THE DEFENSIVE TACKLES

They were largely unknown entering the season, but by season's end, the Colts' defensive tackle trio of Dan Muir, Antonio Johnson and Eric Foster solidified the interior and were key to a second Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.

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Muir, Johnson, Foster Among Keys to Colts Super Bowl run

INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts' defensive tackles surprised many last season.

There were some notable exceptions:

They didn't surprise themselves. And they didn't surprise their teammates.

And by season's end, another truth was this – that the play of a group that only improved throughout the season, but played at a high level in the running and passing game despite some significant mid-season changes, had stopped being much of a surprise at all.

Dan Muir. Antonio Johnson. Eric Foster.

None were drafted by the Colts, but with the first two starting much of the season, and with Foster playing a key role as a play-making reserve, the unit not only improved from the season before, it was a major reason the Colts advanced to a second Super Bowl in four seasons.

"The front four, those guys took on the challenges, especially those two guys up front, (Antonio) Mook Johnson and Dan Muir," Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden said during the recent postseason run to Super Bowl XLIV. "Those guys are where it all started.

"Those guys (were) great all year."

The reason that was a surprise to some wasn't that the trio lacked ability, but that the group – particularly Johnson and Muir – began the season as relative unknowns.

A little more than a year before, in fact, the two starters weren't on the team.

Johnson, who started 15 of 16 regular-season games and all three postseason games this past season, signed with the Colts midway through the 2008 season off the practice squad of the Tennessee Titans. He moved into the starting lineup later that season, held the job through the offseason, and finished this past season with 57 tackles and a sack while providing a run-stuffing presence.

"If you watch him play, he's an extremely talented guy," Muir said of Johnson. "He's big, and it's hard to find guys who run like he does and have the power that he has."

Muir, acquired off waivers from Green Bay just before the 2008 season, played sparingly in 2008, and spent the offseason trimming and re-shaping his body to better adapt to the Colts' one-gap style of defensive tackle play.

He made the team out of training camp, and when the Colts released Ed Johnson – a starter in 2007 who had re-signed the previous offseason after being released from the team in Week 2 in 2008 – Muir moved into the starting role. He finished the season with 66 tackles, best among Colts defensive linemen, and also had a half a sack.

"He had to do a lot of work," Colts President Bill Polian said of Muir in December. "Lord knows what he weighed – I'm guessing in the 320-330 range. I can't quite remember what it was, but it was up there. He had to remake himself in the offseason to get in the 310 range that he is now.

"He had to completely unlearn techniques that couldn't be more wrong for the defense we play that fit for the 3-4 (in Green Bay). They were diametrically opposed – 180 degrees apart. He put in a tremendous amount of time in-season last year (in 2008). . . .

"He really has been dynamite for us. He's been a very, very good player. Danny had to go 180 degrees from what he had been in Green Bay, both from a body makeup standpoint and from a technical skills standpoint. Great credit to him. He did a terrific job."

Foster, who started 14 games as an undrafted rookie from Rutgers the previous season, played a critical role as a reserve in 2009, finishing the season with 43 tackles, two and a half sacks and 12 quarterback pressures.

His 12 pressures were the Colts' best at the position.

And while the Colts' defensive ends – particularly perennial Pro Bowl selections Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney – received much of the notoriety and credit for the Colts' pass rush, middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said the reality is much of the success of the ends and linebackers started with the interior players.

"Our postseason, the whole season, it's been our defensive tackles," Brackett told the Sing News during Super Bowl week. "As a defense, we go as they go. Dan Muir has really had a coming-out type of year. Antonio Johnson has been solid. Eric Foster comes in on third down and gets after it.

"When those guys are on, it makes our job a lot easier flying to the football, being free. Those guys are why we are successful."

During Super Bowl week, Muir said, "We work well together, mainly because we've been through it. Not only throughout this regular season, but throughout camp, and in OTAs, we've been working out together every day, watching film together, and not just me and Antonio, but Eric Foster, Fili Moala.

"We've been going at it all year and that's really helped us because when game time comes, I know I can look over and I know that the guy next to me, 99 (Johnson), has my back and he can look over and see that number 90 (Muir) has his back."

The aforementioned trio played the majority of the plays, with the development of several reserves crucial in the coming off-season.

The Colts last off-season selected Moala from Southern California in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and while he said late in the season he struggled at times to adjust to the NFL, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said late in the season Moala was progressing. He had 17 tackles in 10 games.

John Gill, a defensive lineman from Northwestern, spent the final regular-season games on the active roster last season, registering five tackles against the New York Jets in Week 16. He also was on the active roster for the postseason.

The Colts early in the offseason signed first-year veteran and former Iowa tackle Mitch King, who spent part of last season on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad.

Note: The 2010 Colts.com position-by-position series that will run during March is meant to serve as an overview of the Colts' roster as it stands entering the 2010 offseason and to provide fans a detailed look at how the position groups fared during the 2009 Super Bowl XLIV season. Any analysis included herein does not reflect the opinion of Colts management.

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