“We attack in front. We blow things up, everybody pretty much cleans things up after us,” Buckner said, explaining the new philosophy. “I like it. It’s controlled chaos.
For Buckner and the other defensive linemen, it was a slight but welcome adjustment.
Former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus expected his unit to play fast, gang up on the ball and hold each player accountable. The result: He took on one of the league’s worst defenses in 2017 and consistently led it into the top 10 in 2020.
After Indy finished second in the league with 33 takeouts last season, the Chicago Bears hired Eberflus as their head coach.
When general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich started looking for a replacement, they wanted someone with a similar approach who could make the defense even more productive.
The 56-year-old Bradley echoed his preference for defensive linemen, rather than asking them to read and react.
But Reich had another decision: to hire the affable John Fox as his chief defensive consultant. Fox lost two Super Bowls as a head coach, including losing to Bradley’s Seahawks defense in February 2014.
“Here’s what I appreciate about the way he approached it, he’s just there to serve,” Reich said, referring to Fox. “I think it’s going well. Gus does a phenomenal job leading the defensive team and moving that defense forward, and I think he and Fox are developing a great relationship.
They certainly have most of the parts.
Buckner is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the best inside linemen in the league. Bradley and Fox also inherited perennial All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore II, who made his first Pro Bowl last season.
Indy then acquired one of Bradley’s most beloved pupils, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, in a trade in March and added the free agent cornerback as well. Stephen Gilmorethe 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Suddenly, the Colts had five defensive players with Pro Bowl resumes, two coaches with Super Bowl pedigrees and heaps of confidence.
“We can be something really special,” Leonard said as Indy opened training camp last week. “Nothing is going to be handed to us, we have to go out and prove it every week and that’s the ultimate goal.”
Leonard, the Indy defensive energizer, remains on the list of physically unable to play due to back surgery in June. While he may not be playing in the preseason, his absence hasn’t dampened Indy’s defense.
As quarterback Matt Ryan syncs up with a new offense, new teammates and a new group of largely unproven receivers, the defense has won plenty of battles on the practice field at Grand Park.
Ngakoue regularly showed his speed on the edge as Gilmore covered receivers and interrupted passes. Bradley loves first impressions, especially in high school.
“It’s a group that kind of builds that cohesion,” Bradley said. “As you know, Gilmore doesn’t just cover, but you have to be able to tackle him and play physically. Playing at the level he’s at, that’s how he plays. I think that’s how he plays. is a good message for all of them.
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 Buffalo linebacker Von Miller (seven) and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (eight) have longer streaks.
Moreover, Ngakoue is already familiar with Bradley’s system, having studied it in Jacksonville and Las Vegas.
“I have to press the switch. It’s every man for himself there,” Ngakoue said.
Indy hopes that with Ngakoue operating on the outside and Buckner on the inside, both players will be more productive and their approach to the game will rub off on younger players such as defensive ends. Kwity Paid and Dayo Odeyingbo.
Paye and Odeyingbo made crucial plays as rookies last season. A full and healthy offseason, more intense workouts and new talent could help them become more consistent point guards in 2022 while allowing the Colts to take another big step.
Buckner thinks Bradley’s system can make it happen.
“It’ll be more like we’re on a track, so we’re going vertical, penetrating a lot more,” he said. “Guys are really embracing the program. You’ll see us a lot more in the backfield. I’m excited.”