Insider: Colts defense must 'reset' after lack of fundamentals in opener led to ugly loss

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts defense stumbled badly out of the gate.

Against the run.

Against the pass.

Outside of four drives in the third quarter, an established Indianapolis defense failed to live up to its identity or reputation in an ugly season-opening performance against a Seattle team that racked up 5.8 yards per carry, 7.6 yards per play and ripped off eight explosive plays.

A defense that believes it has all the pieces to join the NFL elite, instead looked overmatched in a performance that left the Colts furious.

“You get your (butt) kicked, what do you think? You’re pissed off,” linebacker Darius Leonard said Sunday. “We didn’t do enough on our side defensively. You’re upset. You’ve got to find a way to get the job done. You’ve got to watch the tape, see how to improve and get better from there.”

Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (20) and Seattle Seahawks guard Gabe Jackson (66) tie up Indianapolis Colts defensive end Tyquan Lewis (94) allowing Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) to throw a touchdown pass Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, during the regular season opener at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

From what the Colts have said since that day, it sounds like the tape of the ugly performance was as bad as Indianapolis initially felt.

“We have to do a better job across the board,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “That happens all the time. It can happen in the middle of the season, it can happen later in the season. You have to just reset yourself. That’s what you do when you have a performance that we didn’t play as well as we wanted to.”

Eberflus has always reset his defenses the same way.

“You know me,” Eberflus said. “It’s fundamentals. The old align, assign, key and technique, right? That’s who we are.”

The lack of fundamentals the Colts displayed against Seattle is the chief reason why the performance left such a bad taste in the collective mouths of the Indianapolis defense.

The Colts’ fundamentals broke down.

Indianapolis built its defensive reputation on a foundation of stopping the run, but the Seahawks ripped through the Colts for 140 yards, more than any team outside of Derrick Henry’s Tennessee Titans were able to produce in 2020.

“We have to get better with our block protection, block destruction and getting off blocks, how we play with good length,” Eberflus said.

When they weren’t getting blocked, the Colts struggled to tackle, a disappointing development for a defense that believes deeply in its fundamental style of tackling. Indianapolis teaches the hamstring tackle, aiming the hands at the back of the ball-carrier’s hamstrings to limit the number of broken tackles and extra yards an offense can create.

More:Insider: Why Matt Eberflus uses a tackling technique you probably haven't heard of

Indianapolis missed far too many tackles against the Seahawks.

“We have to do a better job with hamstring tackling,” Eberflus said. “We have to do a better job with our angles.”

In the passing game, the Colts dialed up several defensive back blitzes in the first half, and although a Khari Willis attack produced the team’s first sack of the season, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was able to make some of his biggest plays against the blitz, identifying the weakness in the coverage and exploiting it before the blitz could get home.

Far too often, Indianapolis failed to disguise its blitzes long enough and Seattle picked it up nicely.

“With the pressures, you mix those in,” Eberflus said. “It depends on who you’re playing and what you think you can get an advantage on, but I do think we have to do it better. We have to time it up better, we have to blitz better.”  

When the Colts weren’t blitzing, Indianapolis was struggling to play the zone coverages that have become the team’s calling card with Eberflus at the helm. Wilson completed 18 of 23 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns, riddling Indianapolis with explosive plays. After the game, Leonard chalked some of Wilson’s performance up to the Seahawks running “Cover-2 beaters,” or plays designed to beat the Colts’ foundational coverage. When Wilson hit Tyler Lockett for a 69-yard touchdown pass, Seattle was exploiting the middle of the Cover-2.

But one of the players who was trailing behind Lockett on that play thinks the breakdown had less to do with the coverage and more with the way Indianapolis failed to play it correctly.

“I feel like there were times we should have been, whether it’s just backing up or knowing the down and distance, situational football,” free safety Julian Blackmon said. “Cover-2 or not, as long as you were in the right position, as long as your eyes are right, you should be able to make plays.”

The more the Colts struggled, Blackmon felt, the more they put themselves out of position.

“I feel like with the first game, there’s a lot of fans, there’s jitters, and sometimes you get nervous, you play out of your skin,” Blackmon said. “We just have to get back to doing our stuff, just doing what we’re good at, staying in our gaps, doing our own responsibilities, and we’ll be fine.”

Indianapolis is also tired of taking it on the chin for a half, only to come back out and play better after the break. The pattern developed during the 2020 season, and in an effort to focus on consistency, the Colts plan to designate practice periods this week as first quarter, second quarter, and so on.

Eberflus wants his defenses to play fundamental football all the time.

Not just after a short break.

“There’s really no magic pill that you take at halftime, and all of a sudden, you come out and play better,” Eberflus said. “It’s really one play every single time, turn the page, play to the next play, and that’s how we get more consistent.”

A good Rams offense is on its way. An offense that looks a lot like the Seattle unit that just left.

The Colts have a lot of fundamentals to clean up, and they have to do it fast.