Effectiveness of Pass Defense a Group Effort, Colts Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – The credit extends beyond the obvious.
Antoine Bethea, the Colts' Pro Bowl safety, said this week while the Colts have played solid pass defense at times this season – and a lot more than solid a lot of other times – there's more to understanding why than just discussing the obvious.
The Colts have allowed ust over a touchdown pass per month.
They're ranked fifth in the NFL in passing defense.
And often, they have accomplished their goal of limiting big plays.
Bethea said the above elements are intertwined when discussing the Colts' secondary's success this season, but he said something else is equally true.
The success is about more than the secondary.
"It's all like one big machine," Bethea said this week as the Colts (9-4) prepared to play the Detroit Lions (0-13) at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 1 p.m. "If one part's not working well, it's messing up the whole thing, but when everything's well-oiled and going together, the defense is working fine."
The Colts' defense, after struggling at times early in the season, indeed has worked well in recent weeks, improving to 13th in the NFL overall after 13 weeks.
A big reason has been the season-long efficiency of the pass defense.
The Colts, who have ranked in the Top 5 in the NFL in pass defense four of the past six seasons, rank fifth in the NFL in the area this season, and have averaged allowing 186.9 yards passing per game.
And after being historically strong in the area of touchdown passes allowed, the Colts are approaching historical effectiveness this season. In six previous seasons, they have allowed 19, 18, 26, 17, 16 and 16 regular-season touchdown passes.
Through 13 games this season, they have allowed four touchdown passes.
The NFL record for a 16-game season: nine.
"We say, 'Hey, they cannot score passing,' " Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "That's a challenge all of us in the secondary look for. We've been doing a good job so far, but it's December now and things are more critical. We want to just continue to work on that and continue to keep them out of the end zone passingwise."
Said cornerback Tim Jennings, "That's one thing we focus on, is that if they're going to beat us, they're going to beat us on the ground game, the rushing attack."
Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said a low number of passing touchdowns could be a sign that the defense as a whole is playing effectively. In the Tampa 2 defense employed by the Colts under Dungy, the emphasis is on not allowing big plays, with the idea being that the more plays a defense can force an offense to run, the less chance that the offense will score.
The Colts not only have allowed few big plays, they are third in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 16 of 42 trips inside the Colts' 20-yard line.
"It gets tough to throw it in from the 7-yard line in and you make people move down in small chunks," Dungy said. "That's probably been part of it, is we haven't given up a lot of those 18-yard, 20-yard touchdown passes."
Not that the task of stopping opponents' passing offenses has been easy.
The Colts this season have been one of the NFL's top pass defenses despite a slew of injuries in the secondary. Bethea is the only member to start every game, with Hayden missing six games, All-Pro safety Bob Sanders missing eight games and cornerback Marlin Jackson on injured reserve.
"It's just the character of the guys here," Hayden said. "Every guy feels like they can be a starter, and when their number is called, they want to step up to the plate and take advantage of the opunity. When I first got here, I looked at guys like (former starting cornerbacks) Nick Harper and Jason David to see how they prepared themselves. I guess the same goes for the guys who are behind me now.
"They prepare themselves the same way I prepared myself, and when their number's called, they answer."
With Hayden out earlier this season, Tim Jennings – a second-round selection in 2006 – started in his place, and when Jackson's season ended, the Colts signed free-agent Keiwan Ratliff, who started two games. Against Pittsburgh, Jennings and Ratliff each intercepted a pass that led to a touchdown in a 24-20 Indianapolis come-from-behind victory.
Now, with Hayden healthy, Hayden and Jennings have started the last three games, and the Colts have gone through a similar situation at safety, with second-year safety Melvin Bullitt starting eight games in place of Sanders, who has been out twice for extended periods with knee and hamstring injuries.
Bullitt, a free agent signee in the 2007 off-season, leads the Colts with four interceptions. Hayden is next with three and leads the team with 10 passes defensed.
"We take a lot of pride in preventing big passing plays, touchdown passes – all kinds of stuff like that," Bullitt said. "You never want those to happen."
As a group, the secondary has 14 interceptions, but to a man, the members of the secondary say there's another number of equal importance to the pass defense: 21, the number of sacks registered by defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have further established themselves this season as one of the NFL's top pass-rushing tandems.
"It plays in," Hayden said. "Don't get me wrong. I know that a quarterback has in the back of his mind, 'Hey, I need to get this ball out because I've got two guys coming off the edges that are coming and coming fast.' It goes hand in hand and those guys deserve as much credit as we do.
"I guess we're clicking right now."
Said Jennings, "The defensive ends we have create tough throws. They get in the face every time and create pressure. They forced quarterbacks to throw the ball quicker than they expect. That helps a lot.
"With the D-line we have, it's going to be real hard for you to throw the ball and score on us, unless you just throw it up – and that's how we get a lot of interceptions."
Mathis, the team's sacks leader the last two seasons, has 11.5 sacks, including 6.5 in the last three games. Freeney, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, has 9.5 sacks, including 6.5 in the last five games.
"It all goes hand in hand," said Bullitt, whose four interceptions each have come in the fourth quarter to clinch close victories, said. "It's a 50-50 deal. If we can hold them off, they can get some good pressure, and if they can get a serious pass rush, then we're able to come up with an interception, or a pass deflection – anything.
"Anything can happen when they're rushing the way they are."