How Larry Coyer's Defensive Scheme Is Killing the Indianapolis Colts

Collin McCollough@cmccolloNFL Deputy EditorOctober 26, 2011

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 23:  Antoine Bethea #41 of the Indianapolis Colts prepares to tackle Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints during a game being held at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 23, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It's too bad that Indianapolis Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian doesn't listen to the talking heads (in the sense that Howard Stern doesn't listen to the radio and Roger Ebert doesn't watch movies), because occasionally, he could stand to learn something about his football team from the sea of pundits and prognosticators.

If you would believe anything Polian said on his weekly radio spot—and that's a risky proposition even if the man has his right handle on the Bible, a gallon of truth serum in his bloodstream and the fate of humanity on the line—the Colts defense is "playing their hearts out." Their safety play is "fine." 

It's not the scheme; it's the "mental errors." At least if you believe Polian. 

Of course, we know better by now. Or at least I would hope so.

Truthfully, the defense isn't playing well, and that might be an understatement on par with saying it's a wee bit nippy in Antarctica right now.

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And while it's hard to speak directly to the effort, as that element of the game is difficult to draw from the game tape except noticing instances where a guard like Mike Pollak quit blocking on a screen play, or a linebacker like Pat Angerer was simply beat into submission by New Orleans Saints blockers getting to the second level faster than Jim Caldwell can blink his eyes, it can be safely surmised that something is wrong in Indy.

Actually, Jim Caldwell never blinks.  Seriously.  Someone forgot to program the ability to blink into his CPU.
Actually, Jim Caldwell never blinks. Seriously. Someone forgot to program the ability to blink into his CPU.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Colts defense is far too big of a mess to single out any one element as the reason for its shortcomings. Talent is an issue.

Small cornerbacks like Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey and Terrence Johnson match up terribly against the increasingly tall receivers of the league.

Late-round or undrafted free agent defensive tackles like Antonio Johnson, Dan Muir and Ricardo Matthews simply aren't talented enough to collapse the pocket or consistently anchor against the run.

Lackluster draft picks like Fili Moala and Jerry Hughes make no difference whatsoever.

It's worth remembering, of course, that this is a defense that had only been truly trampled in one game prior to the Sunday Night Football fiasco, vs. the Houston Texans in Week 1. In a few games, such as a Sunday Night Football contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defense actually kept Indianapolis in the game.

Still, when the bottom drops out to the tune of 62 points—after weeks of springing leaks—it's time to start asking questions, even if the extent of the defensive demise is especially amplified by one truly terrible outing.

The first thing you have to question is defensive coordinator Larry Coyer's scheme.  Certainly, you have to concede that the man is working with what he has, which isn't much at defensive back and defensive tackle. But it's too simplistic to unilaterally assess all blame on the basis of talent.  

Coyer's scheme is just as big a culprit.

The expression on this man's face just exudes confidence.
The expression on this man's face just exudes confidence.Handout/Getty Images

We saw it in the preseason, though dismissed it as a consequence of Indy's typical attitude toward preseason games. We saw it vs. Houston, but dismissed it as a consequence of the chaos resulting from announcing Peyton Manning was out indefinitely and Kerry Collins would be replacing him on short notice.

We really saw it in a Monday Night Football game—a close, winnable contest, mind you—vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when Angerer dropped anywhere between 10 to 15 yards at the start of each snap and conceded an automatic 10-yard gain to any Bucs RB who managed to slip out into the vacated underneath zone over the middle of the field.

The problem with Coyer's scheme, boiled down to a simple sentence, is this: They defend space, not players. That concept is nothing new of course. Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks employed a mostly successful Cover-2 defense that acted on the same principles.  

Key difference was, though, those defenses made plays—sacks, interceptions, fumbles. They caused turnovers. They didn't give up the big play. They defended the sticks on third down and tightened up in the red zone.

Coyer's scheme, though, seems averse to doing any of that.  

Take a first-quarter drive by Drew Brees and the Saints offense for example. After a 57-yard Pierre Thomas gain courtesy of the Colts' complete inability to shed blocks or hold contain on the strong side, New Orleans found itself in the red zone, preparing to add its second touchdown in just 10 minutes of play.

Indianapolis lines up in a typical zone look, stacking its defenders along the touch line. It probably is worth noting that Powers, who typically isn't expected to give as big of a coverage cushion as his cornerback counterparts, is not lined up on or in the end zone.

Theoretically, this defense should hold strong to that touchline. You want to keep the receivers in front of you on the play. The second you concede that touchline by dropping any further back into the end zone, you concede a touchdown. This is Football 101 material.

The Colts should probably seek to be physical with the outside receivers, maybe extend some coverage drops into the end zone if those guys run fade routes, or any route that takes them well into the end zone. But the majority of defenders—specifically the linebackers—should be at the top of their defensive drops by now.

So what does Indy do?

Indy sends a four-man rush and drops into the end zone, almost completely. Powers is still defending the touch line, as is Philip Wheeler, but look at the other defenders.

Kavell Conner is in the end zone. Safeties David Caldwell and Antoine Bethea are in the end zone. Kevin Thomas is in the end zone. Angerer is three yards deep in the end zone.

Without any semblance of a pass-rush—what would you expect from a quick pass out of the shotgun formation?—the results are entirely too predictable.

Marques Colston runs a simple hook route, seeing that the defenders have dropped past the touch line, and is wide open for one of the easier scoring passes Brees has ever thrown.

Because Angerer is driven so far back in coverage, he has no shot at reacting to the play. Fellow linebackers Conner and Wheeler are the closest defenders bracketing Colston and, similarly, are too far away to make any kind of play unless Brees just manages to break out the ol' Chad Pennington noodle arm.

But it's Brees. So that doesn't happen.

Here's another look at the coverage bracket.

Now, I fully realize that putting a linebacker on Colston is asking to lose, especially Angerer, who is exceptional against the run but doesn't quite have the requisite athleticism to effectively defend the pass. That matchup certainly has to be factored into this (losing) battle.

But you have to at least try to be physical. You can't concede territory in the red zone. You can't play that far back into the end zone.  

Again, these aren't complicated ideas. I did not attend the Acme School of Defensive Coordinating, and the full extent of my coaching experience has been summarized by calling out backyard football plays for my little cousins.

Yet even I understand that this is an entirely ineffective defensive play call. If you want to give cushions between the 20s in a Cover-2 defense, that's fine. But you can't continue doing so in the red zone. You especially can't continue doing so into the end zone. 

Not a zone. Not against Brees and one of the NFL's highest-powered passing offenses. Schematically, it makes no sense. It's akin to "playing it safe" by wearing a helmet while diving into a pool of molten lava.

And it makes Reggie Wayne very, very sad.

Reggie Wayne's tears may or may not grant eternal life.
Reggie Wayne's tears may or may not grant eternal life.

You can't play defense this way in the NFL. Not if you want to win. And honestly, even if Manning was healthy, you would have to suspect Indianapolis is still struggling to hit the .500 mark. The talent just isn't there, and the scheme exists to actively waste what little talent there is.

This isn't, of course, the only piece of evidence damning Coyer's scheme. Let's take a look at a 1st-and-10 play from inside Colts territory just outside of the two-minute warning.

Brees hurries to the line and takes a quick snap from under center. He'll take a three-step drop and set to throw.

Do you see where cornerback Kevin Thomas is at the top of the screen? Inside the red zone? Brees surely does. Eight yards off at the point where Brees decides to target Devery Henderson.

Again, and I apologize if the sledgehammer has left a sizable indentation on your forehead by now, this is inside the red zone. And this is what Brees is looking at as he takes the snap.

Now, to some extent, do I understand Coyer's philosophy here? Yes. The Colts don't have big corners. They don't have physical corners. They're never going to be comfortable pressing or being physical with receivers like Colston and Henderson.

But don't you at least have to try? Try something? Anything at all?

If the alternative is giving up 62 (well, defensively, 55) points by playing conservative, can cutting down cushions really be any worse? And what does it say about Polian when his defensive coordinator doesn't trust the cornerback he drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft to give any less than eight yards of space between himself and his man?

At the actual point of reception, as Henderson runs a quick slant, Thomas isn't even close to the receiver.

In fact, Thomas doesn't even end up making the tackle.  That honor goes to Antoine Bethea, who surely has to be sick of cleaning up everyone else's messes this season.

I could continue illustrating examples of Coyer's broken scheme, particularly its failings on third down and inside the red zone, but I'm not sure that even a site of this size has the server space. So why does this scheme, which is so obviously ineffective, continue to exist?  

That's the question we need to be asking. Specifically, how this scheme has become so broken when just a few seasons ago, in the Colts' 2009 run to the Super Bowl (where they would lose to who else but Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints), the scheme seemed to be a welcome reprieve from Ron Meeks' conservative defense of 2008.

One obvious answer is the players. It could be argued that Indy simply does not have the defensive tackles required to get pressure on QBs taking two- or three-step drops or running quick passes out of shotgun formation that work to completely neutralize the pass-rush talents of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Continuing along that thought, it could be that the Colts simply do not have the defensive backs requires to play bump-and-run coverage, or crowd receivers until the defensive ends can find their way to the quarterback.

The coaches may feel their defensive backs are likely to be burned if they attempt to do so—which, of course, couldn't possibly be worse than being burned one 20-yard reception at a time.

It could be that players aren't executing the scheme correctly. Maybe they're not lining up where they need to, maybe they panicked at the sight of the Saints' blitzkrieg. Given the consistency with which they lined up eight yards off, though, and made no effort to make things interesting in the red zone, I highly doubt this is the case.

Whatever the answer, the supposed excuse for why the Colts continue to demonstrate the NFL's least effective defensive scheme (they're ranked last or close to last in all significant defensive categories), it's clear that the scheme does not work. The cushions are too costly. Even mediocre quarterbacks can shred it to pieces.  

And the red-zone defense, the defensive drop discipline inside the 20s, is absurd beyond all description. People will point fingers where they may: Coyer for being the architect behind a broken scheme, Polian for not stocking the roster with sufficient defensive talent or Jim Caldwell for hiring Coyer and continuing to watch play after play go unchallenged by the bloodied Indianapolis defense.

It's just a good thing that Polian doesn't listen to those people.

They don't know anything.

For more Colts and NFL analysis, follow Collin on Twitter   @cmccollo