INDIANAPOLIS – The topic of the club's defensive look for 2012 was raised on the night of January 25, when former Baltimore Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano was introduced as the Colts' head coach.
Pagano was peppered with questions that night, with one of the first being whether Indianapolis would employ a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive look.
While the question dealt with the future use of 11 players, the two players it figured to impact significantly were Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Two of the leading creators of havoc in club history, Mathis and Freeney have combined for 186 sacks, 82 fumbles forced and 17 fumbles recovered. Each has returned a fumble for a touchdown. Could a scoring interception return be in the future for one or both?
Pagano, who stated that night that he would employ an attack that was simple for his players and complex for opponents, has seen his charges learn throughout the spring. With Freeney and Mathis immersed in a new scheme, Pagano sees each making strides.
"I think they're doing great," said Pagano. "First and foremost, they've bought in. That's a testament to them as men and as professionals. A lot of guys doing what they've been doing in a certain scheme for a long period of time, I've seen guys be, I don't want to say hard-headed about it, but they've awesome. … If (observers) said it's going to be something of a struggle for those guys, they're doing a great job in their roles."
One play recently in spring work had Mathis in pass coverage against second-round draft pick Coby Fleener. It was speed versus speed, pitting youth against an established veteran. Pagano noted how Mathis achieved what he was asked to do.
"To see Robert Mathis run with (rookie tight end Coby) Fleener on a wheel route and break up a pass in the end zone, we all got excited when that happened," said Pagano.
What Indianapolis is implementing has league credibility. Baltimore had the NFL's third-rated defense in 2011, second against the rush and fourth against the pass, while totaling 48 sacks. The Ravens were third in the league in scoring defense (16.6) for the fourth straight season, tying the NFL mark. In 2011, the Ravens continued a nine-year streak with a top 10 total defense in the NFL, tying the third-longest streak since the 1970 Merger. Since 2008, Baltimore permitted 13.3 points per game at home, while posting a 27-5 home mark with an average victory margin of 14.5 points. In all games since 2008, Baltimore surrendered 16.3 points per outing, the second-stingiest league total, intercepted 82 passes and held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 69.6 rating. Baltimore owns a league-record 16-year streak of not allowing opponents to post a 4.0 seasonal rushing average.
Indianapolis hopes to replicate the success of Baltimore's destructive, diverse defense.
"Obviously, it's still early. It's new. This being (the spring) and the season (starts) in September…so far it's good," said Freeney. "I'm a lot more comfortable in it (than when I started). Before, it was like speaking Spanish or Japanese, the terminology of what (coaches) wanted. This is what this time (spring work) is for. It's to learn the new scheme and get familiar with it so when you get out there, you're running at full speed and not going half-speed."
Speed and power are two vital defensive components usually present in a successful defense. So, too, is deception, something Freeney sees as an advantage with this year's look.
"That definitely is a benefit to this type of scheme. It's the element of surprise. Who's coming, who's not? Where's he going to be? It's going to be a lot different than I have (played)," said Freeney. "Sometimes I will be in the stance. Sometimes I will stand up. Sometimes I'm going to drop when I've been in the stance. Sometimes I'm going to be up (standing) and I'm going to drop. Other times I will rush. It's going to be different, trying to keep everyone off (balance)."
End Cory Redding was a defensive presence in Baltimore, and he is part of establishing a new era with the Colts. Redding is fluent in what his new teammates are learning.
"I can't even tell you what percentage of time we played the 3-4 as opposed to the 4-3. We may line up in the 4-3 and at the end of the day, it'll be a 3-4 look. We might be in a 3-4, and by the time the ball is snapped, we might have moved into a 4-3," said Redding. "The beautiful thing about this defense is its flexibility. … In Baltimore, we brought everything but the kitchen sink. Everything, though, starts with the ability to stop the run. You can't do anything in this defense if you don't stop the run. Whenever we play somebody, the first goal during the week is going to be, 'Stop the run.' Because once we get them into a passing situation, make them one-dimensional, the crowd better get ready because we're coming."
Redding sees the potential for a bright defensive horizon in Indianapolis.
"That's the beauty (here), you have both of them (Freeney and Mathis). You have two edge rushers like that," said Redding. "You have the ability (to rush) and most of the time they're going to be free. … I'm very excited. I've been in the system for two years, and I've seen the success you can have once everybody buys in and once everybody gets it. You can open it (the defense) up to so many different things. … It's going to be good."
Safety Tom Zbikowski played for four seasons in the system in Baltimore, all under the watch of Pagano, who served as secondary coach from 2008-10 before being named coordinator in 2011. Zbikowski has gotten and eyeful of Freeney and Mathis and sees a good marriage of talent and scheme.
"I know they're great players. They're athletic. They're football players," said Zbikowski. "They're going to be able to develop into it, and I think if anything, it's going to help the pass rushing when a tackle sees those guys dropping (into coverage) it's going to be early Christmas, but it's going to be short-lived when they come the next play."
"We're football players. We don't have any doubt that we can't do this," said Mathis. "(The Baltimore defense has) a lot of credibility. Their reputation speaks for itself. They know how to play some defensive football. We're glad we stole a little of their personnel. We have them over here, and we're eager to get it going. It's a different vibe and a different attitude. As a defensive guy, you welcome that. We're ready to get it going."