on the post. The Cover-2 Safety on the backside (Ronnie Harrison Jr.) needs to try and help support when none of the TEs in the wing release. But at the end of the day, this is a quarters-beater and JuJu Brents gets beat.

It’s worth noting I’m not the biggest fan of QQH to 13 personnel (3 TEs) on the first play of the game, but… the best corners in the league can be put in those positions and rarely get beat.

Jaylon Jones also had some moments where he struggled against top competition.

 

 

The Colts are getting aggressive here in the Red Zone running what coaches call “Hot Coverage” or a 6 man pressure. When Gus Bradley brings pressure, he rarely brings 5, he’s gonna bring the house. It’s a cool pressure so I’m gonna get a bit off-topic to talk about it if that’s cool…

In Hot or “eyes” coverage, the defense will be bringing 6 guys, while playing 3 deep and 2 under underneath. Those underneath defenders will be playing spot drop coverage with their “eyes” on the QB trying to take away the “hot” read from the offense. What makes it cool is that EJ Speed and Zaire Franklin are mugged up at the line of scrimmage and will “read” where the center is turning too. If he turns to block you, then you bail out. If he turns to block you, you will either occupy the back for the nickel to run free OR you have a free run at the QB (doubt it).

TLDR; it’s an aggressive blitz up front and in the backend because you are 1 on 1 across the board, with a lot of space for the offensive to work with.

Jones gives Evans too much space to cross his face and stumbles at the top of the route which prevents him from contesting the catch.

 

WHERE IT WENT RIGHT

 

 

 

This is a cool play for Jaylon Jones and his portfolio.

The Raiders are using Tre Tucker on what I’m gonna call “Ricochet” or “Peel” motion. Essentially Tre is gonna run to one side of the formation getting the safeties to “rock and roll”, then at the snap run back to his original spot where the safeties are forced to communicate again to get back to their original structure.

You can see at the end of the clip Nick Cross is trying to tell Ronnie Harrison Jr. that he needs to get back to the deep third. It’s a clear miscommunication because Jaylon Jones is supposed to have safety help in the post, but it doesn’t matter because he stays in phase the entire way and makes a play at the catch point.

 

 

 

JuJu Brents, coming back from injury, also showed up in Week 17. JuJu is defending a deep out from Jakobi Myers. It’s not the best route Myers has ever put on tape, but it forced JuJu to “baseball turn”. In a Cover 3 corners are taught when a receiver gets in their blind spot and threatens them outside, to turn 180 degrees and find the receiver. JuJu does a great job of baseball turning without losing a step and finding the ball to make a play.

Again these are only two examples, but I’m battling everyone’s attention span here, and believe me, there are plenty more examples that help to paint a more holistic picture as to how Brents and Jones played in 2023 and will play in 2024.

WHAT LED TO BALLARD’S CONVICTION IN THE YOUNG GROUP

 

So continuing to piece the puzzle together… Gus Bradley’s philosophy relies on corners that play fast and limit explosive plays. More often than not, the explosives that Indy gave up in 2023 were things you can fix over timeThe more reps the secondary gets together, the less you can expect to see defenders after the whistle looking at each other wondering what the hell just happened.

I was able to speak to various coaches about the transition from the college game to the NFL, specifically Gus Bradley’s system. The overarching theme and hypothesis I was able to get is that Bradley is asking them to play techniques that they didn’t have to play at such a high rate. In college, you see a lot of split safety structures to attempt to defend the spread offense and take away all the space offenses have to work with. In Bradley’s system, you play the position inherently differently and are often isolated on an island against some of the NFL’s best receivers every Sunday.

The growing pains were inevitable.

 

Ballard and Bradley’s core philosophies engage in a perpetual tug of war, with no resolution until one surrenders to the other. Ballard wants to invest his resources in other areas, Bradley’s defense is at its most successful with personnel that can cover up the schematic deficiencies (a la Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman). Frankly, it’s why Bradley has struggled to replicate what he built in 2012 in Seattle at his other stops.

While it may be blunt, it’s not a slight on Gus at all. It’s the nature of the system. Teams like San Francisco, New York (Jets), and Houston all are 4-2-5 four-man-rush cover 3 teams. They also have guys like Sauce Gardner, Derek Stingley Jr., and Talanoa Hufanga.

Bradley is at his best when he has top-shelf talent in the secondary, but so is every DC. When you don’t call your best game, it’s always great to have a human eraser that can just get rid of your mistakes.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that Chris Ballard doesn’t make roster moves strictly based on a coordinator’s scheme. The golden rule of roster building is that the player will most of the time outlive the coach. Talent always trumps scheme fit.

When you piece everything together… the current scheme (a smaller piece), the injuries and lack of cohesion and reps as a unit (a larger piece), and the 2023 film (the largest piece)… the decision becomes clearer.

The flashes outweigh the mental mistakes.

 

THE MISSING PIECES…

 

Ballard mentioned at the owner’s meetings that there’s “work still to be done”. The Colts need more talent in that room still… let me re-phrase, the Colts need more people in the room. The depth is paper-thin at this point in the offseason. Chris Ballard is known to make late free agency moves in the secondary, often opting for savvy veterans who are coming off a down year that he can get for cheap. There are plenty of those types of options on the board.

If Ballard wants to keep adding youth and take that route, the draft certainly has plenty of those as well. I think it’s silly in late March to speculate what Chris Ballard is going to do. So I won’t. But I think it’s very safe to say the room will have new faces before training camp and OTA’s.

And while you still may not agree with the decision 2,400+ words later, hopefully, I helped make sense of it.

 

More from The Blue Stable:

 

Film Room: Joe Flacco Brings Gun-Slinging Mentality to Indy

Film Room: Raekwon Davis Fills Gap in Colts DL

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