Colts' Run Defense Big Reason for Playoff Run
INDIANAPOLIS – By season's end, Raheem Brock said it didn't matter what people said.
Brock, who this past year was in his eighth season as a defensive end in the Colts' defensive line rotation, said neither by the time the postseason rolled around did it much matter what other teams thought of the Colts' run defense.
The Colts' defensive players knew their level of play.
And instead of talking, Brock said they let that level of play speak for itself.
At times this season – particularly late in the season and in the postseason – that level spoke very loudly.
The Colts' run defense, despite ranking 24th in the NFL, developed throughout the season as a team strength, utilizing speed and quickness to shut down some of the NFL's top rushing offenses and emerge as a key reason for the team's second AFC Championship in four seasons.
"We're trying to get our respect," Brock said recently. "Our job is to get (Colts QB) Peyton (Manning) and the offense on the field as much as possible. If people are wanting to talk down about us, look at the numbers. Watch us play. We go out there and handle business. We've got teams that came into Indy talking trash.
"How many rushing yards did they have? How many points did they have?"
Often this past season, the answer was, "Not many."
The Colts, under first-year coordinator Larry Coyer, not only employed a more-aggressive style of rushing the passer this past season, they did so without sacrificing their effectiveness against the run, holding six opponents under 100 yards rushing in the regular season.
The Colts allowed 126.5 yards rushing per game during the regular season, but a closer look at that number reveals that until the final two games of the season – losses to the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills after their seeding was clinched – the Colts had allowed 112.4 yards per game rushing.
In those final two games, the Colts played without several key starters who were rehabilitating injuries to prepare for the playoffs.
One of those players was Clint Session, a third-year linebacker who developed during the season following an off-season position switch from strong-side to weak-side linebacker. He emerged as one of the NFL's hardest-hitting outside linebackers, a player with solid instincts and big-time play-making ability who finished third on the Colts' defense with 104 tackles.
Session was part of a group that included middle linebacker and team captain Gary Brackett (115 tackles, 81 solos), as well as second-year veteran Philip Wheeler (52 tackles, 34 solos)– who replaced injured starter Tyjuan Hagler – seven games into the season.
"They fly around," Colts defensive tackle Dan Muir said. "They have speed. A running back thinks he's going to hit a certain hole, and all of a sudden he sees Gary Brackett or Clint Session or Philip Wheeler.
"It just shows how fast our defense really is."
The emergence of a pair of defensive tackles, Muir and Antonio Johnson, who as the season continued developed from a pair of relatively-unknown players to a tandem that Colts defensive players said was critical to the unit's development.
Muir, who signed with the Colts off waivers from Green Bay shortly before the 2008 season, started the season as a backup, moving into the starting lineup following the October release of defensive tackle Ed Johnson. He spent the 2008 season and 2009 offseason learning the Colts' defense and changing his body type to better fit the Colts' one-gap style of play on the defensive front, with the result being he started 10 games and had 66 tackles – with the tackle total most among Colts defensive linemen.
Johnson, like Muir, joined the Colts in 2008, signing off the Tennessee Titans' practice squad midway through the 2008 regular season. He started 15 games this past season, and had 57 tackles, 37 of them solo.
"The front four, mainly, those guys took on the challenges, especially those two guys up front, (Antonio) Mook Johnson and Dan Muir," Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "Those guys are where it all started. Those guys (were) great all year."
That was particularly true in the postseason.
Many teams in recent seasons have taken the approach against the Colts that they want to run the ball and drain clock offensively, the idea being to keep the Colts' offense and Manning off the field as much as possible. The Ravens and the Jets took a similar approach in the postseason.
In a 20-3 AFC Divisional Playoff victory over Baltimore, the Colts held the Ravens to 87 yards on 19 carries. The previous week, the Ravens had rushed for 234 yards and four touchdowns in a Wild Card victory at New England.
In a 30-17 victory over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game, the Jets entered as the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense.
The Colts held the Jets to 86 yards rushing on 29 carries.
The Colts did not allow an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards in any of their three postseason games. They allowed the New Orleans Saints 51 yards on 18 carries in the Super Bowl, and in three postseason games, the Colts allowed 224 yards, an average of just less than 75 yards a game.
"Our biggest thing, like Coach (Larry) Coyer always says, 'Be accountable,' said Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea, who led the Colts with 120 tackles, 75 solos. "I think we just hold every guy on the defense accountable - everybody being gap-sound, doing their job, holding their gap and when it's time to make your tackle, you make it."
Said Muir, "The defense now is a lot more hard-nosed, I'd say. He vowed to get bigger bodies inside, which worked for us. Especially in stopping the run, if you can stop the run, you can get to the passer. They've always been successful in getting to the passer, but to stop the run was a goal for us this year and that's what Coach Coyer has brought."