Colts' Defense Has Improved Against the Run With Speed, Simplicity
INDIANAPOLIS – The difference has been simple – very literally.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney said it this week, and middle linebacker Gary Brackett did, too.
As for Caldwell, entering his second season as the Colts' head coach, he said early Tuesday afternoon that has been a key the last several weeks – that whatever difference there has been around the Colts' defense in recent weeks, it has come about because of a pretty basic premise.
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
And more than a little bit of speed, too.
"The speed and the simplicity has kind of been the thing that we've been preaching here the last four-to-five weeks," Caldwell said Tuesday as the AFC South champion Colts (10-6) prepared to play the New York Jets (11-5) in an AFC Wild Card game at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday at 8 p.m.
"We really tried to make sure we did not complicate things."
The Colts, throughout a four-game, season-ending winning streak, have talked about playing fast defensively, and returning to the basics of how they play defense.
"It really just means we are playing a little bit more confident," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "The more that you do what you usually do, if that makes any sense, then you start to play faster because you have confidence and start making plays.
"So you can run to the ball a little quicker instead of kind of second-guessing yourself, not knowing exactly where you want to go. That is when you play slow."
Whatever the approach, in the last month of the season it has been effective.
The Colts, who allowed 108 or more yards rushing in 10 of the first 12 games of the season, allowed 217 yards rushing in a 38-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Game 13. That was the Colts' third consecutive loss, and during that span, Indianapolis allowed 171.3 yards a game rushing.
In four games since, the Colts played three of the NFL's top running backs, including two games against Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, a 2,000-yard rusher last season.
The four-game stretch:
*At Tennessee. Johnson rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries, and the Titans rushed for 121 yards in a 30-28 Colts victory.
*Home against Jacksonville. Maurice Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two seasons, rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries. The Jaguars rushed for 67 yards in a 34-24 Colts victory.
*At Oakland. Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,157 yards this season, rushed for 45 yards on 11 carries for Oakland. The Raiders rushed for 80 yards in a 31-26 Colts victory.
*Home against Tennessee. Johnson rushed for 39 yards on 20 carries, and the Titans rushed for 51 yards in a 23-20 Colts victory.
"The confidence level is definitely high," Freeney said. "We definitely did a great job against the best running teams and running backs this year, so we know that we are capable of it. It is just about going out there and executing our game plan."
Just as the Colts' final four opponents emphasized the run offensively, the Jets under head coach Rex Ryan have been one of the NFL's most effective run offenses. New York finished the season fourth in the league in rushing, with Shonn Greene rushing for 766 yards on 155 carries and LaDainian Tomlinson rushing for 914 yards and six touchdowns on 219 carries.
"It is imant that all guys surround the ball and swarm the ball," Freeney said. "Those two guys are dangerous and obviously LT is veteran guy, great vision and can cut it back whenever, keep it out there. Greene is the same type of way but is more of a power combination, power/slash.
"You have to know what kind of guy you are going against, and it is going to be important that every guy around there gang tackles because they can break tackles."
Freeney said as was the case in 2006, when the Colts ranked last in the NFL in run defense before improving drastically in the post-season en route to a Super Bowl title, the reality is the Colts throughout much of the season weren't far from playing effectively against the run.
"I have been saying it all year -- it really is the same thing," Freeney said. "It's about every guy on every play on every snap. I think we have played great run-stop defense for three quarters and a half for the majority of the year, and then we will have one run here or one run there that all of a sudden our average goes skyrocketing.
"But the last four weeks we have been more consistent, and every snap everybody understanding that just because it is the fourth quarter doesn't mean they are going to stop running."
Caldwell said the simpler approach in the last month to reduce the number of play calls was made to allow defensive players to think less, and therefore, to react more quickly.
"One of the things that is an asset of ours is we have a number of guys on our team who can run," Caldwell said. "We don't want to inhibit them in any way, shape or form. Going into the playoffs, that's a very, very important ingredient. You have to be able to go and not think.
"You have to be able to go and play fast, because you're going to be required to do so. You are facing guys who are the best at what they do. That's what makes the playoffs so interesting."
Said Brackett, "We eliminated some calls, some things that were a little bit confusing. We went back to base to about two or three things and do them well. Our mantra has always been that we are going to do what we do better than what the other team does what they do.
"I think it means a lot. That is what we pride ourselves on, flying around to the football. I think it leaves a message. I think it started a few weeks ago, just saying to ourselves that we wanted to go out there and stop the run, and for the last three games we got that accomplished.
"We eliminated some things and guys were a little bit hesitant. When you are out there and you're hesitant and you're not the first to react, then you are usually on your heels, and now we want to be on our toes and fly around and dictate the pace ourselves."
The scaled-back approach, safety Antoine Bethea said, makes it "simple for everybody."
"Everybody knows where they need to be at any given time," said Bethea, who led the team in tackles this season. "That way we can all just play fast, we can run to the ball, then we can make plays. If you're out there thinking, you'll probably be a step slow here, slow there.
"Coach Caldwell said it best: limited playcalling, and we're out there playing fast."