INDIANAPOLIS – In the past two games, the Indianapolis defense has allowed only seven conversions on 26 third-down attempts.
Tennessee and Houston combined to score 29 points on a defense that had yielded at least 24 points in 11 of 13 previous meetings. This came against the top two teams in the AFC South with offensive attacks that either had helped win the division crown or that were still seeking post-season inclusion.
Houston scored a touchdown in the game's first 54 seconds on December 22, then failed to get in the end zone again. The Colts kept the Texans to one-for-10 on third-down attempts, with the final stop in the last two minutes providing the offense with the chance it needed to wipe out a 16-12 deficit.
The 19-16 win over Houston was a dramatic send off to a home crowd of 64,159 that had been supportive and vocal for the team during a tough, tough season.
The recent resurgence of the defense has been noticeable to many in and around the club. A return to a simpler approach has yielded results while accentuating speed.
"They've been doing a better job of playing with a bit more cohesion," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell of his unit. "They've certainly been playing fast. Things are a bit simpler for them. They don't have to think about a whole lot. You let them sort of use their God-given ability to get to the ball. Speed and simplicity, I think are very, very important in terms of the way in which we play defense. They've been doing that very, very well here over the last few weeks. They've been tackling well, and I think that has helped us. We aren't perfect, but we've got a lot of guys playing with a lot of effort and enthusiasm."
Linebackers Coach Mike Murphy was given recent coordinator duties of the club. Murphy, a colorful, intelligent and thoughtful teacher who happens to be a football lifer, has been in the club's culture since 1998, a period that pre-dates most in the organization. The players have enjoyed his approach.
"I think it has been a good thing," said defensive end Dwight Freeney about Murphy's input. "He has been here from the beginning, so he knows us. He knows the makeup of this defense and what we are best at. He can put guys into a position to make plays and make calls, (because we are) a little bit more comfortable with his play-calling. (There is) not much panic, because he knows the scheme and the system in and out. He knows what Robert (Mathis), me, Antoine (Bethea) and whoever is capable of doing. He does a good job."
Players like to react rather than think during competition. Freeney has been able to do that to the extent of earning seven Pro Bowl nominations and producing 101.5 career sacks. He thinks the recent approach helps players see principles in a much sharper context.
"It is just a clearer picture," said Freeney. "There is no confusion, and there is no, 'What do I do on this play?' That causes you to be a little bit hesitant on the field, and you lose a step. Losing a step in this league is the difference between a touchdown or not and a sack or not. I think Mike (Murphy) has done a great job."
Freeney's partner in mayhem, Robert Mathis, is a man of far fewer words. He does not need much to describe Murphy's impact: "He has just simplified a lot of things, and we are just able to play football."
Safety Antoine Bethea and linebacker Pat Angerer are the lone defensive players to open each game (Freeney and Mathis each missed one start in a rotation situation), and they like the return to the basics.
"Murph, he's done a great job," said Bethea. "With the input some of the players have given him, he's relating to that well. He's just doing a good job of putting us in situations where we don't have to do a lot of thinking. We're just out there playing football and flying around."
Said Angerer, the team leader with 136 tackles, "We are just controlling our gaps better, and I think that is the main thing. Everybody doing their job, it helps out a lot."
Third-year cornerback Jacob Lacey has opened the last four games after losing his starting role early in the season. Lacey had a 32-yard scoring interception return against Tennessee to extend a second-half lead to 11 points in an eventual 14-point victory. A third-year pro who started in Super Bowl XLIV as a rookie, Lacey likes the feel of the simpler style.
"These last five or so weeks have felt like old times," said Lacey. "I talked to Antoine (Bethea), and the way we were flying around and making some plays out there, it felt like the Super Bowl year."
Freeney notes the team is making plays on both sides of the ball at key moments, and that has made a big difference on the scoreboard.
"It's nothing really dramatically different than the weeks prior," said Freeney. "Really it's just making an extra play here, an extra play there, one less mistake at critical moments. If you watch the games that we've lost, it's usually a play here or a play there that's a critical error that causes the landslide, whether it (is) a turnover on offense or a missed tackle or assignment (on defense). You can't win games like that. We've put some things together the last few games."