INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Head Coach Jim Caldwell played defensive back at Iowa many years ago.
As the field leader of the Colts, he has seen many of his players have performance time interrupted by injuries over the last two seasons.
Caldwell has maintained for a long time that the two units that depend most on continuity and cohesion are the offensive line and defensive backfield. Both those units this year have had severe challenges due to injuries, and the secondary has been hit particularly hard.
"The offensive line and the secondary both are positions that certainly require guys to get a feel for one another, because there are so many of them," said Caldwell. "They all have to be functioning, obviously, in unison. The old adage that, 'A defensive player's value to his football team is inversely proportionate to his distance from the ball,' that is probably very appropriate when you talk about the perimeter. Those guys have to be able to communicate. They have to be able to adjust to what they see, and it takes experience."
Safety Antoine Bethea has been the only starter in the secondary throughout the season for the Colts. His fellow safety and team captain Melvin Bullitt exited the field after two games. Indianapolis has started six different secondary combinations, and the longest duration for any one group has been five games.
Bethea has been the glue, and he has applied expertise at every turn. He has seen a number of players start and make career-debuting appearances with Indianapolis during the season. Those teammates would include Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, Terrence Johnson, David Caldwell and Joe Lefeged.
Caldwell appreciates the job Bethea has done during the season. He has been an anchor in a swirling storm.
"Antoine (Bethea) does a good job of making sure that they're all on the same page," said Caldwell. "He carries a heavy burden, and that communication is very, very key. All-in-all, I think the young guys have stepped up and continued to try to find a way to get better every week."
Bethea carries himself with a quiet professionalism. His stoic demeanor is seen in his on-field comportment. The exertion he has expended this season has been in part just trying to keep play in the secondary as cohesive as possible.
"It's a matter and situation that it is," said Bethea. "When you play back there, you most definitely try to get some continuity with the guys. You do that with the group you are playing together with. You try to get a better feel for each other. That really hasn't happened this year. You try to learn from the situation. I know I've learned about myself as a player dealing with this. From there, you try to go on while you learn from it."
Through 15 games, Bethea has totaled 129 tackles, second on the team to middle linebacker Pat Angerer. Bethea has seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one recovered fumble. He saw the secondary have a good outing against Tennessee. Indianapolis made a pair of red zone stops in earning its first victory. One came at the end of the first half when the Colts held from their three-yard line to force a field goal. The second came at the end of the game when the team was preserving its lead. Also, Angerer had an end zone interception to halt another scoring threat. The biggest play could have been cornerback Jacob Lacey's 32-yard scoring return of a third-quarter interception that boosted the Colts' lead over the Titans to 14 points, a lead Tennessee would not overcome.
Those plays were augmented by an overall defensive performance that saw the Colts limit Tennessee to 66 rushing yards, including 55 by running back Chris Johnson. Members of the secondary played big roles in the team's defensive effort, and Bethea was pleased with the performance.
"A pick is big, but especially a pick-six really feels good," said Bethea. "It put some points on the board for us. Jake (Lacey) had a great game. Chris Rucker had a great game. It was good seeing everyone do what they were supposed to do on a consistent basis. It is big getting the outcome we have been working for."
Indianapolis followed that effort by beating Houston, 19-16. The Colts surrendered a touchdown in the game's first minute, then allowed none afterwards. The team held Houston to one-of-10 on third downs, and the defense had a late stop in the red zone that held the Texans to a field goal. The stop set the stage for the offense to drive for the game-winning touchdown.
Bethea is pleased with the two-game turnaround, and he feels it is indicative of the gritty nature of teammates he has.
"That's the type of guys we have in our locker room," said Bethea. "Whatever the situation was, guys stuck in there, fought and hung in there together. We never pointed fingers, and it feels good to finally get (some wins)."
Bethea was a starter for Indianapolis from the outset of his career. He has seen veteran units during his six years, and he has seen rotating personnel like this year. He hopes he is providing the guidance necessary for the newcomers.
"At times you can easily look and reflect on a season if you have say three six-year veterans back there (in the secondary)," said Bethea. "You really don't have to do much because they've been in the fire and know the ins and outs. When you have young guys out there, you look in the mirror and ask, 'Are you helping these young guys improve? Are you helping these guys get better from one week to another?' As far as leadership, you kind of see where your leadership skills are."
Bethea cannot help but see himself as a younger player while looking at current teammates. He remembers his mistakes of youth, and now tried to correct those in his teammates.
"When you're a rookie, some people's learning curves are different than others," said Bethea. "Making some mistakes, that happens when you're a rookie. Now being in my sixth year, I see some things these guys haven't seen. I've seen them more than they have. It just comes with playing a little bit and getting some more plays. As a rookie you're always going to make mistakes, but the main thing in becoming a good player is learning from those mistakes."
Every season involved adapting to personnel and playing time that is disrupted by injuries. Bethea knows it is a normal process to which every team must adapt.
"It's been a big process, a huge process," said Bethea. "You definitely want to be together (in the secondary). With guys coming in and out, it's been tougher than in previous years. I think everybody in this situation can learn from it."