Simple Approach Leads to Late-Season Improvement Against the Run
INDIANAPOLIS – The ironic thing about the secret behind the Colts' run defense is there really was no secret at all.
That late-season improvement?
The stoutness that led to four consecutive season-ending victories to earn a seventh division title in eight years?
The ability to shut down three of the NFL's best runners?
Gary Brackett, the Colts' defensive captain and the starting middle linebacker since 2005, said the notable thing about what went on in December defensively for the Colts is there was no secret, nothing complex and not even any huge philosophical change.
The Colts just took a simpler approach. It was the results that were striking.
"We definitely did a great job against the best running teams and running backs this year, so we know that we are capable of it," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said shortly after the regular season.
"It is just about going out there and executing our game plan."
Freeney said by the end of the season the confidence level against the run was "definitely high."
The Colts, who allowed 108 or more yards rushing in 11 of the first 13 games of the season, allowed 217 yards rushing in a 38-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Game 12. That was the Colts' third consecutive loss, and during that span, Indianapolis allowed 171.3 yards a game rushing.
In the final four games, the Colts played three of the NFL's top running backs, including two games against Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, a 2,000-yard rusher in 2009.
The four-game stretch:
*At Tennessee. Johnson rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries, and the Titans rushed for 121 yards in a 30-28 Colts victory.
*Home against Jacksonville. Maurice Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two seasons, rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries. The Jaguars rushed for 67 yards in a 34-24 Colts victory.
*At Oakland. Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,157 yards this past season, rushed for 45 yards on 11 carries for Oakland. The Raiders rushed for 80 yards in a 31-26 Colts victory.
*Home against Tennessee. Johnson rushed for 39 yards on 20 carries, and the Titans rushed for 51 yards in a 23-20 Colts victory.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell said the improvement over the last month had much to do with reducing the numbers of play calls – therefore allowing defensive players to think less, and to react more quickly.
"The speed and the simplicity has kind of been the thing that we've been preaching here the last four-to-five weeks," Caldwell said shortly after the season. "We really tried to make sure we did not complicate things. . . .
"One of the things that is an asset of ours is we have a number of guys on our team who can run. We don't want to inhibit them in any way, shape or form. You have to be able to go and not think."
Brackett, who as middle linebacker handles the defensive calls and audibles, said the move eliminated "some things" that were a little bit confusing.
"We went back to base to about two or three things and do them well," Brackett said. "Our mantra has always been that we are going to do what we do better than what the other team does what they do. I think it means a lot. That is what we pride ourselves on, flying around to the football. I think it leaves a message.
"We eliminated some things and guys were a little bit hesitant. When you are out there and you're hesitant and you're not the first to react, then you are usually on your heels, and now we want to be on our toes and fly around and dictate the pace ourselves."
The Colts finished 25th in the NFL against the run, allowing 127.0 yards per game, but allowed 79.75 yards per game over the last four games.
Freeney said as was the case in 2006, when the Colts ranked last in the NFL in run defense before improving drastically in the post-season en route to a Super Bowl title, the reality is the Colts throughout much of the season weren't far from playing effectively against the run.
"It's about every guy on every play on every snap," Freeney said. "I think we . . . played great run-stop defense for three quarters and a half for the majority of the year, and then we will have one run here or one run there that all of a sudden our average goes skyrocketing."
Freeney said the last four weeks were "more consistent."
The scaled-back approach, safety Antoine Bethea said, made it "simple for everybody."
"Everybody knows where they need to be at any given time," said Bethea, who led the team in tackles in 2010. "That way we can all just play fast, we can run to the ball, then we can make plays. If you're out there thinking, you'll probably be a step slow here, slow there.
"Coach Caldwell said it best: limited play-calling, and we're out there playing fast."