‘We punch at the ball’: Colts defenders are seeking takeaways – even if it leads to scuffles (2024)

During the Colts’ joint practices with the Browns last month, the teams repeatedly engaged in post-play skirmishes, each one requiring the intervention of coaches and officials. A few of these run-ins threatened to get out of hand, with the final few periods of Day 1 constantly interrupted by pushing and shoving.


On some level, this is the nature of dual NFL practices. It’s a common occurrence, all that training camp boredom and frustration suddenly channeled toward an opponent wearing a jersey of a different color.

Then again, many of the scuffles between the Browns and Colts came as a result of Colts defenders raking at the ball, sometimes even after a play was deemed to be over. They weren’t being intentionally rude to their guests from Ohio. The Colts, rather, were just doing what they were taught.

Watching from the sideline that afternoon was former Buccaneers and Colts coach Tony Dungy. The Hall of Famer understood exactly what he had just seen, and it brought a smile to his face.

“You saw a few skirmishes out here with the Browns’ offensive players may be taking exception to how these guys are hustling after the ball,” Dungy said. “But that’s what creates the mindset that they’re trying to get instilled here.”

Call it overexuberance if you’d like. Here, they prefer to call it, well, defense.

There is a mindset defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is trying to create, and if it leads to a few fisticuffs in the process, so be it. So what if there’s a little collateral damage in the process of building what he hopes is a championship defense?

But let it be known: The Colts defenders are coming for the football in 2019, because they believe increasing their turnover numbers is what will take this defense to the next level.

Take it from Dungy, whose teams were among the best at taking away the football.

“They’re getting it,” he said. “I think that’s the key. That’s the next step. I think they have (players) who can create turnovers. And with the intensity they’re playing with, I think they will.”

Last season, we learned about Eberflus’ definition of “loafs,” plays where a defender’s effort was something less than absolute all-out hustle. These instances are charted weekly and pointed out vividly in the meeting room to ensure accountability.


Now, we’re beginning to see a similar approach in the commitment to creating turnovers. On every play, you must go for the ball. Period. If a receiver drops a pass, pick it up and run. If the ball is the least bit exposed, punch it out. Whether the opportunity presents itself or not, an effort should be made to force a turnover on every solitary play.

Turnover margin has always been a key indicator of wins and losses in the NFL. You don’t need advanced analytics to tell you that.

But the defensive scheme utilized by the Colts, in particular, promotes opportunities for turnovers. The reasons are multiple. First, the system relies on gang tackling; additional tacklers can punch at the football while others securely bring down the ball carrier. Second, the zone coverages the Colts embrace allow defenders to key off the quarterback, which enables them – theoretically – to make earlier breaks on the ball when it’s released.

The Colts must make good on the turnover opportunities their scheme presents. A look back at teams who have played similar systems tells us why.

  • The 2002 Buccaneers, utilizing a nearly identical scheme, won the Super Bowl and – not ironically – had the third-most takeaways in the NFL (including five in their Super Bowl win over Oakland).
  • The 2006 Bears, under Dungy disciple Lovie Smith, won the NFC title in part because they were No. 1 in turnovers.
  • The 2013 Seahawks, using a defense with many similar elements, led the NFL in turnovers, forcing another four in a Super Bowl win over the Broncos.

The Colts don’t shy away from saying they want to join that elite company. They expect it.

“We want to be the No. 1 takeaway team in the league,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “We’ve talked about (having) 40-plus. We want 40-plus takeaways. Every single day, you see it. We punch at the ball. Even if the offensive guys get mad, we do it because it’s muscle memory.

“When it’s the fourth quarter and it’s late and you’re tired, your first instinct is going to be to go for the ball. I’m a small guy. I don’t go for the big hit because I know I’m not as big other linebackers. So, I go for the ball and use my athleticism and my (length) to get to the ball.”

Case in point: Colts at Raiders during Week 8 last season. It’s the fourth quarter, and the Colts are clinging to a 7-point lead with 5 minutes, 28 seconds remaining. Oakland has the ball and is making plans to mount a game-tying drive. The Raiders give the ball to running back Doug Martin on first down and he searches for a hole. At that very moment, Leonard swoops in from behind, delivering a forceful punch with his right arm while wrapping up Martin with his left. The ball comes loose. The Colts recover at the Raiders 27. Five plays later, Marlon Mack is diving into the end zone and the Colts are celebrating.


Ball game.

None of that happens by accident. It all begins on the practice field back. It comes from Eberflus making demands, not requests. It comes from making this cultural, not theoretical. That’s how the Colts believe they can significantly increase their turnover numbers after finishing with 26 takeaways last season (tied for 10th in the NFL) in their first season in their current defense.

“It’s part of our core,” Eberflus said. “It’s what we believe in.”

To that end, coach Frank Reich said there has been a greater urgency about takeaways in this week’s defensive meetings. It has become an even more common topic of conversation, he said, one supported by data that has been presented to the players to reinforce the coaching points.

Those conversations go beyond merely creating the turnover, Reich said, with coaches imploring players to “do something with the turnover. I am not talking about what the offense does. We are talking about what the defense does with the turnover. Don’t just get an interception, return it for a touchdown. Don’t just recover a fumble, let’s do something with it. Those are big hidden yardage plays.”

The message is being drilled. Now, it’s up to the Colts’ defenders to demonstrate that the lesson is taking hold. The Browns would likely concur that the Colts have gotten the point.

“Hey, every organization practices differently,” cornerback Kenny Moore said. “That’s just the way we’re taught to do it, to punch at the ball and create havoc. Some teams are surprised by it.

“You are what you repetitively do. We continue to do it in practice and that’s going to become our identity.”

(Photo of Colts defense: Robert Deutsch / USA Today Sports)

‘We punch at the ball’: Colts defenders are seeking takeaways – even if it leads to scuffles (1)‘We punch at the ball’: Colts defenders are seeking takeaways – even if it leads to scuffles (2)

Stephen Holder is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the NFL. He has covered the league since 2005, with lengthy stints on the Buccaneers and Colts beats for the Tampa Bay Times and Indianapolis Star. A South Florida native who attended the University of Miami, he has also previously worked for the Associated Press and The Miami Herald.

‘We punch at the ball’: Colts defenders are seeking takeaways – even if it leads to scuffles (2024)


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