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 some 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 towards 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 -- along with 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," the Colts head coach 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 Sundays 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 said.
"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, Tyler Brayton and cornerback Jacob Lacey. Additionally, the team may decide to part ways with 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."
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