WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — DeForest Buckner always appreciated watching Gus Bradley’s defenses.
It was the scheme Buckner thrived in with San Francisco, the scheme that created Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” and the scheme that finally led the Raiders back to the playoffs last season.
So when Indianapolis hired Bradley as its new defensive coordinator, the Colts’ 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. We’re 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 Indy finished second in the league with 33 takeaways last season, the Chicago Bears hired Eberflus as head coach.
When general manager 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.
“Here’s what I appreciate about the way he’s approached it, he’s just there to serve,” Reich said, referring to Fox. “I think that’s working well. Gus is doing a phenomenal job of leading the defensive staff and getting that defense going, and I think he and Fox are developing a great relationship”
They certainly have most of the pieces.
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
Indy 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 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 each and every week and that’s the ultimate goal.”
Leonard, Indy’s 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 Indy’s 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 at Grand Park.
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.
“It’s a group that’s kind of building that cohesiveness,” Bradley said. “As you know, Gilmore is not only covering, but you’ve got to be able to tackle him and play physically. To play at the level he’s done, that’s how he plays. I think that’s a good message to 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.
Plus, Ngakoue already knows Bradley’s system, having studied it in Jacksonville and Las Vegas.
“Got to flip the switch. It’s every man for themselves out there,” Ngakoue said.
Indy is hoping with Ngakoue operating on the outside and Buckner manning the inside, both players will be more productive and their approach to game will rub off on younger players such as defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.
Paye and Odeyingbo made some crucial plays as rookie 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. You’ll see us in the backfield a lot more. I’m excited.”
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