INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2009 Indianapolis Colts needed to be stouter.
Item No. 1 on virtually every team's list of needs after the 2008 season was defensive tackle. A new head coach with a new defensive coordinator would still want quick interior linemen, but a little more beef would help the team better tamp down the run.
Thus, the Colts selected Fili Moala out of USC in the second round of the 2009 draft. They grabbed Terrance Taylor from Michigan in the fourth round. They recruited Adrian Grady from Louisville as an undrafted free agent. They ultimately brought back veteran Ed Johnson, who had been waived early in the 2008 season.
Months later, here stand the Colts, a game away from their second Super Bowl in four seasons. The three defensive tackles who will key the run-stopping efforts Sunday against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game are... the same three guys they intended to replace with upgrades.
New York has a Pro Bowl center in Nick Mangold and a Pro Bowl left guard in Alan Faneca, two key pieces of an offensive line that blocks for the NFL’s top rushing team. The Colts will counter with starting defensive tackles Antonio Johnson, Daniel Muir and Eric Foster as the primary changeup.
Of all the "upgrades," only second-rounder Moala stuck -- and he's inactive when the guys ahead of him are healthy.
The three holdovers are used to beating long odds. Antonio Johnson was signed off the Tennessee Titans' practice squad in early November 2008 and played eight games with the Colts that season. Muir was a waiver claim from the Green Bay Packers in late August 2008. Foster was an undrafted free agent from Rutgers signed in 2008.
And so it’s no-names versus big-names in the trenches when the Jets have the ball at Lucas Oil Stadium, and it could be the matchup most telling in who wins the AFC title and advances to the Super Bowl.
Team president Bill Polian credits vice president/general manager Chris Polian, the pro scouting staff and defensive line coach John Teerlinck for projecting and preparing Antonio Johnson and Muir.
“Last year when we lost Ed and the kid from Ohio State [run-stuffing tackle Quinn Pitcock, who surprised the team by retiring], we had no one,” Bill Polian said. “We had Eric Foster as a collegiate free agent and that was it.
“So for them to unearth these two guys and be able to have them play and come within two yards of advancing in the playoffs last year [in San Diego], is a tribute to the people who found them last year and the guy that coaches them.”
The Colts aren’t super small inside, but their tackles still rate as fast -- the biggest prerequisite for an Indianapolis defender. Both Antonio Johnson and Muir have bigger bodies than the guys who saw a lot of time in 2008 before Johnson arrived and while Muir sat and learned for 10 games. Foster is now the third tackle and Keyunta Dawson was moved back outside to end.
Defensive tackle play hasn’t been a big topic for the Colts this season, which means Johnson and Muir have done solid work as run-stuffers who can help free the ends to rush. The 2008 Colts gave up 4.2 yards a carry, and this season it was 4.3. But they made the sort of climb in the run defense rankings people thought would be enough to minimize the issue -- from dead last to 24th. And both numbers would have been better if they played to win in Weeks 16 and 17.
“I mean they play hard as heck,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said when asked about the tackles. “They may be undersized and all that, but they get off the blocks quick. They penetrate, they get off blocks, and they are disruptive guys. They play with a great motor and I think that is tribute to John Teerlinck.”
Both Johnson, a fifth-round pick by the Titans from Mississippi State, and Muir, undrafted by the Packers from Kent State, said they heard the talk and saw the Colts' 2009 upgrade moves, using all of it as motivation.
“You want to come out and perform, it’s not about the people around you, it’s about what you do,” Muir said. “And it’s turned out. They claim you on waivers, they’re expecting something. I’ve got to showcase myself. I’ve got to be able to perform.
“I’ve had a good season but it could be better. I can definitely improve. ... This is a good run-stopping team. It’s because we work on it and we prepare for it. The Jets are an awesome offensive line, but it’s just like any other week. Come out Sunday and have fun.”
Ironically, with all the talk of beefing up the line, Muir became a better fit for the Colts' system by losing about 15 pounds in the offseason. He’s listed at 312 now, and says the challenge is to become stouter -- not through his diet or weight-room work, but with technique and by trusting in his initial instinct on a play.
Johnson, listed at 310, said a second season with the team helped him a great deal as well.
He and Muir like to contribute to the pass rush, and coach Jim Caldwell talks of seeking well-rounded play from the position. But in this system, surrounded by the people they are, the priorities are clear.
“Not to sound arrogant, but I probably proved myself last year, came out and made a couple plays, put it all out on the field every game,” Johnson said. “And I am doing the same this year. …
“Me, Dan and Eric have a great work ethic. We’re not backing down from any challenges and we’re going to do our best to stop the run. We try to get after the quarterback as well. But first and foremost, we’ve got to stop the run, get them one-dimensional. Then we can let all those little scatters get after the quarterback. But first and foremost, it’s about the run.”