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Thursday, September 16, 2010
Colts have endured, fixed run D before

By Paul Kuharsky

Indianapolis Colts
Veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have witnessed the Colts' run defense get burned -- and recover -- in the past.
The night of Dec. 10, 2006, the Indianapolis Colts were in a stupor, hoping for a short memory and a quick recovery.

They’d just been gashed for 375 rushing yards by the Jaguars in 44-17 loss in Jacksonville.

It was the Colts’ second loss in a row, their third in four games and the run defense was a critical issue. They finished the regular season dead last in ground yards allowed, yielding an average of 173 yards a game, 44.1 more yards than the next worst team.

Those Colts rebounded from the second-worst rush defense in franchise history. They defended the run well enough to deliver Indianapolis its first Lombardi Trophy just seven games after Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor went crazy against them.

The timing is different now. There is the possibility we saw a blip -- not the start of a trend -- in Houston Sunday. But the theme is similar.

After allowing Arian Foster a Houston Texans' single-game record of 231 yards at Reliant Stadium, the Colts are looking to restore a semblance of order to their run defense in order to get on track.

"We pride ourselves on fixing things,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. “And I think that's what we'll get done."

This week’s opponent, the New York Giants, have a good offensive line. Surely they will look to feed running back Ahmad Bradshaw and take advantage of some of the run-defense deficiencies the Texans exposed. But the Colts expect to be a different defense, one closer to last year’s form.

“They are an extremely fast defense and need to get to the football with multiple players -- which they did pretty well last year,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “Their defensive tackles are also bigger than they have been in seasons past. Am I sure that is better? No.

“But I also tend to think that Sunday's performance was about as bad as it can get and that generally speaking, they are a better run defense than what they showed. They also game planned Houston to have [Colts' safety] Bob Sanders [available], who is a terrific fill player. And much of their scheme is designed to funnel the ball in his direction.”

In 2006, Sanders’ return from a knee injury keyed the Super Bowl run. He missed 12 games including the final four of the regular season, but was a giant factor in three playoff games and the Super Bowl. Another part of the solution: moving Rob Morris into an outside linebacker slot to replace Gilbert Gardner.

Ahmad Bradshaw
Next up for the Colts' run defense: Ahmad Bradshaw and the New York Giants.
Sunday in Houston, Sanders went down early. He's out indefinitely after surgery to repair a torn bicep. Without him to fill, the Colts need to be more disciplined and not let their speed become a disadvantage. They don't want their linebackers and defensive backs to overrun plays.

Aggressiveness is good. Overaggressiveness can be deadly.

The outside linebackers, Philip Wheeler and Clint Session, and Sanders’ replacement, Melvin Bullitt, were especially ineffective against Foster and the Texans.

The Colts have to have people in position to snuff out cutback lanes and runs, slowing a back while help arrives.

The team almost can take solace in the fact that it has recovered from this sort of thing before. In those four playoff games in the 2006 season, the defense allowed only an average of 82.8 yards a game, a drop of more than 90 yards from the regular season.

“It is certainly fixable,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “We have gone through spurts like that before, not something you want to revisit every single week obviously. But until you get it stopped, it’s an issue. We had games where Jacksonville ran for I don’t know how many yards, Kansas City torched us for over 500 [total yards], but we were able to come back and get the ship righted in that regard. This is going to take a little work, but we can get it done.”

Unlike many teams, Indianapolis is not built to sell out in stopping the run. The Colts are willing to give up some rushing yards. It fits with their philosophy.

With an offense built around Peyton Manning and some dangerous weapons, the Colts look to build a lead and play from ahead. If a game pans out in that fashion -- and it very often does -- susceptibility to the run becomes less of a factor, because an opponent generally needs to throw to rally. And the Colts defense wants quarterbacks to drop back since Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis get to rush and cause problems.

Freeney said it will be particularly important this week for veterans who’ve been through it to convey those survival instincts to youngsters who were not around in 2006.

Key players on defense like defensive tackles Dan Muir, Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala, linebackers Session and Wheeler and corners Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey were not with the team then.

"The veterans have to let guys know, ‘These things happen, this is the National Football League,’” Freeney said. “The other team gets paid, too. You're not going to always have your best game. I just think it's about how you bounce back from those type of games.

“That really defines the character of your team and what kind of guys you have. I don't know one team in the history of football that hasn't had a bad week. I don't care who it is.”