INDIANAPOLIS — As Chris Ballard took in his first season as the Indianapolis Colts' general manager last year, he noticed one trend he wanted to fix — and immediately.
He certainly saw the effort he wanted out of his players — that was never an issue — but the difference in the level of physicality between the Colts and their AFC South Division rivals was, at times, glaringly apparent.
This was a major theme when the Colts embarked on interviews for their next head coach early this year. And when Ballard sat down with Frank Reich, it seemed one word more than any other was repeated over and over: toughness.
You want tough football players? You need tough practices. Tough meetings. Tough workouts. That was Reich's pitch, and Ballard was 100 percent on board.
Reich followed through, especially when training camp got underway. The Colts players had fully-padded camp practices more often than not, and it wasn't uncommon to see live tackling periods from day to day.
The results through three regular season games have been pretty apparent, especially on defense, which just seems to be outmuscling those across from them and simply tackling the ballcarrier much better.
But on Sunday, the Colts (1-2) take their first dive into AFC South play, as they welcome the Houston Texans (0-3) to Lucas Oil Stadium. Perhaps this will be the first real test for a team that is being built around toughness — not to mention the early-season implications on the division standings.
"The guys that have been around understand the importance," Reich said. "For the new guys, you just try to bring a little bit of context to how a division game counts and why it counts more than one game. Put up the standings in the division and show where we are in the division race right now. Show how important a win is in trying to establish our place in this division. For a long time, we've done very well in this division and that's where we want to get back to."
Reich isn't kidding.
Since the formation of the AFC South back in 2002, the Colts have won the division title nine times out of a possible 16 seasons. Indianapolis won five straight AFC South titles from 2003 through 2007, and seven of eight from 2003 through 2010.
But their last hurrah in the division standings came four years ago, when the Colts, at 11-5, won a second straight AFC South title and advanced all the way to the AFC title game.
Since that time, the Colts have compiled a 22-29 record, and others have stepped to the forefront in the division. The Texans, with 9-7 records both years, were tops in the AFC South in both 2015 and 2016, while the Jacksonville Jaguars won their first-ever AFC South title last season, and nearly defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Colts want to start putting their name in the AFC South hat once again, and they get their first crack at it on Sunday.
"You definitely want to make a big splash in this division — definitely claim it back how it was years and years ago" said defensive tackle Al Woods, who was with the rival Tennessee Titans from 2014 through 2016 before signing with the Colts last offseason. "Everything is incredibly heightened, everybody is studying, we're all talking. I mean we're in walkthrough thinking it's a game like, 'Hey man, what do you see, what are you talking about?' It's cool.
"We are just definitely trying to take it to that next level of, you know, I would say clarity, getting in this division, getting in there, you know, rustling it up a little, start getting our name in that first place column."
PHOTOS: Practice Highlights 9/26 - Texans @ Colts