MONTGOMERY — When Indianapolis Colts first-year coach Chuck Pagano confirmed during his introductory press conference that the team would be installing a new defensive system, many of the team's returning players silently celebrated.
The decision by Pagano to switch from a more traditional 4-3 alignment (four down linemen and three linebackers) to a more aggressive 3-4 hybrid scheme (three down linemen with four linebackers with the option of quickly switching into other fronts) was first met with near wide-spread approval and more than a little bit of curiosity.
Indianapolis has not played any form of a 3-4 defense since the early 1990s. In recent seasons, Tony Dungy's Tampa Two formed the framework of the defensive game plan.
But as the defense evolved over the last couple of years, depending on injuries and roster moves, the Colts became less aggressive with its linebackers and defensive backs. Indianapolis depended on a pair of smallish pass-rushing defensive ends -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- to create most, if not all, of the havoc up front.
The team's cornerbacks were often stationed six or seven yards off opposing wide receivers, giving up too much of a cushion and allowing easy toss and catch completions to keep offensive drives alive. While fans often became frustrated with particular players -- such as Tim Jennings, Jacob Lacey -- the real blame should have been centered on how the defense was being used.
With the introduction of the new 3-4 hybrid system, though, things are about to change. The Colts are expected to challenge offenses more up front and in the secondary. There are drawbacks to ramping up the aggressiveness, however. Cornerbacks will often be given more man-to-man pass coverage responsibilities, which could result in big pass plays downfield.
One thing is certain. Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky aren't going to hold anything back. They're not prepared to play cautiously on defense. Indianapolis will want to challenge teams. They'll be a work in progress, though, until they get all the bugs worked out.
The possibility of making mistakes early on is not deterring the Colts coaching staff. They are committed to the 3-4 hybrid defensive package.
“I think that is the best thing about a 3-4, you just don’t know where [the pressure] is going to be coming from. From our standpoint, if they want to double [outside linebacker] Dwight [Freeney], than that is great," Manusky explained.
"Maybe we will drop him a little bit and send [outside linebacker] Robert [Mathis] and put him on the match-ups that we are looking to get. We are looking to get Robert or Dwight on a tight end or a running back. I will take that every day.”
Aggressiveness is the key.
"We want to strike people and we want to separate from people. We don’t want any [trading plays] one-for-ones. We want to make sure we can kick a player’s butt and then go make the play. That’s what we talk about," the Colts' defensive coordinator said.
"The first thing is we got to make sure we stop the run by setting the edge with the two guys we got on the edge [Freeney and Mathis] and the second thing is never trade one-for-one. I think across the board guys can beat guys across the board. And then the third thing is we just have to have a tempo each and every snap and each and every play."
Still learning -- Free safety Antoine Bethea knows that Indianapolis' defensive unit still has a lot of work to do before the regular season gets underway. They'll get the first real test Sunday when the St. Louis Rams visit Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts' preseason opener.
“We’re still working. We’re most definitely getting more comfortable with it. The coaches, they’re doing a great job just going back and installing the packages, really every day. The more we see different routes, the more combinations we see, the more comfortable that we will be," Bethea said Monday.
"We’ve been out here practicing amongst the offense. We just want to get that continuity on all phases, offense, special teams and defense and really identify with ourselves what type of team we are going to be this year."
Strong safety Tom Zbikowski, who played in Baltimore's 3-4 hybrid defense, has been impressed by how well his new Indianapolis teammates have been picking things up.
"It’s pretty impressive to take an entirely new scheme and by a week into training camp, really be in the fine nuances of the defense, not trying to still get down some blitzes and some things like that," he voiced, adding that the Colts want to make their own name for themselves on defense and not rely on how the Ravens did things in Baltimore.
“We’re not trying to be Baltimore, we’re trying to be the Indianapolis Colts. We don’t want to take on the personality of another team. That’s taking away from who you are and then you’re only going to be second or third-best to someone else who is that. So we’re trying to have our own personality and our own mentality.”
No plans for Luck against Rams -- Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians confirmed Monday that he's not sure just how long rookie quarterback Andrew Luck will play against the St. Louis Rams Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts open their preseason schedule with St. Louis.
"Still up in the air. We want to see how long we're going to play that first [offensive] line and the entire group. We really haven't sat down and talked about it yet. We'd like to get them about 20 plays, maybe 25," Arians said.
"It's just the number of plays and how we get a feel for how the game is going. Hopefully we don't go three and out, three and out and have to play him into the second quarter. We'd like to get a good drive going. We've got so many guys we want to look at. And it's a long, long season."
The key is for Luck to get as much quality real-game work in before he goes to the sidelines.
"He needs to play against somebody else than ourselves and see different coverage and different fronts. [I'm] looking forward it," Arians said, adding that Indianapolis will not game plan for St. Louis.
"We practice against the Colts full speed and we play the Rams when they show up. We don't have time to prepare for another team in the preseason. We just give them a little film work, walk through some stuff and show them the basic defense and let them play football. We're still getting better fundamentally and everything else that we don't have time to game plan and prepare for another team."
Luck update -- During Monday's afternoon practice, the Colts' rookie starter connected on 15-of-29 passes with three touchdowns and one interception. His scoring passes included two to veteran receiver Reggie Wayne and one to rookie wide receiver LaVon Brazill.
Luck completed two long TDs, one each to Wayne and Brazill. The throw to Brazill covered 70 yards into the back corner of the end zone. One of the scoring passes to Wayne was drilled over the middle and split the seam between three defenders.
Updating Luck's training camp passing statistics, he has completed 165-of-232 passes for 15 touchdowns and six interceptions in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.
Brazill also completed a pass, taking the handoff from backup quarterback Drew Stanton on an end-around and then threw downfield to a wide open Austin Collie.
Injury report -- Wide receiver Donnie Avery did not practice Monday after suffering an apparent hip contusion midway through Sunday afternoon's practice. No word on when Avery will be able to resume practice, although Arians said that the former St. Louis and Tennessee is not expected to play against the Rams on Sunday.
Also sitting out Monday were outside linebacker Mario Addison, wide receiver Jarred Fayson, and cornerback Chris Rucker. Rookie cornerback Buddy Jackson and cornerback Justin King were able to return to practice.