The Colts' defense rises to the occasion
Posted: September 21, 2005
The Colts' defense won't finish in the top 10 in yards allowed. It won't physically dominate a massive offensive line. It won't stonewall many power backs on the goal line.
And it also won't hold back the Colts' offense anymore -- except maybe on Wednesday through Friday, when the units square off in practice.
On Sundays, the Colts' defense is helping the Colts' offense more than ever. Really, the defense has carried the offense through two games. After their 10-3 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, the Colts have allowed a total of 10 points. "Are they the best defense in the league? Maybe not," Ravens coach Brian Billick says. "But they're good enough to augment their offense and win."
In Tony Dungy's fourth season in Indianapolis, more defenders are comfortable with their assignments. They are hitting harder, partially because they are more confident in their assignments. In particular, the linebacker trio of Gary Brackett, David Thornton and Cato June is playing faster than Colts linebackers have played in recent years.
"It's playing together, experience, knowing the scheme, trusting the scheme, trusting each other," defensive end Dwight Freeney says. "It's knowing everything around you. The longer you're together, the better you're going to be."
It's also significant that more Colts defenders fit the scheme better. Brackett is quicker, more instinctive, more explosive and better in coverage than the player he replaced at middle linebacker, Rob Morris. With Nick Harper, Jason David and rookie Marlin Jackson, the Colts finally have cornerbacks who excel at the cover 2 scheme.
"They didn't let us get behind them," Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith says. "In the past, we always managed to get behind them. It's a lot better defense from last year."
To understand why the Colts are a more viable threat to play in the Super Bowl, you must understand the concept of Dungy's defense. It is intended to complement Indy's offense the way the silk handkerchief is intended to complement the custom-made suit. Yet skeptics still will try to blow their noses in it.
For the defense to hold up over 16 games -- or maybe 19 -- it will be dependent on the offense striking quickly. That will allow the defense to pass-rush aggressively and play soft coverage. The Colts still will give up yards the way a screen door gives up a summer breeze. They really aren't concerned with that.
They are concerned with making big plays. Freeney and Robert Mathis already have established themselves as perhaps the most unblockable pair of nickel speed rushers in the game. This season, tackles Larry Tripplett and Montae Reagor have added to the pass rush.
After the Colts took the lead in the fourth quarter Sunday and the Jaguars were forced to throw, quarterback Byron Leftwich became horse chow. "Once we make an offense one-dimensional, we're feasting, baby," Reagor says. "It's time to eat." The Colts nearly knocked Leftwich out of the game, as they did the previous week to the Ravens' Kyle Boller.
How newly acquired tackle Corey Simon fits into the Colts' upfield scheme remains to be seen. The last time Simon played in a one-gap system was six years and maybe 50 pounds ago, at Florida State. In two games, Simon has made an impact in the middle of the line, but he has worn down, in part because he might weigh more than some economy automobiles.
Undersized players such as Freeney and Mathis won't help much when the Colts are trailing by 14 because opponents can run at them and wear them down. Simon, on the other hand, gives the Colts the physical presence they lacked.
Because the defense is composed of a bunch of little buggers, the Colts' defensive backs must make more tackles than most. So it's imperative for them to be physical. For this reason, Jackson, the team's first-round pick who also played safety at Michigan, fits the scheme perfectly. Free safety Bob Sanders, the Colts' top pick a year ago, hits hard enough to turn opposing players' helmets into shrapnel.
The Colts have been building and nurturing their defense to get to this point for several years. Now, the defense doesn't have to apologize to the offense.
As for you, Peyton Manning, how about a little help for the "D"?
Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.