INDIANAPOLIS –As Cleveland invades Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, it will do so with rookie running back Trent Richardson, the latest in a long line of potent opposing rushers the Colts have faced this season.
Though nursing a rib cartilage injury, Richardson is expected to see action against the Colts. He is the AFC's leading rookie rusher with 340 yards and four touchdowns on 95 carries, and it is incumbent on the Indianapolis defense, nursing injuries, too, to stop the opposing ground attack if the team is to win an important game.
The Colts fell to 2-3 last Sunday in losing on the road to the New York Jets. The Jets rushed for 252 yards, with 161 and three scores coming from Shonn Greene. The numbers were telling, just as they were against Jacksonville in week three when Maurice Jones-Drew accounted for 177 of his team's 185 rushing yards. Prior to that, the Colts had to contend with Chicago's Matt Forte and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians says defense this week starts first with stopping the run.
"There's no doubt. Once you open up the can of worms, they're going to jump on it," said Arians. "Until you put that fire out and make them go somewhere else, they're going to keep pounding it. Just like when you're a kid and you found a mud hole, you stomped all the water out of that thing before you went to find another one.
"It's the same thing here. They're capable of (a power run game), and we've got to put that out."
Cleveland visits with an offensive line where four performers have taken every offensive snap this year. Five-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas has never has missed a play in his career, while center Alex Mack was a 2010 Pro Bowl choice, and he has started all 54 career games.
They helped pave the way for Richardson to rush for touchdowns in four straight games, a franchise rookie first.
Defensive tackle Fili Moala is out for Sunday. Linebacker Dwight Freeney played at less than full strength last week, and linebacker Robert Mathis is hopeful to return this week. End Cory Redding left the New York game last week and is among those aiming to return, too.
The team has three linemen, ends Clifton Geathers and Lawrence Guy and tackle Antonio Dixon, who have been on hand for two weeks or less.
Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky has overseen a tough situation this week as the team battles health issues. Manusky says there is both a mental and physical approach players must take in stopping the run, and that a team's mind has to be set heading into play that it must do so.
"I think it's both. You have to be in the right spot at the right time, and you have to physically beat some man up and make the play," said Manusky. "That's what we've been trying to do this past week.
"You have to go in there with the mindset that you're going to hit them as hard as you can, get off the (blocker) and make the play. You have to have that mindset going into the game that they're going to run the ball and we've got to stop them."
Arians quipped this week that line coach Gary Emanuel has earned his paycheck in coaching newcomers for possible duty on Sunday. Manusky is overseeing the work and knows no matter who plays, the job must happen.
"There has been a decent amount of change, especially with Dwight (Freeney) being out (periodically)," said Manusky. "It looks like Robert (Mathis)…we might have a chance to get him back.
"We have a couple of guys that are off the street who are playing for us, and they have to do it. Yesterday was a good day across the board. From the linebackers to the defensive line we have to separate and make sure we tackle the guy with the ball. … We have to coach them, get them out there to play and play at a fast level. That's what we're here to do."
Jerrell Freeman has topped the club in tackles every outing. He is playing for Pat Angerer, who could return in some capacity on Sunday. Freeman thinks a team approach to having a stingy run defense is necessary.
"It's just knowing your job and doing it. In this defense, if one person messes up, the other team is good enough to exploit that. We just have to do our job," said Freeman. "It is our philosophy to stop the run first before anything. It's definitely disheartening for teams to do that. You have to be professional about it and go out there and go to the next play, keep fighting. Do our job, all 11 of us."
Freeney says he is ready to go this Sunday. He missed two games earlier in the year while fighting an ankle sprain that occurred early in the opener. He has fought gamely, and now he is seeing newer teammates trying, too.
"We have some new faces," said Freeney. "All the sudden you see a new D-tackle. I'm like, 'It's nice to meet you. By the way, get in your playbook. We have a game.' That's the National Football League, and all the others teams probably go through the same thing.
"It's going to be tough. We're missing Fili (Moala). This is a tough situation for us. That's why there are 53 guys. That's why there are backups. Sometimes, they're going to have to step up and make a play."
Linebacker Jerry Hughes saw major duty last week on the strong side for Mathis. It was a new role for Hughes. Reserve linebacker Justin Hickman got 18 snaps, too. Hickman is one of the fresher faces seeing duty because of team injury situation, and he knows what tactic Cleveland is likely to employ.
"Every week we have another good back coming to see us," said Hickman, a three-year CFL starter with Hamilton. "We have to come in, strap our pads on tight, put your helmet on and make sure you have air in it, then, 'Let's go.' We fully expect them to come in and try to rush the ball after we gave up 200-plus yards last week."
Arians said a large part of last week's problems involved improper defensive fits and missed tackles. He said players were out of assigned gaps too often and some missed tackles happened in the New York backfield when players were in position to make plays. Being on details is critical at home this week.
"Everyone can run, hit and tackle," said Hickman. "It's the little things. It's just the small details. Sometimes we fit things right with the defense, then we fit it wrong. When we fit it wrong, they'll find it and make a big play. It's important to be on our keys this week."