Indianapolis Colts: Defensive Scheme Change Is a Mistake

Dan AllenCorrespondent IIMarch 5, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 18:  Antoine Bethea #41 ; Ernie Sims #55 and Pat Angerer #51 of the Indianapolis Colts tackle Craig Stevens #88 of the Tennessee Titans during the Colts 27-13 victory over the Titans in the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance and a Peyton Manning MVP award, the Indianapolis Colts are in the midst of a major overhaul.

With the first overall pick this season due to one of the worst finishes in franchise history, owner Jim Irsay is taking this opportunity to clear out and replace personnel at all tiers of the organization.

Manning is awaiting his impending release within the next week. Chuck Pagano is in as head coach and Jim Caldwell is out. Vice Chairman Bill Polian and GM Chris Polian were unceremoniously fired after lengthy runs with the team.

With a new coaching staff often comes a new scheme. In the case of the Colts, Pagano is instituting the 3-4 system that he ran with the Baltimore Ravens last season.

The new system is a dramatic change for Indianapolis, which has run the 4-3 zone defensive scheme for many seasons. The change could be a hint that the organization is overhauling the personnel on both the defensive line and linebacker corps.

The linebackers on the roster could fill the need for inside linebackers in a 3-4 system. That is not a problem, as Pat Angerer will stay in the middle and be accompanied by either Gary Brackett or Kavell Conner.

Indianapolis may choose to re-sign free-agent linebackers Philip Wheeler and Ernie Sims to play inside due to Brackett's injury history and high salary over the next few seasons. In any case Indianapolis has several options opposite Angerer inside.

Where it starts to get messy is with the outside linebackers. Indianapolis could fill the need for pass rushers by moving both Dwight Freeney and free-agent Robert Mathis to outside linebacker for 2012. Even first-round dud Jerry Hughes could move from defensive end for this need—Hughes played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme for Texas Christian University.


However, both Freeney and Mathis have played in 4-3 systems for their entire careers, and going into their respected ages (Freeney, 32 and Mathis, 31), both are opposed to moving away from defensive end. According to Irsay, both will return in 2012 even if Mathis has to be franchise-tagged, and combined the two veterans could present a major issue with the proposed conversion to 3-4.

The biggest issue is the defensive line. Over much of the tenure of the Polians, Indianapolis drafted undersized pass-rushing defensive tackles that fit their scheme. Only in recent seasons did the team start bringing in larger tackles. As such, few of the tackles on roster will be able to play in a 3-4 system successfully.

Antonio Johnson, Ricardo Mathews, Fili Moala and Drake Nevis are all under contract for 2012. Four-year veteran Eric Foster is a free agent and will likely not return with the shift to 3-4 looming.

While all four have the size to play defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, none of them have seen success in the NFL to this point. Moala and Johnson led the group this past season with a lowly 22 tackles each. Nevis looked like a promising player until he was sidelined with injury.

Indianapolis will struggle to fill the nose tackle role in their new defense in 2012. No player on the roster has the size to play the position effectively, and the impending selection of quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft will leave the team with one less pick to fill their defensive needs.

If Indianapolis cannot draft a nose tackle, their only option is to shell out money for a free agent. There are many options here with Paul Soliai, Aubrayo Franklin, Antonio Garay and Sione Pouha all on the market. The cost could prove too much for a team that is signing the first-overall pick and still needs to fill many holes on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

For a team that has needs in the defensive backfield, receiver corps and offensive line, Indianapolis simply cannot afford to move to a 3-4 defensive scheme and at the same time put together an effective group of players.

Moving away from the long-time 4-3 defensive scheme could prove to be the first big blunder in the post-Manning era in Indianapolis.