With the retirement of Tony Dungy, the architect of the Tampa-Two defensive scheme used by the Colts and several teams throughout the league, changes to the Indianapolis defense in 2009 are inevitable.
Dungy has said that he expects new head coach Jim Caldwell to put his stamp on the defense, and Caldwell’s first step was to replace long time defensive coordinator Ron Meeks with former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.
Although Coyer is familiar with Dungy’s Tampa-Two, having implemented the same system with some variations in Denver, the buzz about his impact in Indianapolis is all about the blitz.
Media prognosticators all across the sports world expect Coyer to utilize blitzes more frequently than the Colts have in the past, simply because he had a propensity to use creative blitzes in Denver. But the Colts’ team is built very differently than the Broncos’ team that Coyer supervised. Would blitzing more be advantageous for the Colts?
In Denver, Coyer ran a fusion of Dungy’s Tampa-Two and a 4-3 blitzing scheme that utilized some man coverage in addition to zone. More specifically, the 4-3 blitzing scheme Coyer used was a “Show Blitz” system in which different combinations of linebackers and/or safeties creep close to the line of scrimmage as if they are going to blitz.
From this alignment the defense frequently drops back into its base coverage, but occasionally blitzes some or all of the shifting personnel.
The “Show Blitz” system has advantages and disadvantages. It can be intimidating to inexperienced quarterbacks and linemen who have to call the offensive line’s blocking scheme, and potentially create mismatches where an offense keeps extra people into block blitzers that in fact drop back in to coverage, or vice versa.
Because of the confusion the scheme causes, it can result in a lot of turnovers.
However, it is susceptible to giving up big plays, as Peyton Manning himself proved a few times in games against Coyer’s Bronco defenses. One key difference between those defenses and the current Indianapolis team is that the Broncos were built around coverage players, while the Colts are built around the defensive line.
The Coyer Broncos could cover receivers down the field and make up for vacating coverage zones with blitzers because they had pro-bowler John Lynch and, quite possibly the best cover-corner in the NFL at the time, Champ Baily patrolling the secondary.
The Colts, on the other hand, don’t need to blitz nearly as much because they can generate adequate pressure with their front four.
In fact, in a pure Dungy-esque Tampa-Two defense, blitzing is not really an aggressive bonus commodity, but really more of a fallback to be used only if absolutely necessary.
When a defense blitzes linebackers from a Tampa-Two look, it creates large gaps in the zone coverage that are easily exploited if the quarterback’s protection holds up long enough to throw a pass. Underneath routes in the middle of the field and checkdown passes to running backs can be easily completed for first downs if the blitz isn’t successful.
The more effective blitzing option for a Tampa-Two defense is to blitz a safety, and roll the coverage into Cover-Three. This can be an effective strategy against runs and passes, but by taking a defender out of the secondary it does expose the defense to the threat of big plays down the field, particularly down the seams between zones.
Safety blitzes have been used frequently by the Colts in recent seasons, with Antoine Bethea staying in coverage as the safety over the top and Bob Sanders moving into the box to rush the passer or run-blitz. Sanders had 3.5 sacks in 2007, when he actually played a full season.
In the 2008 season, the Tampa-Two teams that blitzed the most were simply the ones that didn’t generate adequate pressure from the defensive line. According to Football Outsiders, the Chicago Bears blitzed 38.6 percent of the time (third highest percentage league-wide) and the Detroit Lions blitzed 31.1 percent of the time.
Chicago ranked 21st in the league in team defense, and Detroit ranked last. Detroit’s defense ranked 27th in passing defense and Chicago’s ranked 30th with both teams allowing over 230 yards-per-game to opposing offenses through the air.
Indianapolis, while blitzing a league low 11.4 percent of the time, ranked sixth in passing defense, 11th in overall defense, and had as many sacks as Detroit and more than Chicago over the course of the season.
In essence, since the Colts are built around pass-rushing demons Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Larry Coyer will have the advantage of not needing to blitz, a commodity that he didn’t have in his tenure with the Broncos.
Coyer will probably blitz a little more than Ron Meeks and Tony Dungy did in the past, simply because the Colts defense in previous seasons blitzed less than any other team. Dungy’s defensive strategy was so conservative that it would be difficult for any new coach or coordinator to blitz less.
However, I do not expect the Colts to significantly change their defensive style by blitzing aggressively, because it detracts from the effectiveness of the Tampa-Two design.
Under new coordinator Larry Coyer, the Colts defense may frequently show blitz to keep teams off balance, but then drop back into the base Cover-Two shell since the defensive line can provide plenty of pressure. This could prove to be an effective twist on an already effective defensive scheme.