News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 27, 2012

Colts defense about to receive overhaul

Tom James
Tribune-Star Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS — Changes are coming quickly for the Indianapolis Colts defense.

With the recent hiring of former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as the Colts’ new head coach, it’s pretty much a given that there will be a shift away from the team’s Cover 2, 4-3 alignment to a hybrid 3-4 system.

While the Ravens had a lot of success with Pagano’s ultra-aggressive hybrid 3-4 this past season,  Indianapolis doesn’t have all the pieces in place just yet to facilitate a quick move to a new system. So the change will be a gradual one in many respects.

“I’ve got to dive into this and evaluate every player in that locker room. I’ve got to look at every player on defense. I’m not going to be hard-headed enough — and certainly the defensive coordinator and coaching staff that we bring in here; we’re not going to jam a square peg into a round hole,” Pagano said about the transition to a 3-4 scheme.

“We’re going to find our strengths of this unit and the weaknesses. We’re going to put them in the best possible position to be successful and win games. If we can move toward the type of defense, the brand of defense that we’ve been playing where I came from, we can evolve to that.”

That’s the key. The Colts are expected to try and re-sign unrestricted free agent defensive end Robert Mathis, who teams with defensive end Dwight Freeney to give Indianapolis two of the best pure pass rushers in the league. Mathis may wind up being franchised, although team officials would like to get something worked out as soon as possible.

Starting with Mathis and Freeney, Pagano and newly hired defensive coordinator Greg Manusky already have a starting point with the move to a new defensive set.

“If Wade Phillips can go to the Houston Texans [as defensive coordinator] and install the 3-4 with no offseason and make [defensive end] Mario Williams an outside linebacker and stand up on early downs, [with] the two explosive, great athletes we have on the edge here, I don’t see an issue,” Pagano said.

Flexibility will be the key to the Colts defense under Pagano and Manusky.

“Our motto is simple me, complex you. To say I’m a 3-4 guy, we want to build a defense that’s flexible. It’s going to be simple for our guys to execute, but when offenses prepare for it on Sunday’s it’s going to look very complex to them,” Pagano previewed.

“Having said that, just because we line up and they say we’re a 3-4 team, we may be a 4-3 team on first down, we can be an odd 3-4 look on second down and the Lord only knows on third and 7-plus. That’s our goal.”

There was some thought that in recent years, the Colts’ defense — which has been known as small in stature but blessed with athleticism and speed — would sometimes hamstring itself by sitting back and reacting to what the opposing team’s offense would try to do. Not anymore.

“We just cut our guys loose. We’ve got some special guys here with some special talents and dominant traits. There are some explosive athletes and we’ll evolve as the drafts go by and free agency goes by. That was their nature and we kind of got away from that a little bit.,” Pagano voiced.

“I think players like to play that way. We called it ankle-weighting our players, meaning we never gave them too much where we thought they were out there thinking and not reacting. This is a reaction game. You don’t have time to think. You see, you react, you anticipate, you have responsibility and then you run and then you hit. We’re going to have those types of guys.”

In addition to Mathis, other key defensive free agents include linebackers Philip Wheeler and Ernie Sims; defensive linemen Eric Foster, Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton; and cornerback Jacob Lacey. Additionally, the team may decide to part ways a pair of key veterans who have battled injuries the last two seasons, middle linebacker Gary Brackett and strong safety Melvin Bullitt.

“We want to be aggressive [defensively] and dictate the tempo,” Pagano said. “We want them reacting to us and not vice versa. We will have schemes in place that allow our players to play and be very aggressive, but at the same time, be fundamentally sound.”

• Athletic quarterbacks — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, expected to be the first two quarterbacks taken in the 2012 National Football League draft, put on a show Sunday morning during on-field drill work at the National Football Scouting Combine.

While neither player participated in the passing drills — preferring to wait until their respective on-campus pro days at Stanford and Baylor — Luck and Griffin displayed just how talented they are athletically.

Griffin was timed unofficially at 4.41 and 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. Luck, meanwhile, had unofficial times of 4.66 and 4.59. When the official numbers for their best runs were released later in the day, Griffin had a 4.41 while Luck was at 4.69. Not too shabby.

In other drills, Griffin had a vertical jump of 39 inches while Luck was at 36 inches. Griffin’s broad jump was 10 feet and Luck’s topped out at 10-feet-4.

Their numbers overall were either equal or better than those produced a year ago by 2011 No. 1 pick Cam Newton, who was drafted by Carolina and earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors this past season.

Questions were raised whether Griffin’s 40-yard time was the second-best ever for a quarterback at the combine. There were reports that Michael Vick had a 4.33 in 2001, but confusion as to whether Vick actually took part in the running event. 

Newton’s official best time last year was 4.59. Denver’s Tim Tebow had a 4.72 in 2010. Texas A&M’s Reggie McNeal officially had a 4.35 in 2006.

When comparing Luck’s best time with the quarterback he is expected to replace in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning had a 4.81 in 1998.

• Harnish getting looks — Former Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is steadily moving up the charts in terms of where he might be drafted.

Harnish, who played for former Indiana State quarterback Jeff Miller at Norwell High School, volunteered for extra passing work during the combine, which had to please many of the scouts in attendance. Ex-North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates did the same thing a year ago and that boosted his stock in the 2011 draft.

Overall, Harnish — who earned Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors last fall — finished second in cone drill, fourth in the shuttle and seventh in three drills: 40, vertical jump & broad jump.

• Defensive lineman, linebackers work today — As the combine winds down to its final two days at Lucas Oil Stadium, the defensive linemen and linebackers will go through tests and drills today. Cornerbacks and safeties will close out the combine on Tuesday.

Defensive line is expected to a big area of interest for the Colts since the team will be looking for a 3-4 nose tackle. Dontari Poe of Memphis — who is 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds — figures to be the best of the bunch.

Poe can play a regular defensive tackle role in a 4-3 alignment, as he did at times as a senior in college, but his primary position is as a 3-4 nose tackle. He has been compared favorably to Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata.

Other candidates are Washington’s Alameda Ta’Amu (6-3, 336), Alabama’s Josh Chapman (6-1, 316), BYU’s Hebron Fangupo (6-1, 330) and Baylor’s Nicholas Jean-Baptiste (6-2, 335).