Baltimore Sun

‘We can be really special’

Colts excited about defense under new boss Bradley

- By Michael Marot

WESTFIELD, Ind. — DeForest Buckner always appreciate­d watching Gus Bradley’s defenses.

It was the scheme Buckner thrived in with the 49ers, the scheme that created the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom,” and the scheme that finally led the Raiders back to the playoffs last season.

So when the Colts hired Bradley as their new defensive coordinato­r, the team’s top defensive tackle was thrilled to start working with the defensive mastermind. Buckner believes Bradley can turn a budding Colts defense into a championsh­ip-caliber unit.

“We’re attacking up front, blowing things up, everyone else is pretty much cleaning things up behind us,” Buckner said, explaining the new philosophy. “I like that. It’s controlled chaos.”

For Buckner and the other defensive linemen, it’s been a slight but welcome adjustment.

Former defensive coordinato­r Matt Eberflus expected his unit to play fast, gang up around the ball and hold each player accountabl­e. The result: He took one of the league’s worst defenses in 2017 and steadily led it to a top-10 ranking in 2020.

After the Colts finished second in the league with 33 takeaways last season, the Bears hired Eberflus as head coach.

When GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich started searching for a replacemen­t, they wanted someone with a similar approach who could make the defense even more productive.

The 56-year-old Bradley looked like the perfect fit with his preference for turning defensive linemen loose, rather than asking them to read and react.

But Reich had one more move — hiring the affable John Fox as senior defensive consultant. Fox lost two Super Bowls as a head coach, including to Bradley’s Seahawks defense in February 2014.

They Colts certainly have most of the pieces on defense.

Buckner is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the league’s premier interior lineman. Bradley and Fox also inherited perennial All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II, who made his first Pro Bowl last season

The Colts then acquired one of Bradley’s prized pupils, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, in a March trade and also added free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the NFL’s 2019 defensive player of the year.

Suddenly, the Colts had five defensive players with Pro Bowl resumes, two coaches with Super Bowl pedigrees and oodles of confidence.

“We can be really special,” Leonard said when the Colt opened training camp in late July.

Leonard, the Colts’ defensive energizer, remains on the physically unable to perform list because of back surgery in June. While he might not play in the preseason, his absence hasn’t held back the Colts defense.

While quarterbac­k Matt Ryan gets in sync with a new offense, new teammates plus a new and largely unproven group of receivers, the defense has won many practice-field battles.

Ngakoue routinely has shown his speed off the edge while Gilmore has blanketed receivers and broken up passes. Bradley likes the early impression­s, especially in the secondary.

The most visible difference has come on the defensive line, where the Colts have struggled to generate a consistent pass rush recently.

Ngakoue is one of three active players with six straight seasons of at least eight sacks. Only Bills linebacker Von Miller (seven) and three-time NFL defensive player of the year Aaron Donald (eight) of the Rams have longer streaks.

Plus, Ngakoue already knows Bradley’s system, having studied it with the Jaguars and Raiders.

“Got to flip the switch. It’s every man for themselves,” Ngakoue said.

The Colts are hoping with Ngakoue operating on the outside and Buckner on the inside, both will be more productive and their approach to game will rub off on younger players such as ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.

Paye and Odeyingbo made some crucial plays as rookies last season. A full and healthy offseason, more intense workouts and some new talent could help them become more consistent playmakers in 2022 while allowing the Colts to take another big step.

Buckner believes Bradley’s system can make it happen.

“It will be more kind of like we’re on a track, so we’re getting vertical, penetratin­g a lot more,” he said. “Guys are really embracing the scheme . ... I’m excited.”

 ?? MICHAEL CONROY/AP ?? CB Isaiah Rodgers breaks up a pass to WR Keke Coutee (15) during Colts training camp practice Thursday.
MICHAEL CONROY/AP CB Isaiah Rodgers breaks up a pass to WR Keke Coutee (15) during Colts training camp practice Thursday.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States