Colts' Pass Defense Ratchets Up the Pressure in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – In one sense, not much changed.
Because when the Colts played pass defense this past season, they still used a lot of the same concepts they used for much of the past decade. But at the same time, there were changes.
And with those changes, came a new look.
The Colts were more aggressive. They attacked.
Linebacker Clint Session said that was the major difference in the Colts' defense under first-year coordinator Larry Coyer – that while the Colts were a solid defense in many past seasons, this season they took their old approach and added an aggressiveness.
That aggressiveness could be seen in the blitz.
And to Session, that made this year's defensive special.
"We blitz(ed) a lot more than we had in the past," Session, the Colts' third-year veteran outside linebacker, said late this past season, during which the Colts won a second AFC Championship in four seasons. "I couldn't give you an exact breakdown, but we blitzed a lot. We kind of (relied) on it more so than we did last year. We relied on our pass rush and our pressure."
While the Colts finished in the Top 11 in the NFL in total defense five times in seven seasons under former Head Coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, they rarely blitzed, with Dungy favoring a philosophy in which a defense tried to pressure the passer with four down linemen, enabling seven defenders to play coverage.
The Colts under Dungy also were largely known primarily as a relatively conservative Cover 2 defense.
And while Session and other Colts' players said the team still played a lot of Cover 2 this past season, one of Coyer's objectives entering the season was to improve on third down.
Included in that objective:
More of an emphasis on the blitz.
Just how much the team would utilize the blitz was perhaps the major story around the Colts' defense last offseason, and it didn't take long in the regular season to know:
They would use it more – not all the time, certainly, but a lot more than in the past.
How much more? Gary Brackett, the Colts' middle linebacker and defensive captain, was asked that after an opening-game victory over Jacksonville, a game in which he twice blitzed and put crucial pressure on Jaguars quarterback David Garrard late in a 14-12 Colts victory.
Brackett estimated that the Colts blitzed 10 times in the game.
"That's about 10 times more than we did last year," he said, smiling.
Not that the Colts' philosophy or strengths changed completely. The Colts finished 14th in the NFL against the pass, and a big reason for the effectiveness was the continued Pro Bowl-level play of defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Freeney, an eight-year veteran, registered a team-high 13.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl for a fifth time in seven seasons, while Mathis – a seven-year veteran – registered 9.5 sacks and was named to a second consecutive Pro Bowl. The Colts' defensive front registered 31.5 sacks and 68 quarterback hurries, pressure that helped the Colts allow just 19 passing touchdowns.
"We are more of an attacking defense," Mathis said late in the season. "We don't sit back in Cover 2 and pretty much wait [letting] the offense dictate what is going to happen. We pretty much just go. Everybody is accountable and everybody is attacking."
The Colts' secondary for a second consecutive season played solidly despite a slew of injuries. With All-Pro safety Bob Sanders missing all but two games with a biceps injury, and with cornerback Marlin Jackson finishing the season on injured reserve with a knee injury, the Colts held 13 opponents under 300 yards passing in the regular season.
Antoine Bethea, a fourth-year safety, made the Pro Bowl for a second time in three seasons and started 16 games with four interceptions, with Melvin Bullitt starting 12 games and registering one pressure and one pass defensed in place of Sanders. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden had five passes defensed and an interception, and rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers – a third-round selection from Auburn University – emerged as one of the league's top young players at his position, starting 12 games and finishing with an interception and nine passes defensed.
It was a unit that was helped by the new approach, Hayden said.
"As a defensive back, you enjoy (it), because in the previous years you can say that we were kind of a bend-but-don't-break defense," Hayden said. "This year, we (were) attacking and challenging offenses to make plays. It's a challenge on the secondary as well because we need to make plays in order to get off the field on third down.
"The whole defense (had) to make tackles. We (were) blitzing more. We (were) not just going to sit back and let the quarterback pick us apart. We (were) going to dictate and force quarterbacks to make plays."
While Freeney, Mathis and the front did a lot of the forcing, the back seven did, too, with linebackers and defensive backs registering 15 pressures and three and a half sacks. Brackett emerged as one of the team's top blitzers, registering seven pressures and a sack.
"You think about the defense last year, we were in a lot of cover two, we didn't blitz a lot," Session said. "We had a really good pass rush out of our defensive ends. You have to give those guys a break sometimes and send some blitzes and get some pressure on the quarterback.
"(Coyer) adds a different attitude to our defense. It's a very attacking attitude, more of the mindset that you're going to adjust to us, we're not going to adjust to you. We'll do what we do and you're going to have to adjust to what we do. I think it's a very positive attitude that he's brought to the defense."