A BASIC CHANGE

The Colts' defense, after allowing 23 or more points five times in the first seven games, has allowed that total just once in the last six. Head Coach Tony Dungy said whereas the Colts made too many mistakes early in the season, they are now committing fewer penalties and allowing fewer big plays.

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Fewer Mistakes, Big Plays Key to Improved Defense, Dungy Says
INDIANAPOLIS – As Tony Dungy sees it, the difference has been simple.

The Colts' defense, after allowing 23 or more points five times in the first seven games, has allowed that total just once in the last six games, a critical reason for the Colts' current six-game winning streak that has catapulted them to the front of the AFC Wild Card chase.

The unit is ranked 13th in the NFL.

It has forced 23 turnovers, tied for 10th in the NFL.

And the pass-rushing tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis has reestablished itself as one of the top defensive end duos in the NFL.

But Dungy, in his seventh season as the Colts' head coach, said the reason for the improvement is more basic.

Early on, the Colts made too many mistakes. And now he said they make a lot fewer.

"It has been a different kind of year for us," Dungy said Monday, a day after the Colts' 35-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. "What was haunting us early in the year were penalties and big plays. We've cut those way down as we've gotten into November and December. . . . We're doing better in terms of limiting the running game.

"All in all, I think we're making strides and playing the kind of defense we need to be playing."

The Colts, after ranking 19th in fewest penalties as a team through six games, have improved to 16th entering the season's final three weeks, and in a recent two-week stretch in which it did not allow a touchdown, the defense committed just two penalties. Each came Sunday against the Browns.

The Colts also have not allowed a pass of more than 26 yards in the last two weeks.

Freeney, the Colts' all-time sacks leader and November's AFC Defensive Player of the Month, registered a sack and a half Sunday, bringing his total for the season to 9.5. Mathis, the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week last week, had 2.5 sacks and now has a team-high 11.5 this season.

Mathis is tied for third in the AFC in sacks and Freeney is sixth.

SANDERS OK: Colts safety Bob Sanders, after missing three games with a knee injury, returned against the Bengals Sunday and came out of the game healthy, Dungy said.

Sanders finished the game with a team-high eight tackles, six solos.

"Bob did OK, and we were able to get a lot of those guys out in the fourth quarter, so it was kind of nice that he got back in, got a taste of it and didn't have to play 50-60 plays," Dungy said. "He got through it OK."

ETC., ETC.: Defensive tackle Eric Foster, who left Sunday's game with a burner, may be held out of practice much of the week, Dungy said, but Dungy said he expects running back Joseph Addai (shoulder) to be OK. . . . Dungy also said running back/kick returner Chad Simpson (ankle) likely will be listed as questionable much of the week. . . . Dungy said the status of Simpson and Addai could necessitate adding a running back later in the week, and he said rookie Pierre Garcon could return to the kickoff return role that Simpson has held in recent weeks. . . . Dungy also said he expects three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday to play Sunday against Detroit. "I think Jeff will be ready to go," Dungy said. "He was very close, and we talked about, debated it all through Saturday night, actually. It turned out well. We've got two games in five days, so we kind of wanted to err on the side of caution, but I think he'll be ready to go this week." . . . Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who completed 26 of 32 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions Sunday, has completed 307 of 477 passes for 3,225 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions this season. His passer rating of 88.8 is fifth in the AFC, and he is third in the conference in touchdown passes.

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