After taking time to break down a tough Colts offense and what they’ll do schematically to try and attack the Eagles on Sunday, it’s time to now look closely at this defense. This is Carson Wentz’s first test since coming back from his knee injury, and he’s facing a unit that is playing with a lot of effort and energy over the first two games. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who has been on the staff in Dallas under Rod Marinelli over the last few years, has his guys playing hard and fast. It’s not a terribly complicated defense, schematically, but that’s by design. They want their guys to play fast, not have to think about what they’re doing, and attack the football.
In the secondary, the Colts mix up their coverages a decent amount with a good use of Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 4 (or quarters). They’ll work in plenty of man coverage looks as well on third down. This is primarily a nickel defense (five defensive backs), but they play dime with six defensive backs on the field on almost every third down.
Their best corner is Kenny Moore, No. 23. He starts at right cornerback in the Colts' base defense but spends most of his time at nickel corner. He’s a feisty, aggressive kid who I think will stick in the league for a long time. Former Temple star Nate Hairston starts on the left side, and he has experience in the slot as well. On the other side, veteran Pierre Desir was installed as the starter last week, while last year’s second-round pick Quincy Wilson started in the opener in Week 1. Both guys are long with the ability to play the ball in the air, and both of them are good at attacking downhill in the run game.
At safety, last year’s first-round pick, Malik Hooker, is back coming off of his 2017 season-ending knee injury. Hooker is a true ballhawk who drew comparisons to Ed Reed coming out of college. He made plays early on as a rookie as well as last summer pre-injury, but outside of a nice hit along the sideline in Week 1 he’s been relatively quiet through two games. That is bound to change as he settles in.
On the strong side, Clayton Geathers is a veteran who excels at playing in the box. He fits in well as a half-field safety in Cover 2 and he is a dime safety in their subpackages, coming down to cover tight ends in man to man.
In the front seven, they’re rotating in a lot of players over the first two games. Let’s start on the defensive line, where veterans Margus Hunt and Al Woods have flashed on tape.
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One thing the Colts did last week against Washington was put both Hunt and Woods inside tight to the formation as nose tackles over the center.
With both players in the A gaps, the offensive line struggles to get double teams in the run game. Hunt and Woods are so quick to react to the snap they can create instant disruption close to the football. It puts some stress on the Colts' young linebackers (more on them later), but they did this a lot against Washington and it was extremely effective for them in stopping Adrian Peterson in the game.
Those condensed fronts create favorable situations for the line to run various two- and three-man games. The Colts are constantly looping defensive tackles around outside or sending defensive ends inside. The Eagles' offensive line has to be ready for movement after the snap. The fronts also help create two-way options for their pass rushers on the outside, namely the veteran Jabaal Sheard.
Sheard is a savvy player against the pass and is probably the best natural pass rusher on the team. The Colts are glad to have him as they work in a number of first- and second-year players off the edge.
Second-year defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad looked like a draftable prospect at the University of Miami before he was kicked out off the team in 2016 due to an NCAA rules violation having to do with receiving impermissible benefits. I saw a potential future starter with the ability to win in many different ways off the edge when I graded him with the Hurricanes. He showed pretty advanced hand usage for a young prospect back in 2015. He’s their third defensive end right now, coming onto the field when the team slides Hunt inside.
Rookie pass rusher Kemoko Turay plays a lot as well. He’s an athletic kid from Rutgers with an explosive first step and freakish flexibility turning the corner. He’s still finding his way as a run defender, but he can give them some juice off the edge.
For the rest of the line, the team missed Denico Autry at defensive tackle in Week 2 after he started in the opener. A combo end-tackle with a quick first step, Autry came over in free agency and looked disruptive against the Cincinnati Bengals. Haasan Ridgeway, a former draft pick from Texas, missed the first game but came back for Week 2 and played a handful of snaps early. He’s got a quick first step and can make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Both players are out Sunday due to injury.
Woods’ backup at nose tackle is Grover Stewart, a stout run defender from the small-school ranks who holds his ground very well in the run game. He was drafted to fit their previous 3-4 scheme but has shown the ability to last in their new 4-3 unit as well.
The team signed Jihad Ward off the street after Dallas cut him following Training Camp. Ward stepped in and gave the Colts good snaps against Washington.
A Philadelphia native, Ward is very athletic, plays with a high motor, and should give this team plenty of added firepower inside as a rotational subpackage pass rusher at tackle. I liked him a lot coming out of Illinois. He was a second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders and was traded to Dallas this spring. The familiarity with Eberflus’ scheme being so similar to Marinelli’s made for a smooth transition. He’s an active player and the Eagles must know where is at all times.
At the linebacker level, the Colts have also mixed and matched pieces but they’ve had one constant - rookie Darius Leonard.
I could argue that Leonard has been their defensive MVP through two games. The South Carolina State product has played every snap on defense. Leonard is instinctive, tough, athletic, and a sideline-to-sideline player. Leonard is the WILL linebacker in base and nickel and is the lone ‘backer on the field in their dime package. The Eagles have to account for him in the run game and watch out for him patrolling the middle of the field in the passing game. The rookie recorded his first sack last week as well on a blitz up the middle.
Next to Leonard, the team started second-year player Anthony Walker last week in place of another rookie in Skai Moore. I liked both players a lot in college, but Walker has outplayed him through two weeks. Zaire Franklin, ANOTHER rookie, is the starting SAM linebacker in their base package.
This is a young, fast defense that is playing hungry and giving Eberflus great effort on every play. They’re not all that complicated schematically, but they will provide the Eagles with a test on Sunday.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.