Colts go on AFC offensive by getting defensive
By Larry Weisman, USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS Only a cynic would suggest the Indianapolis Colts have become the classic Tony Dungy team ball-control offense that scores just enough to win, defense the envy of the border patrol for the way it protects the goal line. The Colts, at 3-0 one of four unbeaten NFL teams, no longer do business the same old way. They have become the mirror image of themselves. They're not scoring, and neither are the teams they're beating.

Peyton Manning has gone consecutive games without throwing a touchdown pass for the first time since his rookie season (1998), the red-zone offense can't quite crack the goal line and a once-ridiculed defense stones the opponent.

A year ago, the Colts led the NFL in scoring and Manning set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes. But they have managed only five touchdowns in their three victories. The winning margin comes from a defense nicked for only one touchdown, that with 13 seconds remaining in a runaway 24-7 opening win against the Baltimore Ravens.

"I think our offense will score points," Dungy says. "That's the last thing I'm worried about."

It's a different type of Colts team, playing a different, more balanced game. Last year, the Colts saw lots of blitzes and man-to-man coverage when they had the ball. Now they're looking at three-man fronts and nickel and dime schemes and they refuse to force the issue by throwing into heavy coverage.

Instead, they run the ball and win the low-scoring game which they could not attempt without a defense that hammers quarterbacks (13 sacks), secures the end zone and runs to the ball with a fury.

Manning finds new approach

"This defense is really predicated on getting a pass rush from the front four," defensive end Dwight Freeney says. "When we go into the week, we're not thinking we have to carry the load. We carry the load every week."

Line play creates havoc

Freeney ripped through the Cleveland Browns for three of the Colts' four sacks in Sunday's 13-6 victory; the Browns hadn't allowed a sack in their first two games.

The Colts have depth up front and rotate their tackles, flip their ends and create havoc in protection schemes. Double-team the interior guys and the ends run free. Concentrate on Freeney, and defensive tackle Montae Reagor (three sacks against Jacksonville in Week 2) barrels up the middle. "You've got to decide: Who am I going to double?" Browns coach Romeo Crennel says.

Friendly hint: Freeney.

"He has been a force," Dungy says. "He's somewhat like Randy Moss in that everybody is accounting for him in the way they play offense. Cleveland had some situations where they had a tackle, a tight end and a fullback blocking him in pass protection.

"When you change your protection, when you're always aware of what's going on with one guy, it helps the whole defense."

A sack can change the flow of the game, knock an offense out of field goal range, turn the fans on.

"You get the crowd pumping, you get momentum and you feel there's nothing the offense can do to stop you," defensive end Robert Mathis says.

Therein lies the classic dilemma of a Dungy defense. From his days as the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator through his tenure as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, Dungy presented opponents with the simple option of picking their poison. Block this guy or that guy? Him? Or him?

"If you look at Tampa Bay when he was there, he had a great defensive line with (Warren) Sapp and (Simeon) Rice. And the Vikings, you saw (John) Randle and (Chris) Doleman," says Freeney, the two-time Pro Bowl pick.

So is this the next link in that chain?

"There is no reason we can't be elite," Freeney says. "But let's not talk too soon. We have to have a consistent thing going on before we say we're right where we need to be."

Which is what Colts President Bill Polian expected when he brought Dungy here in 2002.

"I believed from the time we hired Tony that it was the right system, that it fit for this franchise in this stadium, with this quarterback and these receivers, with the salary cap," Polian says. "I was convinced that was the right thing to do."

Defense served by youth

Playing on artificial turf at home, speed was more important than size. With Manning and a potent offense scoring rapidly, the pass rush would be critical.

And with much of the Colts' money committed to Manning, receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James, the defense had to be cost-effective.

Polian says the beauty of Dungy's Cover-2 scheme (safeties deep, each covering half the field in a zone alignment) "is that you can play with young players."

Freeney is in his fourth year, as is the rapidly improving defensive tackle Larry Triplett. Mathis is in his third with emerging middle linebacker Gary Brackett. Reagor, 28, is the old man, in his seventh year.

"Coach (Dungy) does a great job installing his defense and communicating how he wants us to play," Brackett says. "There's a lot of teaching and emphasis on the little things."

Starting with pressuring the passer.

"Sacks first," Mathis says. "It gives us momentum and deflates the offense."

Starting with quickness and speed. Triplett, at 295, is the bulkiest of the linemen (although Corey Simon, generously listed at 293, is by all acknowledgements running at more than three bills). Freeney goes 268, Mathis 235, Raheem Brock 274. All by design.

Take Mathis. Long and lean, he played defensive end at Alabama A&M but NFL scouts saw him as a 'tweener a small-school player stuck in that gray area between college end and NFL linebacker. At 6-2, too short to play line. At 235, too light for linebacker or end. Unless he wound up in the right place.

The Colts traded a fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft to move up in the fifth round in '03 to take Mathis. He had 3 sacks as a rookie, 10 last year. Polian likens him to St. Louis Rams rush end Leonard Little.

"We traded up to get him because Tony, because we all knew what he could be," Polian says. "We all understand the blueprint now. It's not hard. It's fun."

The Colts also heard the snickers when they signed Reagor as a free agent in 2003. But Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck knew him from when they were with the Denver Broncos. The Colts saw Reagor as miscast in Denver's front but perfect for their one-gap scheme (each player responsible for a specific area).

"I have an affinity for this kind of athlete," says Polian, who oversaw a similar style of defense with the Buffalo Bills when they made four consecutive appearances in the Super Bowl in the 1990s.

"I think when you play with athletes, like we do on defense, you have a better chance of making plays. That's just my own personal philosophy, but it happens to mesh with Tony's completely."

It is not the only way, he acknowledges.

"I understand people who feel the other way," Polian says. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells "feels 100% the other way, and I understand that he does and he gets results with it. So does (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick. I wouldn't argue with him. There's no right or wrong. It's whether you prefer strawberry or butter pecan."

Good for sundaes and good on Sunday. Now can this defense put the cherry on top and get its just desserts?

"I think we have the makings," Dungy says. "We have special guys rushing the passer. Whether we can be consistent and do all the other things, that's what the next few weeks will show."

Then and now
Indianapolis has opened 3-0 this season with a new look on offense (less scoring) and defense (fewer points allowed). Only once last season did Indianapolis hold an opponent to under 10 points, in a 41-9 win at Detroit in late November. Compare the Colts' first three games to the team's 2-1 start last season:
24-7 at Baltimore24-27 at New England
10-3 vs. Jacksonville31-17 at Tennessee
13-6 vs. Cleveland45-31 vs. Green Bay