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08-17-2005, 02:34 PM

Colts set to tee it up again as Patriot games loom

By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. On a picturesque campus where high-IQ students are capable of exchanging ideas about binary bit streams, electrochemical cells and inter-modulation, it seems fitting that the Indianapolis Colts are back in the lab seeking a special formula for getting over the hump.

The Colts are the only NFL team that stages training camp at an engineering school, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

And they are the only team in the league to win 12 games in each of the last two seasons but have title dreams short-circuited both times by the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the MIT of the NFL.

But of course, this training camp initiative punctuated by an emphasis on upgrading the secondary and becoming more physically dominant is not about the Patriots.

Coach Tony Dungy: "I've refrained from zeroing in on the Patriots."

MVP quarterback Peyton Manning: "Everybody on the outside, certainly TV (types), they want to point to that game in November (the Colts and Patriots meet Nov. 7 on Monday Night Football in Foxboro, Mass.). Teams that have done that in the past may have won that game but wound up 6-10."

Over the past two seasons, the Colts are 0-4 against the Patriots (including a loss without a touchdown in the playoffs last season) and 27-6 against the rest of the NFL. No wonder people keep asking if they can buck the trend.

"Are they inside our heads?" said the Colts' Dwight Freeney, All-Pro defensive end and reigning NFL sacks leader. "Yeah, to the fact that we haven't beaten them and we need to beat them. We play them in the regular season. Psychologically, that will be there a little bit to get the monkey off our back.

"But it's not as bad as people think it is. They think we see the Patriots and just crumble. It's not like that."

Of course it isn't. Just listen to Bill Polian, the Colts' president-general manager, who built the Buffalo Bills into a four-time Super Bowl participant and then laid the groundwork for the Carolina Panthers to emerge from expansion team to contender.

Polian thinks the Colts are among at least six teams in the dominant AFC with the talent capable of challenging New England's throne.

"I have the highest regard for them," Polian said of the Patriots, who have won three of the last four Super Bowls. "But I'm not going out and slitting my throat. We're not bad. We're just not as good as they've been the past two years.

"It's not that Bill (Belichick) coaches five times better than anybody else, though he's a marvelous coach. Their organization is not five times better. It's just the way it is."

If the Colts are to change that and break through to a championship, they can look at their recent losses to the Patriots as a blueprint for taking the next step even if they never see New England in January again.

Defensive shortcomings targeted

Their losses to the Patriots exposed some distinct weaknesses and a puzzling aspect that doesn't take an Einstein to figure out.

A solid, big-play defense has been critical to the Patriots' success and provided numerous examples to remind the Colts that the NFL's most prolific offense needs to be balanced by play on the other side of the line.

This isn't news to Polian and Dungy, who made his mark in the league as a defensive strategist. They have plowed resources into a fast, athletic defense that tied for third in the NFL in takeaways (36) and sacks (45) but was routinely stung by big plays.

Remember Corey Dillon, rumbling for 42 yards to set up a second-quarter field goal for New England in that playoff loss last season? Polian recalls it as bad tackling.

In the passing game, it was often even worse throughout last season as breakdowns kept some games closer than need be with a 522-point offense in tow. Only four AFC teams allowed more touchdown passes than Indianapolis, and half the 26 scoring passes were thrown from at least 20 yards. Five of the strikes covered at least 40 yards.

"That's not what this defense is designed to do," said Dungy, who uses Cover 2 zone schemes similar to those successful for him when he was Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach. "We want to make people take the long route. That's our No. 1 thing: We've got to cut down on the long passes. It's a matter of experience in the system."

Although injuries contributed to 10 starting combinations in the secondary last season, the Colts are primed for even more changes. Michigan's Marlin Jackson, chosen 29th overall in the draft, was the franchise's first first-round cornerback since 1984 and is likely to crack the starting lineup. The Colts went cornerback in the second round, too, with Illinois' Kelvin Hayden.

"They're both good tacklers, and they pack a wallop," Polian said.

The selections fall in line with last year's top choice, second-round safety Bob Sanders, and defensive backs chosen in the second and third rounds in 2003, safety Mike Doss (battling Joseph Jefferson to keep his starting job) and cornerback Donald Strickland.

All are linked by a desire to be physical.

"It's an ongoing puzzle that we're trying to solve," Freeney said. "We need to send certain messages, like we're all fast but just don't come across the middle."

Making plays when they count

The toughness theme also applies on an offense stamped by the star power of Manning, who set the NFL's single-season record in 2004 with 49 touchdown passes, receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James.

Polian ranks the goal-line and short-yardage rushing among the team's top three problem areas (with long passing plays allowed and kickoff coverage), which brings to mind blunders in the last two regular-season losses to the Patriots.

Indianapolis finished a 38-34 loss at the RCA Dome in 2003 by failing to punch in a touchdown after setting up first-and-goal at the Patriots' 2-yard line. In the fourth quarter of the regular-season opener at New England last September, James fumbled away the ball on a first-and-goal rush from the 1. The Patriots won 27-24.

The results were pivotal. Had the Colts won those games, the ensuing playoff meetings would have been held indoors at the RCA Dome rather than wintry Gillette Stadium.

"It's really about making the plays when they're there," Manning said. "Obviously, we do that a lot, otherwise you wouldn't win 12 games two years in a row. But usually four or five plays determine a game."

Dungy, whose 64 victories with Indianapolis and Tampa Bay since 1999 match Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid for most in the NFL during that span, is at a loss to explain why his team has failed against the Patriots in high-pressure situations.

Consider turnovers. Indianapolis had the NFL's best ratio during the 2004 regular season (+19) yet committed three giveaways in the 20-3 playoff loss.

Certainly, the Patriots deserve credit for forcing some of the errors, but Dungy remembers the dropped passes and an errant snap from punt formation in the same vein.

"In the playoffs, you have to do well what you do well most of the time," Dungy said. "That's what those guys do well. They play their game, whether it's the Super Bowl or a preseason game. They don't necessarily rise to the occasion.

"When we've played them, we felt like we've had to rise to the occasion; we don't do the things we normally do."

New England has endured some significant losses during the offseason, including the departures of coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, the health-related leave of linebacker Tedy Bruschi and the retirement of linebacker Ted Johnson.

But there is no discernable chatter in the Colts camp about the Patriots being "ripe to be picked" the pregame choice of words from kicker Mike Vanderjagt that backfired in the last playoffs. New England is still considered the team to beat. Or one of the teams.

"We've got to assume that the Patriots will be good," Dungy said. "But there's no guarantee that they're going to be the best team in the league this year. So if you put all of your focus, all of your emphasis on beating them, there's no guarantee of anything.

"We've got to focus on getting ourselves better and fix our weaknesses. If we play the Patriots in the end, we'll deal with it then. We've just got to find a way to put ourselves ahead of them and anybody else out there."