Better Tackling Key to Run Defense, Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – As Josh Thomas sees it, the solution is simple.
Thomas, the Colts' fifth-year veteran defensive end, said the issue facing the Colts' run defense – currently ranked 31st in the NFL after three games – is not only not difficult to see, it shouldn't be particularly difficult to remedy.
His teammates agree.
Yes, the Colts have allowed 199.3 yards game rushing, and yes, Thomas and his Colts defensive teammates said this week, that total is not only too high, but a large reason the team is under .500 entering October for the first time in a decade.
But no, Colts defensive players said, it's not a problem that can't be fixed. Not even close.
"We had a lot of missed tackles," Thomas said as the Colts (1-2) prepared to play the Houston Texans (0-3) in an AFC South matchup at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday at 1 p.m.
"It's nothing we're not doing as far as people being where they're supposed to be. We've had an abnormal amount of missed tackles. We can fix it. That's the good thing."
Such was the consensus this week as the Colts began preparing to play their second consecutive AFC South game.
The Colts, the five-time defending AFC South champions, spent their bye week last week focusing not on the Texans, but on themselves. The idea, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said, was to have practices in a similar vein as training camp, focusing on fundamentals and basics.
Part of that process, players said, was reviewing the first three games, and when watching those games, safety Antoine Bethea said the problem was obvious.
While observers have focused on injuries to linebacker Tyjuan Hagler and safety Bob Sanders, as well as the unexpected retirement of second-year defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock and the waiving of 2007 16-game starting defensive tackle Ed Johnson, Bethea said those issues weren't causing teams to run on the Colts effectively.
"You've got free guys in the hole not making the tackle," Bethea said. "It's basically not tacking. There are things we have to improve on as the season goes on, and I'm pretty sure all the guys know what we need to do and I'm pretty sure we'll get it done."
Said cornerback Marlin Jackson, "On each and every play, we have to have everybody doing their job. Right now, we have eight guys doing the job and one or two or three that's a little off. You can't have that. That's where you get those long runs and big plays."
Throughout the season, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy and Colts President Bill Polian each have said the issue with the run defense is not players or scheme, but execution. The Colts play a style of defense in which each defensive player is responsible for a specific gap. Dungy said the scheme requires all-out hustle each play and also requires each player fill his gap on each play.
Failure by one player to fill a gap often can result in a long run on a play in which 10 of 11 defenders played effectively, Polian said.
"One of the things we have to do defensively and one of the things we have not done defensively well is to limit big plays," Polian said. "That means assignment integrity and gap integrity. We can't have nine guys going right and one guy going left, because if they hit that gap as they usually do when those things happen, then it's a home run. If we do that, we will go a long way toward solving our, 'problem with the running game.'
"We have been really pretty good when you boil it all down except for the big plays, but that's unacceptable. We have to eliminate the big plays. You can't rely on Bob Sanders to do it. First of all, he's not there and second of all it's not right to rely upon him to do it. You have to make sure that everybody is in the right place at the right time all the time.
"If we do that, we will not allow big plays, but if we get collapsed to the point where we're driven seven yards past the hole and one tackler has to defend a hole that's five-and-half-to-six-yards wide, that's not a good matchup. . . . We have to make sure that's correct. We have to make sure we're communicating correctly on the calls so there is no discrepancy over that.
"If we get that done, I think we'll play pretty good defense.
Polian also said while the loss of Pitcock and Johnson – who helped the Colts rank second in the NFL in total defense a year ago – hurt, the losses of the two players were "through no fault of our own.
"It's one of those situations where we're going to have to try to upgrade that position either through making the players we have here better or trying in the offseason probably to acquire better players, although I'm certainly not finished acquiring good players if any are available . . ." Polian said. "I don't preclude getting them in free agency, but I don't hold out a lot of hope, either, because the free-agency pool is not filled with the kinds of players we are looking for."
Pitcock and Johnson each weighed close to or more than 300 pounds, and their departures left second-year veteran Keyunta Dawson (6-feet-3, 254 pounds) and free-agent rookie Eric Foster (6-2, 265) as the team's starting tackles. The Colts the week before the regular-season opener acquired defensive tackle Dan Muir (6-2, 312) off waivers from the Green Bay Packers, then signed defensive tackle LaJuan Ramsey (6-3, 300) as a free agent following Johnson's release.
Muir missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury, and Polian said he expects each player to be available after the bye.
"I think both will be helpful to us in terms of taking reps, being able to stand in there and slug when we get in the kinds of games that we got in last week (against Jacksonville)," Polian said, adding that the duo "certainly will be very helpful once they get their feet on the ground and know exactly how we execute stunts, how we play certain blocking schemes – when they get that, and they're making fast progress on it, they'll be contributors, so it just takes a little while.
"I used the example last week that when (Anthony) "Booger" (McFarland) came to us (via trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006), it took about six weeks even though he was playing the exact same defense in Tampa just for him to feel comfortable with the people he was playing with and the little idiosyncrasies of the way we play.
"The same is true with them. They're going to get better. The graph will be up as time goes by."
Thomas said something else is just as true, and just as obvious when watching tape – and he said the solution to the issue is just as clear.
"When we're watching film, none of us are saying. "What's going on?''' Thomas said. "We know what's going on. It's little things. When it's the little things, you can take the bye week like we had, work on those kinds of things and those things can get fixed."
Said Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett, "Guys have been a little uncertain about their gaps, so I think when guys really start buying into the defense, doing what the defense calls them to do, play their position and shore up on some tackling, I think we'll be fine."