In the 2010s, the Seattle Seahawks ran this defense you may have heard of: Cover 3. Under Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn and Kris Richard, they contrived slight changes to a long-standing scheme and filled it with appropriate personnel. Michael Bennett was the big 5-tech; Kam Chancellor was the low-hole hammer at strong safety; Earl Thomas could touch every blade of grass on the field from deep centerfield; Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell were the long, physical, rangy corners who could step-kick at the line of scrimmage and bail back into their deep zones. It worked, and the rest of the league chased its advantages—the extra man in the box, the denial of quick game routes—to little avail.
If that was the zig, Matt Eberflus is the zag.
Matt Eberflus is out here running Cover 2, baby—your dad’s coverage. Cowardly, two-deep safety, keep-em-in-front-of-you-rally-and-tackle Cover 2. The coverage built to stop the West Coast offense, that answered to seam-running tight ends with a Tampa-2 linebacker dropping down the middle, that died when Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne became so good at knifing spacing routes through underneath windows that you didn’t have an answer even if you knew the play call beforehand. That Cover 2.
Eberflus is running it because he studied under Tony Dungy, for whom the Tampa-2 is named, from his time coaching it as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s running it because it’s simple—the rules are basic, the deep areas are protected—and accordingly, his defense is able to play fast. Eberflus charts the “loafs” he sees on film every week from his defense, identifying each player who isn’t hustling to the football during film review on Tuesdays. In order for his system to work, targets have to be funneled underneath, and ball carriers cannot pick up free YAC.
Much like Bradley, Jacksonville, and those prototypes, Eberflus needs particular talent to make this work. Few appreciate what a job Eberflus has done in just two short years running the defense in Indianapolis, but he took personnel built around Chuck Pagano’s multiple-front, blitz-heavy approach and transformed it into a four-man front with spot-dropping zone coverage behind it. To generate pressure without traditional down linemen, Eberflus has one of the heaviest usages of twists and stunts on passing downs, and ran clever games with such talents as Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, and Margus Hunt before Justin Houston came to town.
To run the pole in his Tampa-2 defense, he acquired the long and rangy middle linebacker from South Carolina State Darius Leonard, a two-year pro and two-time All-Pro for his fit as a speedy hustler and long zone disruptor. And to fill out his underneath zones, he relied on New England castoff and slot phenom Kenny Moore II, as well as practice-squad bouncer Pierre Desir.
The common thread between Moore, Desir, and even Nate Hairston: physicality. They were willing to stick short routes that circled into their cylinder, close quickly on route concepts as they developed, tackle, and hit to dislodge. They were not the top talents that other teams hunted as free agents or early draft picks—much like Sherman and Maxwell weren’t for Seattle—but they fit the system. They were what was needed for that specific team and in that specific time.
The Colts traded Hairston away last year and cut Desir this offseason; after drafting Rock Ya-Sin in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Eberflus once again had an opportunity to fill out his cornerback room with a player built for his system—not a holdover from a previous coaching staff. And the Colts added Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes may be what the Colts specifically need and this specific time, but the Colts are also what Rhodes needs. After pulling an All-Pro nod in 2017 following five straight seasons of 10+ PBUs with the Vikings, Rhodes’ play tailed off in Minnesota over the last two years. Athletically, he isn’t what he once was, partially as a result of various injuries (back, ankle). As such, his ability to survive in press coverage has depreciated, and without safety help behind him, he’s vulnerable to deep routes and long speed.
What remains for Rhodes? Size. Rhodes is humongous, a rocked-up 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds. And with that size comes physicality—Rhodes wants to hit, and he loves to tackle. In Minnesota, Rhodes played a fair amount of the Cover 2 that he’ll be asked to play in Indianapolis, again for a defensive coach that prioritized tackling among his corners. And in that zone coverage, Rhodes’ length and strength again helped, and his veteran experience creates quality zone instincts and route recognition.
These are not particularly rare traits—in player evaluation, corners that can read from flat zones and relate to routes are a dime a dozen. But for the Colts specifically, that’s what matters—instinctive zone corners who can quickly deny short routes—and from a play style and philosophy perspective, they need to be able to rally, hit, and securely tackle. That’s Rhodes to a tee.
Because the role isn’t particularly elite or difficult to fill, and because Rhodes is coming off of the worst stretch of his career, Rhodes is cheap for the Colts—only two years removed from an All-Pro spot, he costs only $3.25M against the cap, with more money to be made if he stays available for all 16 games. The Colts aren’t thirsting for cap space, but they get a potentially high-end player in a system forgiving to him, just as he’s looking to prove that he still has the goods in his career.
So the Colts needed an outside starter with the traits that fit the system, and Rhodes needed that prove-it deal to demonstrate he can still be the top corner he was in Minnesota. This is the perfect fit, and like many perfect fits, it will go under-appreciated until it suddenly works perfectly.
Again, Eberflus was out here covering receivers with players like Desir—woefully underrated for how well they played when in Indianapolis—and Moore—woefully underrated for how well he’s still playing in Indianapolis. Rhodes is perhaps the best talent he’s had at corner in Indianapolis, and with the perfect marriage of system and skill comes dividends for smart teams like Indianapolis.